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Pondering Parent 3.0

This month, Rick is out working on a new project exploring the lessons of Bush-Obama school reform. In his stead, we've got a terrific lineup of guest bloggers. Taking over this week is Mike Goldstein. Mike is the founder and former CEO of Match Education in Boston, and former Chief Academic Officer of Bridge International Academies.

How should parents interact with schools? It's historically been a pretty hot discussion, spawning headlines like, "Parental Involvement is Overrated," "In Parent-Teacher Conferences, It's Often Not About the Student," and "The Dicey Parent-Teacher Duet." Tom Friedman has weighed in by asking, "How About Better Parents?" And my friend Greg Gunn explained here on this very blog back in 2011, "Why Asking Your School Tough Questions Scares the Crap Out of You."

My mentor, a teacher named Charlie Sposato, developed strategies for teachers to build relationships with parents by making proactive phone calls quite frequently. I captured his ideas in a short book. It hasn't sold a ton of copies.

Let's back up and imagine a typical middle school. What do parent interactions typically look like?

A Parent 1.0 school might look like this:

  • "Parent Night" once or twice a year where you can briefly visit each classroom and hear about the curriculum
  • One or two 20-minute meetings per year about your child, perhaps with the teacher assigned to be that kid's advisor or counselor
  • Websites where you can easily see grades and curriculum
  • A parent council, often with around 15 active participants out of 500+ families
  • Often there's a sense of community, with a few special nights a year where all the families get together (even if the kids of that age don't want to be seen with Mom and Dad)

A Parent 2.0 school does all that and more. The most common addition I've seen is proactive parent communication from each teacher to each parent—to discuss that individual child, not just an update on what the whole class is doing. This can involve a mix of texts, calls, emails, letters, and in-person chats. Parent 2.0 is probably more common in private schools, but a number of public schools do this as well.

What could Parent 3.0 look like? I'm trying to think beyond our sector, to other enterprises that vie for great "customer service." One key dynamic is customization. For our purposes, it could start with parents being able to define how much and what exactly they want from the school.

If this type of customization were available to parents, here's what I'd predict.

  1. Many parents would want nothing new. They're happy with Parent 1.0 as described above.
  2. Some parents would seek Parent 2.0: More communication from teachers, not about the whole school, but about their kid. These parents describe how it's hard to piece together what really happens at school—they don't see it with their own eyes (like they see, for example, soccer practices or doctor's appointments). And asking kids "how school went"...well, you know. Kids don't necessarily want to recount their day, and what they say is, shall we say, sometimes unreliable. Parent 2.0 is typically more common with elementary teachers (with 20 kids), but it's hard with middle and high school teachers (who have 100+ kids). The sheer math is daunting.
  3. Parent 3.0 could transform how parents interact with schools. This could work if we genuinely freed up teachers in other ways and welcomed individual parent input on their child's daily in-school experience.

A parent might have concrete ideas on how their son or daughter might be pushed, could be better supported, and what new projects or books they might try. In doing Parent 3.0, we might genuinely welcome parents to have a cup of coffee and just observe (or bring your laptop, do some work, and just "be there"). So long as there's a mechanism by which the idea can be proffered, without the teacher necessarily needing to agree, there's an upside.

It's important to remember that parents ponder "their whole child" and not just the "in-school version" of their child. This includes out-of-school tutoring, karate, chorus, church youth group, or travel soccer team. Sometimes parents want help in finding these opportunities. Parent 3.0 schools could play a role here.

Parents also might want help making their own parenting more fun and less stressful. Teachers often have ideas and strategies to help with this. This could mean less chasing-your-12-year-old-to-do-homework stress. It could mean more success in the uphill fight against your kids' overuse of technology. It could lead to better daily conversations than, "How was school?" "Fine." And it could create more opportunities for parent-child bonding over academic challenges and assignments.

I'll concede that Parent 3.0 opens the door to even more helicopter parenting. But with that said, I'd still argue the potential benefits are worth the costs.

One final note: The 80-20 rule applies to parents and teachers. 80% are swell, 20% are sometimes irritating or irritable. Teachers and principals often have scar tissue from difficult parents (I know I do), and vice-versa. I acknowledge that. I still think there's some upside here, whereby the 80%+ of terrific educators and parents can be much better collaborators.

Mike Goldstein

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