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Hidden Human Capital: Parents

By Michael Goldstein

As you read the seven visions from The Futures of School Reform project, here is one I don't think you will see: tearing down the Berlin Wall that separates parents and teachers. I realize it feels to many in our sector that the parent-teacher divide is often discussed yet, insurmountable. But in 1988, nobody imagined the Berlin Wall could come down either.

I'd submit there are two aspects to this Parent-Teacher Wall.

1. First, the 80-20 rule. 80% of parents are great to deal with; 20% are a pain. 80% of teachers are great to deal with; 20% are a pain.

Out of 3 million teachers, 20% is a lot of negative interactions that often become lore for the parents of 70 million children, a "difficult 20% of parents" creates a stunning 14 million annoying stories at any given time. So there is scar tissue here: parents who've been treated rudely or dismissively by teachers; teachers who have been ignored or even bullied by parents who, frankly, are doing a lousy job of raising their children and role-modeling.

In each case, there's an Al Shanker truism (don't quote me on this paraphrase): asked why he got away with saying that 10% of teachers are bad, he'd smile and say "Nobody thinks they're in that 10%." So any meaningful effort to massively increase and improve parent-teacher communication has an uphill start.

2. But the bigger issue is that we in the K-12 sector fundamentally misunderstand what parents actually want. Yes, they certainly want school choice. We should provide that. But what about after they've chosen a school?

The usual M.O. is to provide parent "programs." For over 40 years, Yale psychologist James Comer has written about parent involvement.

For example:

"In 1968-1969, King Elementary School in New Haven, Connecticut, became one of two low-performing schools to pilot our Yale Child Study Center School Development Program. The families served by the school were almost all poor and African American. In a school that served about 300 students, 15 parents turned out for that year's school winter holiday program. Three years later, with no change in the demographics, more than 400 parents, kin, and friends attended the same program. By this time, families were involved in almost all aspects of the school's work."

The idea here is to create "programs" for parents, particularly those in low-income families. First, get them to show up for school events, like Back To School night, and to get kids to do homework. Second, get them to volunteer -- at the school library, for example, or on a field trip. Third, get them to help govern the school.

Here is the problem with that approach. If you re-read the list, these are things that teachers want. Not what parents what. That's why parents are generally not showing up, except in outlier cases like what Comer describes, where a team turns somersaults to pull in parents.

By and large, parents don't want to engage with an institution. They just want to talk about their kid. They want access -- mostly by telephone, because that is most convenient for them -- to individual teachers. They want to hear about the successes and setbacks of their kid. Isn't that what we want in most interactions? You don't care much about a whole hospital, you want to talk to your doctor. You don't care much about a legal system, you want to talk to your lawyer.

(Yes, some parents want to go above and beyond, and become involved in the whole school. This is wonderful. But, it's not typical).

3. I would submit the Parent-Teacher Berlin Wall can be significantly dissolved with proactive teacher phone calls to each parent.

Here is a video of our charter school's founding teacher, Charlie Sposato, talking about parent phone calls. Before joining our school, he taught for 33 years and was a Massachusetts Teacher Of The Year.

Similarly, one of my favorite Education Week commentaries of recent years was Kenneth Bernstein's "Teaching Secrets: Phoning Home." He is a master teacher, and very practical. He writes:

"By the end of the second week--earlier, if possible--of school, I call the parents or guardians of every one of my students. I teach high school, and I often start the year with more than 180 students, so calling home is a time consuming process. It's also one of the most important things I do as a teacher."

There are already many teachers in the USA who do make hundreds of proactive phone calls per year to parents. It's just not a norm across the profession. A reader can probably imagine many practical objections to a massive effort where each teacher does, say, 3 to 5 hours per week of proactive phone calls home to individual parents (this would work best if teachers could shed an equivalent amount of "scut work" -- tasks they don't like). Some objections are asked and answered in the comments section of Mr. Bernstein's story. Others (parents without phones; those who don't speak English) can be handled.

The larger policy question is this: Do we really think we'll massively advance our education system without some sort of sea change in parent-teacher communication?


Michael A. Goldstein is the founder of MATCH Charter School and MATCH Teacher Residency, a specialized teacher-preparation initiative. He also helped to launch a 2010 pilot project to deploy 250 full-time math tutors in nine Houston turnaround schools (as part of the Apollo 20 Project). He serves, or has served, on various advisory boards, including the Boston Schoolchildren's Consortium, the National Council for Teacher Quality, and transition teams for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Gov. Mitt Romney.

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