It seems to me that the most important issue surrounding education right now is that of “school reform”. As far as I can tell, the main tenet of “school reform” is to privatize the schools. The thought is that, if we hand the schools over to super-efficient private corporations, then they will be best equipped to cure all that ails or schools. I agree that someone from the outside can come into our schools and make them better, but I disagree about whom. I believe that the community and the parents are the ones who should be coming into the schools. And, I think the research supports this latter view rather than the former one. Research on charter schools shows that they are no better than public schools at teaching our children, and sometimes they are worse. However, research about parent involvement is conclusive. Parent involvement is one of the best ways to improve student learning outcomes. So, with that in mind, I would like to paint a picture of each of these two views. Keep reading to see the two paths our educational system can take. (Think of it as The Ghost of Corporate Schooling and The Ghost of Community Schooling.)
Our first view is brought to us by The Ghost of Corporate Schooling. Our neighborhood school is an urban school, with a majority of low-income families, a dilapidated school building, outdated textbooks, insufficient materials, less than highly-qualified teachers, and very large class sizes. This situation is among the most difficult that an educator, highly-qualified or not, can walk into. You would probably not be very surprised to learn that this school has been under-performing for years. Students are not making adequate progress from year to year, have not been performing well on standardized tests, and are falling farther and farther behind each year. What do you do with such a school? Well, guys like Mitt Romney think they have the answer, and the answer is to turn this school over to a private corporation who can come in and make it all better (because we all know that is what corporations do, right?).
So, that is exactly what happens to our school. ABC Educational Services, Inc. is called into service by the school district and tasked with bringing this school up to standards within a set number of years. What is ABC going to do with this school? They are a corporation. Their purpose is to turn a profit. How do they do that? They cut costs and increase revenue. They will somehow require more money to do the same job, but they will actually spend less of that money on educating students. They will demand more money per student, but pay teachers less money and cut as many corners as possible throughout the school building to reduce expenses. Is this the type of school you want your child attending, one in which profit comes before student welfare?
Our second view is brought to us by The Ghost of Community Schooling. We will view the same school as in the previous view. The school still has all the same issues outlined above, and is still under-performing and has been for years. Something must be done to improve the level of student learning in this school, and the district is running out of patience. There is talk of either turning over the school to a corporation, or just shutting down the school completely. The parents are weary of having a corporation come in and take over the school. Additionally, they outright refuse the shutdown option, since that would mean their children will have to attend a different school, which might be much farther away and logistically impossible for the family. Likewise, the teachers are resisting the district’s options as well, albeit for their own reasons. They know that they will likely experience a pay cut, or a job loss altogether, if a corporation takes over the school, and that they will either be laid-off or transferred to another school if the school is closed.
So, what can be done in this situation? Well, the teachers and parents, both committed to improving the school, come together in a series of meetings to discuss what can be done. An enterprising teacher lays out the educational research on parent involvement in schools and suggests that it may be a way to improve student learning in their school. After reviewing the research, the team decides this is a legitimate plan and settles on first steps for implementation. The implementation process begins with simple steps. Change is hard and cannot always be done quickly or extremely. First, parents agree to check their children’s homework daily and communicate issues to the classroom teacher. The school has some family night events, in which parents and children can come in and enjoy a fun evening together. They also hold some parent education events, where they provide further information and suggestions for parents to implement at home with their children. With these simple steps in place, the school might notice some small improvement in student performance. Homework would be complete and correct, or parents would be communicating with teachers if it was not. Parents would have some strategies to use at home with their children to help them be better prepared for life at school. These steps would most likely show some small improvement.
But, this school has a much longer way to go than that. Further steps must be taken. The parents have taken steps to address the home situation. Now, they decide to take steps to address the school situation as well. Parents volunteer to tutor struggling students before and after school. Other parents volunteer to come into the classroom and work side-by-side with teachers to provide their children with additional support. Still other parents volunteer to monitor the cafeteria, or the hallway, or the library, or any other place where students might find trouble. A group of parents pools some money together to purchase some much-needed materials for the school. A larger group of parents comes together over a weekend, or over several evenings after school, to clean up the school and make some much-needed repairs. Slowly, but surely, the problems are being addressed. Better still, they are being addressed from within, by the people who have the largest stake in the success of these young children.
Which of these views is most appealing to you? I say the latter. I say it is high time for parents to become more involved in their schools, be it by working with their children at home, or becoming a regular fixture within the school building. I say it is time we occupy our classrooms.