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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Trigger Guards

"[A]t a meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in June, Democratic mayors joined Republican ones in a unanimous endorsement of so-called parent trigger legislation. . . . These laws, recently passed in only a few states but being considered in more, abet parent takeovers of undeperforming schools, which may then be replaced with charter schools run by private entities. . . .

"'It gives parents an opportunity to weigh in,' said Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles mayor. . ."
  --Frank Bruni, "Teachers on the Defensive" (New York Times, August 19, 2012)
At the risk of sounding defensive, Mayor Villaraigosa, may I ask what the hell you're talking about?
I love when politicians and others pontificate about parents being denied the opportunity to "weigh in" on their children's education.  Who's denying them?  Teachers' unions, of course! These unrelenting obstructionists would rather watch helpless children languish in underperforming schools staffed by feckless time-servers than undertake even the most minimal, common-sensical reforms.  The potential proliferation of "parent trigger" laws will theoretically remedy this situation by allowing parents to seize control of failing schools, and then. . . . Well, that's the question, isn't it?  Then what?  Presumably, a number of these newly liberated schools will be passed along to for-profit educational consortia.  And if anyone knows how to make something work, it's highly-compensated corporate managers.  No doubt these folks can do for education what they did for the housing and banking industries.

As a teacher and union-member, I have no problem with parental involvement in children's education.  Most of my (college) students are over 18 and thus not necessarily as amenable to parental intervention as elementary and high-school students, but I know and have known enough K-12 teachers to state confidently that they, too, are more than happy with parental involvement.  In my experience, a major problem with education is not that well-meaning, passionate parents are blocked from participating in their children's schooling but rather that parental involvement is all too unpredictable.  Some parents simply don't take interest in their kids' education, and far more are either too busy, perhaps working multiple jobs to put food on the table, to be able to spend a sufficient amount of time helping their kids understand the quadratic equation or the Norman Conquest.  Given these realities, how will parent-trigger laws improve the situation?
Assuming parent trigger becomes a standard tool in the education reform toolbox, I suspect some underperforming schools, particularly those in middle- and upper-class communities, will find themselves under siege from activist parents.  Of course, middle- and upper-class communities tend to have fewer underperforming schools in the first place.  Meanwhile, in some poorer neighborhoods, too, groups of passionate parents may organize to take over schools.  These will likely be the same parents who currently strive to help their children, often by entering them in lotteries for highly-coveted slots in charter schools (which, research has shown, perform no better on the whole than the neighborhood schools they seek to replace).  If, however, parents are less involved, parent trigger laws will accomplish nothing; they might well make things worse.
I suspect that children of highly involved parents tend to do better in school, on average, than children of parents who are less involved.  This would be true whether there are parent-trigger laws on the books or not.  Parent-trigger laws could make things worse, though, by providing an easy way for less-involved parents to "participate" by voting to "throw the bums out," without requiring these same parents to do the real parental work of supporting their kids' education: helping with homework, communicating with teachers, and supporting these same teachers who are doing their best to educate their children.

In closing, I feel it necessary to point out, as even American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten does, teachers' unions do need reform; it should be easier to remove incompetent teachers from jobs, and it should be easier to reward extremely effective teachers.  But please, everybody, stop talking about teachers and parents as if they are adversaries; they-we--are partners.  Just about every teacher I know would be thrilled if more parents pulled the trigger they already have: not to seize control of schools in a knee-jerk attempt at a quick-fix, but to support their own children in making the most of the educational opportunities that teachers devote themselves to providing.

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