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Strengthening Parental Demand and Support for High-Quality Education

Note: Bill Jackson, founder and CEO of GreatSchools, is guest posting this week. Follow Bill and GreatSchools on Twitter at @Bill_Jackson and @GreatSchools.

Yesterday, I came down firmly on the side of investing parents and local communities with lots of responsibility and authority for their children's education.

But the challenge of this approach is clear: What if parents are too broke, busy, or stressed to pay close attention to their children's education? What if they didn't get a strong education themselves and lack the knowledge and skills that would enable them to be effectively involved? What if local school boards or mayors lack the drive or expertise to drive a process of continuous improvement in their community?

Let's tackle the parenting challenge today. And let me start by framing this issue in a way that is a little different from many reformers. I contend that, practically speaking, we have no choice but to get parents effectively involved if we're going to drive and sustain large-scale educational improvement in our decentralized system.

This is where I lose many of my passionate education reform colleagues. They say: "Yeah, of course we need parents involved, but now can we talk about governance structures, standards, and human capital please?" The subtext is often: "Parent demand and support is important, but we don't know how to change that. Let's spend our time on things that we know how to change."

But there is one group that I don't lose: passionate and effective school leaders and teachers themselves. They've been through the ringer on this. They're on the front lines of driving educational improvement. And they know through experience that the most efficient way to get from here to there is to invest students and their families in the effort.

They know this because, as I illustrated in my first post, parents do at least half the work of educating kids. Rich or poor, parents are the ones who have to provide the foundation of love and support that undergirds nearly every other aspect of a child's growth. They have the power to set expectations for behavior and achievement. They are in the best position to cultivate habits and character traits that underlie school and life success. They have an enormous influence on their children's literacy. And, of course, in a system that offers choices, parents are the ones who have the power to decide where to send their children to school - or at least where to attempt to send their children to school.

And it's also true: parents' capacity to do these things varies dramatically.

I say: Let's tackle that.

Imagine the payback if we could inspire and help parents of all income levels to demand and support more from their children and schools. Archimedes reputedly said: "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world." He was talking about leverage. That's what I'm talking about, too. Parents are the longest lever we've got for driving education improvement. Let's grab ahold of it!

This is not a task that can be driven by government; civil society needs to take the lead here. Specifically, given the nature of the challenge, we need entrepreneurial people and organizations trying out lots of things and figuring out how to make progress. The challenges are daunting. Parenting is personal and cultural. Poverty is a major barrier. Language is a challenge.

Some organizations have been working on this for many years with low-income parents. AVANCE and the Nurse Family Partnership are among the most impressive. These programs, targeted at the most vulnerable parents, typically cost several thousand per family per year for several years. The evidence suggests that they are well worth it.

At GreatSchools, we're focused on a different demographic: families who are not poor but whose children are not on track to graduate from high school prepared for college or good jobs. We're developing programs that inspire and help these families to demand and support a higher level of education at home and school. Partnering with schools, community-based organizations and corporations around the country, our goal is to enroll millions of these families into a new kind of "club" of parents committed to doing what it takes to raise children who graduate from high school with options.

We've been at this for a few years and have learned a huge amount. We've lost some skin along the say, but we know much more now.

I'm not going to share everything we've learned, but I will offer up a few of our most important insights and beliefs:

1. Behavior change often comes before expectations change. Want to change parents' expectations? Start by changing their behavior. They might internalize higher expectations over time.

2. Another way to raise expectations: expose parents to new kinds of excellence. If someone has only ever eaten a McDonalds' hamburgers, they may think they are tasty. To raise that person's expectations for meat, invite them over to dinner at Frankie and Johnnie's Steakhouse or someplace like that. To raise expectations for education, expose parents to compelling demonstrations of student and school excellence they've never seen before.

3. Make it emotional. If you've been around awhile, you have some recollection of Ronald Reagan's Morning in America ad. Or the Crying Indian PSA produced by the Keep America Beautiful campaign. If you're younger, you might have seen a PSA from the Meth Project. What do they have in common? Emotion. As we work to inform and inspire parents, we need to tap into emotion in similarly powerful ways.

4. Make it social. People change behavior because their friends change their behavior. We need to take advantage of that.

5. Help families access valuable educational resources. If you're rich, you can buy lots of enrichment for your child. If you're not, where can you turn? We need to help parents find the resources they can afford. And we need to make more educational resources available to a broader range of parents.

OK, that's enough for a fall Saturday. I'll be back one more time tomorrow to talk about how we might strengthen community demand and support for high-quality education.

--Bill Jackson

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