When Teachers Strike

Photo by Ben Sutherland

I am torn on teachers’ unions.

As a first year teacher in Connecticut, I resented being compelled to pay over $700 in yearly union dues, but within two years I was the building representative for our districts’ teaching association. Even as a rep, I still felt torn on two union mainstays: teacher tenure and the threat of strikes.

On reflection, I realize my distrust of unions stems from two things. First, teachers unions do sometimes defend pretty lackluster teaching. Frankly, I find that deplorable. Second, my knee-jerk response is to buy the anti-union rhetoric. I suspect the standard anti-union zingers resonate with many other Americans as well.

Yet, as I watch a contract dispute unfold in my state’s biggest public school district, it is clear that, though intuitively easy to buy into, the anti-union rhetoric is based on some seriously misguided perceptions of teachers’ work.

These misperceptions must be considered before any parent or community member can meaningfully comment on union activity.

Misguided Perceptions of Teaching

It doesn’t take much to find examples of wrong-headed beliefs about teaching. If you follow any headline story about teachers’ union activity, a quick scroll through the “comments” sections will yield some pretty consistent messaging.

  • Teachers’ salaries are already bloated. How dare they negotiate for raises?
  • Our district just negotiated a new contract. Why are teachers asking for more?
  • Teachers should be there for our children, and not there to “line their pockets.”
  • Teachers should only get raises if their students perform well.
  • The teachers’ union is threatening to strike when our children need them most. Why did the teachers wait until the eleventh hour to make this an issue?

And the most seriously misguided sentiment:

  • Teachers get several vacations throughout the school year. They have a two-month break over the summer, and work six hours a day. Part-time pay for part-time work is fair.

On first blush, it would be easy to buy into all of these popular sentiments. Though, all of them are mostly wrong.

An 8 o’clock to 2 o’clock workday? Yes, I’ll have what they’re having.

My suspicion is that most of the American public bases their understanding of the work of teachers on their experiences with teachers when they were children in school. Beyond this first hand experience with teachers, many Americans don’t think very hard about the true work of teaching unless they live with a teacher or they are one.

For example, if my students’ perceptions about what I did during the school day were true, I would be sleeping on a cot in the broom closet in my classroom, and my life would be sustained through a steady diet of apples and chalk dust.

Okay, that’s overstating it, but students were always shocked when they saw me eating real food in the cafeteria, and let’s not even mention what happened when they saw me in public. All this is to say students give little thought to what goes into teaching, especially when they are not sitting in a classroom.

I liken assumptions about “knowing what it means to teach” to going to your favorite restaurant, ordering your favorite dish and deciding – as you wait for then devour your meal – that you know what it means to be chef.

Clearly, when that dish is presented to you, you know very little about the ingredients, the preparation, the cook time, the training or the thought that went into that dish. The same can be said for students in a classroom. You are only consuming the finished product of teaching.

Teachers work much longer than six hours a day. Six hours a day is the amount of time teachers spend with your children. Six hours a day is the amount of time it takes for teachers to present their fully-cooked dishes to students.

The six-hours-a-day calculation leaves out the “cook time” that went into lesson planning, their assessment of students’ performance and feedback, the continuous training and professional development, the committee work and communication with parents. Let us also consider the constant preparation, clean-up and organization of materials that classroom teachers manage every day, all day. (Those lima beans didn’t count themselves into those twenty-five little plastic Dixie cups, kid!)

Teachers’ work day starts well before the school day begins (which is earlier and earlier every year). Teachers’ calendar year also starts well before the school year begins as teachers prepare the classroom for the school year, and they’re there well after the school year ends writing reports, debriefing and unpacking the school year, and making plans for the next one to come. That two-month summer vacation is something your children enjoy, not their teachers.

Work to Rule

Union activity doesn’t happen out of nowhere, either. There are many activities a union might engage in well before they resort to a strike. Before a teachers’ union strikes, they might call for a “work to rule.” In a nutshell, “work to rule” means that the teachers voice their grievances by refusing to work beyond the terms and conditions outlined by the previous contract.

This means teachers may be asked by the union not to return to the classroom earlier than they are required to set up for the school year. Teachers might be asked to be at the school and in the classroom the minimum required time of the school day. They will be asked to refrain from purchasing equipment for the classroom with their own money (about $500 per teacher amounting to billions of dollars a year across the nation). 

In other words, work to rule means the community gets what they’re paying for, which is far less than the bargain many communities usually get out of teachers.

For teachers who typically work far and above the terms of their contract, a work to rule order represents a significant change in their pre-school-year practice, and is emotionally difficult for many dedicated teachers. When you think of the things that these teachers are not doing to prepare for and serve their students, it is clear a work to rule order makes their workday much more difficult.

The truth is that it is hard to know how many teachers actually carry out the work to rule even if they say they will.

For example, that same school district that is now embroiled in the contract dispute I spoke of earlier has experienced work to rule orders before. During a work to rule order a few years back, the district changed busing companies to cut costs. As an outcome of serious mismanagement, the busing company failed to pickup children on time from school to be bussed home. Several teachers told me that they violated the work to rule order by waiting in their classroom with the children for the bus to come until after four o’clock pm.

You ask, “Yes, but what cruel and heartless teacher could leave a group of scared and abandoned 8-year-olds in the classroom unattended to comply with a work to rule order?”

The answer is very few if any of them.

So, a work to rule order in a district that is regularly mismanaging funds and contracting mediocre services for children isn’t a very effective tactic.

The Long and Winding Path of a Failed Teaching Contract

Teaches strike out of desperation when all other avenues have failed, but even then their efforts are often in vain. This is because teachers can’t win the media war when they’re out of their classrooms and picketing in the streets. When there is even the threat of such an activity, the anti-union rhetoric and false assumptions quickly kick in.

The irony as I see it is that the media glare focuses only on the teachers’ actions and spares not even a second to consider the role played by community leaders, like mayors, who may share responsibility for failed union contracts.

So, I’ll offer a bit here on the anatomy of contract negotiations, but with the caveat that my experience is limited.

Teachers typically negotiate a “master contract” with the municipality or the district every few years. This is known as collective bargaining and it happens again and again because, written in the terms of the contract is the contract’s own expiration date.

There are many people involved in contract negotiations including the mayor, the board of education, aldermen or local representatives as well as the teachers. The contract involves much more than annual salary. Rather, negotiations often focus on things like health insurance, retirement and minimum work safety standards.

These contract negotiations typically happen in the springtime for the upcoming fiscal year, and are usually settled in time for districts to predict staffing needs, post advertisements, and fill open positions by the late spring.

Contracts often reach a stalemate when any of these moving pieces or players gets hung up. Often it has nothing to do with teachers’ salary. Sometimes contract negotiations fail because of complex municipal spending and investment guidelines, like determining what percentage of healthcare costs the teachers will cover and what the municipality will cover.

Sometimes, a contract fails because teachers don’t want riders in their contracts that allow municipal governments to divest earnings from teachers’ pension plans to offset other costs in the district with a promise to replenish the pension funds at a later, indeterminate date (go figure).

To be honest, these are the types of nuts and bolts of contract negotiation that make my eyes glaze over, but it can never be said that these are trifling details.

In the largest district in New Hampshire, the contract dispute is a perfect storm involving an impoverished district, an impatient electorate and the reelection aspirations of the city’s mayor.

First, their budget timeline and decision making seems to happen three months later than other districts in New Hampshire. This results in critical contract questions being made late in the summer months. One summer, the last-minute budget shortfall led to the district firing 137 teachers (about a sixth of the teaching force) two weeks before the school year began. The results were chaotic, with children looking forward to meeting their assigned classroom teacher (who had been fired) and classrooms of over 30 children assigned to one teacher.

In the current contract dispute, 7 out of 10 members of the Board of Alderman and all elected Board of School Committee members supported the contract. Regardless, at the eleventh hour and with little warning the mayor vetoed the contract.

In a complete denial of his role in the contract negotiation breakdown and his role as leader of the city and the Board of School Committeethe Mayor called on the teachersto iron out” the details of a new contract. Meanwhile, it should be noted the mayor is up for reelection on September 15th, and many citizens turn the other cheek while the mayor distances himself from the contract negotiation failure and focus instead on his claims of fiscal responsibility.

Questions to Ask when Teachers Strike

While I’m still torn about unions, including some of their goals and their tactics, and while the research on unions is far from a consensus, it’s clear to me that these contests raise more questions than community members and parents are often willing to ask.

As with everything in education politics the story is much more complex than the headline.

Work strikes seem to me like an outdated tactic that yields only negative and unintended consequences. Meanwhile, teachers themselves have difficulty following through with a work to rule. Teachers don’t seem to have a winning strategy or tactics. This is especially true when teachers are hung out to dry for political gain. In this case teachers are being blamed for mismanaging city revenue and being asked to find a solution on their own.

Who wants to be a teacher, kids?! Can I get a show of hands?

When teachers threaten to engage in union activity, rather than spinning out the same wrongheaded one-liners, community members and parents might question where their city leadership went wrong.

  • How long have negotiations been going on?
  • Where are the sticking points in the negotiation?
  • What does the school board say?
  • What does the superintendent of schools in the district say?
  • How are teachers being treated in my community’s schools?

Most importantly, they might ask what role their community’s elected officials have played in the stalemate, and what those same political leaders stand to gain from selling the teachers in their district down the river.

The Shocking Truth about American Schools

Rafiq Sarlie "Shocked That I am Quitting Facebook"

We are bombarded by constant messages about the many failures of our nation’s schools, and how poorly America is doing in comparison to other nations.

I am not impervious to the allure of an outrageous headline. Sometimes I resist. Generally, I am a sucker for click-bait.

It’s old hat that people are instinctually drawn to these stories. There are few things more human than our desire to rubber-neck at the scene of an accident or obsess over people’s unchecked base instincts gone awry.

In studying these stories of the human condition, we tell ourselves we are learning what not to do and behaviors, people and scenarios to avoid.

We are also learning to be afraid … very, very afraid.

And so it goes with American public schools. Our nation appears to love stories about the failure of schools to the point where no other narrative can take hold.

I get lulled into the abyss of mediocrity and filth just as much as the next person by following headlines about teachers who show up drunk and pantless to the first day of school. I’m simultaneously repulsed by – and engrossed in – the endless deluge of stories about teachers who have abused their power and authority with children.

The shocking truth is that most American schools in most American states are actually doing very well. Even though it’s true, this message consistently falls on deaf ears. Decent and even exceptional performance in American schools simply doesn’t make for a good headline.

Headline News: American Public Schools do Shockingly Well

Your gut response to this headline might be skepticism or, even worse, boredom.

Let’s examine the evidence. Take a hard look at the information conveyed by this image:

b0f123c41This image is just a sliver of data consolidated by the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES). For more detailed information on international performance on math and science, check out the TIMSS data here. For more details on international tests of reading, take a look at PIRLS results here.

In a nutshell, international tests of eighth-graders’ math skills on the TIMSS test reveal:

  • American students in 34 states outperform students in Australia.
  • American students in 27 states outperform students in England.
  • American students in 25 states outperform students in Hong Kong.
  • American students in six states outperform students in Finland (the holy grail of school reform).
  • American students in two states (Massachusetts and Vermont) outperform students in Korea and Japan.

Here’s a question, why don’t the headlines read, “8th graders in Massachusetts and Vermont top all but two countries in the world at math?” or better yet “Six of Top-Ten Performing Education Systems in the World are in the U.S.?”

The news is even better for American students’ performance in reading on the PIRLS test. American students typically do better on reading assessments than they do on math assessments, and the stark differences between states and socioeconomic classes that appear in the TIMSS dataset are slightly less pronounced with reading.

Other good news is that our nation’s performance on reading assessments is on an upward trajectory, and the enormous achievement gaps revealed forty years ago are slowly shrinking.

Meanwhile, we’re all still drinking the “sucky schools Kool-aid.”

Parents in Poorly-Performing Schools Can Improve Children’s Outcomes in School

One thing that these results highlight is the stark inequality between states. This vast inequality is unappealing for many Americans. While we’re okay with unequal wealth, we are most certainly not okay with unequal opportunities to get wealth(y). So how can parents help level the playing field for their kids?

In an earlier post I mentioned that, knowing schools generally aren’t equal, many parents shop around for school districts that perform well. Parents who are able to shop around might also consider moving to a state that performs well by using this tool.

Even when a parent is not in the market for a new home, and even when a parent is living in state that is performing below the United States average (e.g. Mississippi or Alabama – sorry folks), parents should know that most of the inequality between schools is driven by poverty.

PIRLS results show that some strategies parents engage in to improve students’ scores are related to income. For example, children do better in reading when their parents read to and in front of their children. Meanwhile, we know that families living in poverty are disproportionately illiterate.

Parents are also encouraged to send well-rested children to schools, yet we know that in many cases, children living in poverty are housing-insecure or reside in multi-family households where it’s harder, for obvious reasons, to get good sleep. Two other income-dependent, parenting practices are:

  • sending children to schools that have safe and orderly environments
  • sending children who are well-fed to school

On the other hand, we also know that parents, regardless of income-level, can exercise a lot of influence. Variables deflating math and reading scores can be offset by proactive, income-independent parenting strategies. When the data is distilled down to just a handful of critical parenting practices, it turns out that all parents, regardless of income, can engage in these two high-leverage, research-proven strategies:

  • engender in their children a positive attitude toward reading.
  • stock the home with high quality books (borrowed or bought).

Confounding the Trend

American parents are largely distrustful of American public schools. In fact, in a recent poll 84% of parents gave American public schools the grade of “C” or worse. One thing is for sure, the media knows that distrust exists, and they play into it. The public eats it right up because it confirms our suspicions and fears. It’s a vicious cycle.

Would it be interesting to know the drunk and pantless “teacher” in that national story was a last-second hire, and was actually a substitute teacher not a full-time classroom teacher? Should we be appalled by her behavior? Yes. Does she exemplify the 3.5 million teachers who are generally well-qualified and who always remember to wear their pants when they go to work? Definitely not.

Professor Emeritus David Berliner of Arizona State University regularly argues that the “bad schools” narrative is manufactured crisis. Others, like Valerie Strauss from the Answer Sheet, and Diane Ravitch claim the “bad schools” message is strategically encouraged by wealthy, small-government political activists with the aim of encouraging Americans to divest from government-run public schools and invest in for-profit charter schools, private schools and vouchers programs to save our supposedly “failing system.”

To digest this data, and to understand that things are going pretty well in schools requires an understanding of the nuance behind the headline. Nuance doesn’t play well at the water cooler or in a 140-character Tweet.

The next time someone quips, “Gosh, our nation’s schools suck.” Your informed response could include that nuance. Just in case, here are some new soundbites for your witty retort.

  • Many American students are still outperforming their international peers.
  • American schools are educating a more diverse and global population than the “good ole days.”
  • 3,499,999 out of 3,500,000 teachers show up to school fully-dressed.
  • American schools are building a largely-literate nation through a publicly-funded initiative.

Scholars would call this “interrupting the narrative.” I might just call it “conveying truth.”

My only hope in countering this message is that parents begin to understand how much power they have in improving their children’s education. And, you don’t have to live in the wealthiest, highest-performing district in a top-performing state to support you children’s education either.

 

**I am inclined to advocate for BOTH structural adjustments our nation can make to offset the effects of poverty in schools AND local or individual adjustments we can make to offset those effects.

Focusing on the “Opt” in the “Opt-Out Movement”

Like most others, I have had the good fortune to be alive and paying attention enough over the last ten years to bear witness to at least two major revolutions.

I never thought I would see the day when people could actually talk to other people with their wrist watch, and just last month the Supreme Court reaffirmed its’ commitment to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by safeguarding equal access to the institution of marriage. These are major changes – both of which were propelled by and, in turn, will have major implications for democracy.

Though not as long-in-the-making nor as groundbreaking, I’ve been watching the growing “Opt-Out” movement with a muted – but similar – enjoyment.

Is the Opt-Out Movement Truly a Movement?

The “Opt-Out” movement, where parents block schools from testing their children with high stakes standardized measures, is pretty fascinating. In a sense this small movement is akin to seeing hundreds of thousands of parents across the nation turn to each other with expressions of utter disbelief saying, “Wait … we can do that?”

For so long, parents have sent their children to school without asking many critical questions about what their children experience during the school day, including the decisions that administrators make about curriculum, or how data about their children’s performance on standardized tests are collected and used.

Parental disgruntlement has usually centered around their child’s new teacher, and concerns about particular “trouble-makers” in their child’s class. Research has shown over and over that some parents feel entitled to follow these conflicts through, while others feel disempowered or reluctant depending on their cultural or economic background. (See the book “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam or “Class in Schools” by Richard Rothstein for full descriptions of how this plays out.)

Regardless, disgruntlement is minor and scattered. Parents experience and deal with these conflicts in vacuum, and the conflicts experienced by many individuals separated by space and time could never be regarded as a movement. 

So, the recent uproar about the over use of standardized tests, and calls for opting children out of said tests, in contrast, seems to be something of a revolution in the way that parents understand their role in their children’s education.

Why We are Suddenly Concerned about Over-Testing

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) stipulated in 2002 that all children grades 3-8 & 10th or 11th be tested using a state-administered standardized test. The intent then was to reach “universal proficiency” on those standardized tests by 2014. So, all students in every state had to “pass” these standardized tests by 2014. This was an extraordinary lofty (read: unrealistic), but worthwhile goal.

Most states contracted to private companies to develop standardized tests, and the students’ tests were scored with the designation “Failing,” “Basic,” “Proficient” or “Advanced.” Students’ performances on those standardized tests were spread across the four designations. However, districts with pockets of poverty were more likely to have concentrations in the “Failing” and “Basic” categories, and districts with concentrated wealth and college-educated parents were more likely to be labeled “Proficient” and “Advanced.”

This gap in performance was predictable. Students have performed similarly on standardized tests since the national government started administering National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP – sounds like “nape”) in the 1960s. This gap in performance is the well-documented “achievement gap.”

Getting to “universal proficiency” by 2014, therefore, conveyed the expectation that states could close the achievement gap in 12 years. All schools had to show “adequate yearly progress” or “AYP” toward this goal of universal proficiency. If they didn’t, all sorts of penalties ensued. NCLB required standardized tests as the preferred way to track changes in student performance.

Testing Mania

As lofty as this goal was, when the data from these tests were crunched it became clear that NCLB and standardized tests weren’t closing the achievement gap.

Many very smart people decided that the tests were probably not very good measures of what we want students to learn. (Others decided it was probably the teachers’ fault, but let us leave that for another post.)

So, since the tests were to blame, a few powerful organizations set new guidelines about what American kids should be learning, resulting in the Common Core State Standards or CCSS. With little time to vet the standards, states adopted CCSS and implemented them in their schools.

Then, some very lucky private companies were contracted and got a whole lot of money to design new tests to measure whether students were mastering CCSS. Two tests, the PARCC test and the Smarter-Balanced or “SBAC” test were adopted by most states.

This year, our nation’s schoolchildren in grades 3-8 and 10th or 11th had the sad misfortune of “piloting” these new PARCC or SBAC tests while simultaneously phasing out their state’s old standardized tests. The result was dozens of school days (out of a 180-day school year) spent penciling in bubbles on Scantron sheets and/or clicking through items on the computer.

Add together the state standardized tests; the new, and considerably more challenging, SBAC or PARCC test; for most 10th or 11th grade students their AP test and PSAT or SAT test; and, perhaps their ACT or other college-entrance tests and it’s pretty clear that this year we tested the hell out of American schoolchildren.

Opting Out

This year, the number of parents who said “Thanks, but no thanks” (or more accurately, “Take your test and shove it!”)  to standardized tests exploded155,000 kids opted out of tests in New York alone.

As an education researcher, I lament the lost data. As a parent, I totally get it.

On the one hand, I know our nation’s children are over-tested. According to education expert, Linda Darling Hammond, we as a nation focus more on testing than any other country in the world. We have too many standardized assessments. Some of them generate meaningful data, but others not so much.

On the other hand, I know standardized tests are a source of information about student academic performance. Schools can use this data, but it’s typically used most by education researchers and the national government to help track (some would say exacerbate) the gap in performance between different segments of the American population.

This summer is really the first time that I have thought about it on a personal level, because this school year my oldest daughter is entering third-grade. That is to say, this school year marks the first time NCLB and yearly testing is a reality for me as a parent.

I also live in New Hampshire where our state’s new parent trigger law allows parents to opt-out of any public school curriculum they deem inappropriate. Though our governor vetoed a bill that would allow parents to opt-out of standardized tests specifically, many of our state’s districts are allowing it. It’s probably only a matter of time before NH’s House and Senate override her veto, so I expect the Opt-Out debate to surface again in NH by winter.

My husband and I take parenting decisions on a case-by-case basis. If I had a child who experienced tremendous anxiety over tests no matter how valiant our efforts were to calm her, I would probably pull her out. In that case, the tests would do more harm than good. I defend parents’ rights to protect their children in these cases.

I also happen to think there is a massive level of hysteria around parents opting their children out of testing right now. I don’t judge them, they have their reasons.Their children might react more strongly to taking a test too, where my child doesn’t seem to register a difference between taking a standardized test and taking the teacher’s weekly spelling challenge. Yet, the hysteria overshadows the advantage of standardized testing, which is their power as a source of information and a diagnostic tool about how their child is learning. 

Finally, I hope that the parent veto rights bill isn’t overused in New Hampshire. I have many misgivings about parents telling schools regularly what should be in the curriculum. Parent vetoes convey a certain level of distrust in our teachers and schools and they are often used to prevent teachers from teaching things that are widely accepted by scientists to be true (e.g. evolution and climate change). 

For all of those reasons, we will have both of our children follow the standardized testing schedule in our district for now.

Opting-in: With Reservations & Just for Now

Even having thought through all of this and made a decision (for this year at least), I will do several things to parent my kids through standardized tests.

First, and most importantly, I will make sure my daughter understand these tests are not high stakes for her and don’t measure her intelligence. Standardized tests are not tests of intelligence, and just to be clear, intelligence tests (IQ) aren’t even tests of fixed intelligence

Any standardized test should be treated as a diagnostic tool at most, which can help us identify areas where we can support children’s learning more, and areas where they are already demonstrating mastery of skills and content. So, I’ll try not incite further hysteria in my child when I talk to her about the tests. I hope her teachers and building principals do the same – as far as I can tell they do.

I will definitely be examining the testing results when they are returned, and in this manner the personal and the professional overlap for me since I have the training to make sense of test reports (which don’t make sense to many parents). This information can be useful to parents, teachers and schools, but test makers need to do more in the way of making test results meaningful for all.

I also plan to be very active in the school district to make sure that the standardized testing results are NOT used in a high stakes or inappropriate manner. Standardized test results have been used inappropriately in New Hampshire’s recent past as a result of NCLB, and continue to be used inappropriately in other states now (e.g. as a punitive measure for districts failing to meet AYP or as a measure of teaching quality – both so wrong). NH has a waiver from NCLB so these misuses are unacceptable. 

In short, my children will take the tests for now, because standardized tests are a useful tool when used appropriately, they are no-stakes for my children in New Hampshire, and I can parent my kids through the experience.

Focusing on the “OPT”

But, I have the option to change my mind and opt-out, and therein lies the sentiment that makes me a true geek for democracy and overjoys the social studies teacher still very much alive inside of me.

The Opt-Out movement is a movement, and as such has the power to get more parents involved in very important day-to-day educational decisions. It also has the added benefit of bringing the “public” back into “public education,” because people more so than ever before in recent history, seem to be paying attention to what’s going on in our nation’s schools.

So when the frenzy kicks back in again in the upcoming school year and people are debating who is opting in, who is opting out and who doesn’t really care one way or another… know there is at least one person in the nation who’s happy simply that people are recognizing there’s an “opt” in the discussion.

The children are watching and learning that civic participation in our nation’s schools is a democratic and meaningful act.

Improving your child’s academic performance – a question a day

In a recent post, “Where are the good schools?” I joked that you can tell a lot about the quality of a school by noting “parent lingering” at pick up and drop-off, but did you know that schools often gather data on the amount of parent volunteerism in their district?

This is for the simple reason that parent engagement is linked to student achievement. So, the number of hours logged by parent volunteers can quickly become a bragging right.

Parent Engagement Boosts Student Achievement

Consider these findings about parent engagement highlighted by the NEA:

Regardless of family income or background, students with involved parents are more likely to:

  • Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs
  • Be promoted to the next grade, pass their classes, and earn credits
  • Attend school regularly
  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school
  • Graduate and go on to postsecondary education

These findings are hard to dismiss, and many state governments, national agencies and foundations are working to improve parent engagement in schools.

Meanwhile, studies exploring the relationship between parent engagement and student achievement are gaining prominence. Take, for example, this study that points to specific behaviors of parents (“monitoring, warmth, and autonomy support”) as assets in preparing adolescents for career and college.

Parent Involvement Doesn’t Take Much More Time

Being an “involved” parent can mean many different things, and I know what you’re probably thinking: How can I find any more time to do that? You might also worry that you don’t have much to offer a classroom full of ten-year-olds.

Trust me, volunteering in schools doesn’t have to be an on-going major commitment to reap the benefits. In fact, things you’re probably already doing – like staying on top of all of the paperwork that comes home from your children’s teachers, or consistently monitoring your child’s homework habits – both constitute very important types of parental engagement.

In other words, simply showing an interest in what they do during the school day, from kindergarten through high school, leads to gains in achievement. Knowing details about what goes on during your child’s school day, and learning some of the “language of the school” leads to higher quality questions and conversations during the school year.

With a quick skim of a teacher’s communications home, you can replace your standard questioning attempt, “How was your day?” with a better developed question that will lead to more information from your child like, “I read that you’re learning about compound words. I thought of one… ICE-CREAM! Is that a compound word?” Better yet, provide an incorrect example and see if your child can correct you and explain why you’re wrong – that will really get the gears going!

Similar to giving your children good, high quality feedback on what they do well and what they need work on – as I addressed in this post knowing details about what your kids are doing in school lead to higher quality conversation and point to clear avenues for you to engage in your children’s education. You’re creating a situation where you’re helping your kids practice their skills, you’re showing them your intellectual curiosity, and you’re subtly letting them know that you actually communicate with your kid’s teacher! It’s clear how all of this effort leads to the type of academic improvement we typically see with the children of engaged parents.

So perhaps you don’t want to download and read EduTopia’s full guide for parents on engaging in schools, and maybe you don’t want to sign up with the PTA or PTG for something that requires your attention once a week for the whole school year. Rest assured knowing if this type of thing is the best you can do then you’re already doing pretty well.

More Ways to Connect and Engage

If you’re at a loss for how you can contribute to your children’s school as a volunteer, Larry Ferrlazzo posts bi-monthly or more frequent updates that consolidate information on boosting parent engagement in school here. Many of these posts center on what groups of dedicated parents are doing together to create change in high need districts, as is the case in Baltimore, Maryland. If you’re not on board with the group effort, the National Department of Education released a “Parent Checklist” outlining questions and resources that parents can use as their children head back into the classrooms in August. Some questions parents might ask their children’s teachers include:

Quality: Is my child getting a great education?

  • How will you keep me informed about how my child is doing on a regular basis? How can we work together if my child falls behind?
  • Is my child on grade level, and on track to be ready for college and a career? How do I know?

Ready for Success: Will my child be prepared to succeed in whatever comes next?

  • How will you measure my child’s progress and ability in subjects including reading, math, science, the arts, social and emotional development, and other activities?
  • How much time will my child spend preparing for and taking state and district tests? How will my child’s teacher and I know how to use the results to help my child make progress?
  • Are the meals and snacks provided healthy? How much time is there for recess and/or exercise?

Great Teachers: Is my child engaged and learning every day?

  • How do I know my child’s teachers are effective?
  • How much time do teachers get to collaborate with one another?
  • What kind of professional development is available to teachers here?

Equity and Fairness: Does my child, and every child at my child’s school or program, have the opportunity to succeed and be treated fairly?

  • How does the school make sure that all students are treated fairly? (For example, are there any differences in suspension/expulsion rates by race or gender?)
  • Does the school offer all students access to the classes they need to prepare them for success, including English language learners and students with special needs (for example, Algebra I and II, gifted and talented classes, science labs, AP or IB classes, art, music)?

One thing that I would add to this list for parents of adolescents is to acknowledge your “trouble threshold” grade. Many students, when asked, can probably point to a specific grade (for my parents it seemed to be around a B) anything below which triggers parent involvement… you know, the troubling kind (according to your kid). Studies have found that parents’ “trouble threshold grades” become their children’s threshold grade, and that “threshold grades” differ among families based on cultural and ethnic traditions.

So while a parent must strike a balance between becoming that helicopter parent, by over-protecting and over-directing their children through school, there are plenty of good conversations to have with your child’s teacher this year and plenty of ways to be involved. You’ll note that most good conversations begin with a question.