Accountability · Blog

Can Parents Really “Change” a School? Should They?

In response to my November 6 post, a reader wrote:

If we want to see all schools get better, why keep steering people to “The Best” ones, thereby depriving them, and their locally zoned schools, the opportunity to truly flourish? Case in point, PS 191. With the amount of investment that will go into that school, it will turn around in a few years. Why? Not because of the status quo approach that led it to fail, but because (crass and unfortunate as this is) wealthier and better educated families will invest in it and make it so. I have spoken with people who knew PS 84, PS 87, et al. years ago and personally attest that it was upper middle-class parents committing to the schools that helped make them so strong. I’m truly not intending to criticize, but rather to get your thoughts on how advocates and people like me who care deeply about the issues you outline in your article can work together to change the conversation from encouraging parents to chase the “awesome” schools and instead inspiring them to make their own schools awesome. – A District 3 Parent

Dear District 3 Parent:

Thank you for writing. May I add an addendum to your question?

First: Can parents really change schools?

Second: Should they?

Yes, you are quite right. The “good” schools in District 3 are ones that middle-class parents have invested in. Yet, if we go by test scores, the question remains: Do these schools have high test scores because there is something fundamentally better about the teaching there, or is it because the majority of families have the resources to hire outside tutors? The fact that there are still children at, for example, PS 87 who are not performing at grade level, suggests the value-add may not be the school itself.

I have worked with families who made the decision to attend less popular public schools and, as  you suggest, labor to make them better, similar to this family which was profiled in the New York Times, patting themselves on the back before their child has graduated from the school. Or attended for even a year. A month. A day.

The families who end up coming to me learn the following lesson: There is little parents can do to affect what goes on inside a school. They can’t change the low-bar setting of the curriculum. That’s dictated by the city. They can’t influence firing and hiring of teachers. That’s something even principals have a hard time with, due to union contracts. They can fundraise, but even that comes with caveats. At one school, parents from a single grade raised money to put an assistant teacher in the classroom. They were informed that if all classes can’t have an extra teacher, none could. At another, parents raised money for a computer lab. The principal instead elected to use the funds to get the entire school repainted, arguing that it would benefit more students.

The parents who turn to me for help in transferring are parents who have come to the conclusion that their mere middle-class presence cannot make the administration more responsive, resolve ongoing issues with bullying, or keep the school from pressuring to have their child labeled Special Needs in order to get them more time on tests and raise the school’s average. Despite their initial enthusiasm, these families were ultimately forced to walk away.

And now the second question: Should affluent parents go charging into schools, announcing how they’re here to save the day for you poor, unfortunate souls?

In the November 6 post that triggered this discussion, I referenced a school in Brooklyn, where new parents chalked up a previous F in student performance on the New York City School Profile to “a reflection of a different administration and a different program. As the curriculum changes, as the teacher training changes, I can’t imagine that when [her daughter’s class] is in third grade they aren’t gonna kick ass.”

For some reason, the existing community was not appropriately grateful when “a parent stood up and talked about how bad the teaching in the school was.”

Nor were they ecstatic to hear criticism of the PTA’s selling unhealthy ice-cream or complaints about how their Three Kings Day parade was a violation of church and state.

But the biggest issue came when the new parents pushed for a more progressive, arts-centered approach to the curriculum, while the (primarily immigrant) parents who had been there longer favored traditional, skills-based and yes, test-score accountable instruction.

Families who come to me tell tales of similar conflicts erupting in schools all over the city, where an influx of newcomers storming to the self-proclaimed rescue is causing friction across PTA meetings and spilling over into classrooms.

The question of whether or not parents can genuinely change a school remains up in the air. But I’d also like to caution those ready to roll up their sleeves to really think through how you intend to go about it. And to tread carefully.

What do you think?

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