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April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

Involving Parents, Avoiding Gridlock

What problems may educators encounter as they involve parents and other community members in changing the way schools work? Here's what Maine learned while developing new learning standards.

No one doubts that parent involvement with schools is important. It is especially important now, as states and school systems begin to develop learning standards and implement practices based on current research—practices that look different from those that parents remember from their own school days. We cannot expect parents to accept and support these changes if they don't understand them and are left out of the planning process.
Recent reports, as well as data I collected during 25 interviews with the parents of high school students (Dodd 1994), suggest there is parental opposition to some practices teachers are now using. The Public Agenda Foundation notes in one report that "more than nine in ten ... Americans say teaching the basics is absolutely essential' " (Johnson 1995, p. 20). Another report (Johnson and Immerwahr 1994) states that many people believe innovative methods will not help students learn "the basics."
How can reform-minded educators hope to resolve what looks like hopeless gridlock? My interviews revealed that, because people's views are complex and idiosyncratic, it is easy for educators to misunderstand parents' complaints that schools aren't attending to the basics.
Unless educators involve parents—and other community members—in developing the standards and implementing the new teaching strategies, what may begin as a journey toward promising change will probably end in frustration, failure, and community conflict.

The Maine Experience

The population of Maine is small (slightly over one million) and relatively homogeneous (mostly white). As a result, the effort to reach agreement on standards for student learning probably does not present as great a challenge as it might in other larger, more diverse areas. The problems we face in Maine suggest, however, the types—if not the degree of difficulty—of problems that are likely to surface in other places.
Those charged with creating a process for developing standards for Maine students have made many efforts to be inclusive. They invited representatives from an array of community groups to serve on the initial Learning Results Task Force. They held meetings. They surveyed citizens, and they asked for feedback on various drafts of the standards. On the surface it would appear that the final draft of the Learning Results will represent what a wide range of Maine citizens believe students should learn (Maine Department of Education 1995). Yet, four potentially significant challenges are likely still ahead.

1. Who Defines What Is Basic?

Maine's Learning Results describe basic learning standards for all students. However, despite efforts to involve all citizens, the draft standards may not reflect the views of the less educated, the less successful, or those committed to a very conservative agenda. Invitations to speak at open forums or to respond to surveys did not reach everyone. Many voices were not heard.
My interviews with 15 parents from lower socioeconomic levels revealed that they frequently had little contact with schools. They often misunderstood what was happening there; they had complaints and concerns that they were unable to resolve. Yet, they wanted their children to be successful in school and they had strong opinions about what and how the school should teach.
These were the parents who reported talking to other parents about their concerns. Their conversations took place every day throughout the community—in grocery stores, in beauty parlors, in barber shops. And such conversations—among those who may consider themselves "outsiders"—have the potential to undermine change efforts before anyone is aware there is a problem. Educators must work harder to ensure that these parents, and parents from every segment of the community, are included in the change process.

2. How Are the Basics Defined?

  • "Computer technology."
  • "Choose courses to educate themselves."
  • "Grammar. No more where are you at?' Teach sentence structure."
  • "To know and read the New Testament, a sure and true account of how to get a ticket to the future,' and the actual spiritual heritage of American civilization."
  • "No punk clothes." (Next on this list was "No dirty long hair.")
  • "To know how to think by continually being exposed to challenging problems under the constant expectation of success from the schools, community, and parents" (Landay 1995, 5-7).
These same respondents mentioned 37 other items that cover as wide a range as the examples cited here. And, while their views may or may not be representative of others in the state, it is clear that we have much work to do if we are to develop a shared vision of what our children should learn.
Next, consider the working draft of the Maine Learning Results Task Force. Most people would agree with this Guiding Principle: "An educated person is a clear and effective communicator." One descriptor for this principle is not likely to garner the same support, however: "Uses English and at least one other language." There are many parents who do not support the idea of all children learning a second language—especially if those children are having difficulty learning English. For such parents, learning English may be basic, but learning French or Spanish should be an option, not a requirement.
Getting consensus on what is basic will not be easy. However, overlooking the need to do so will ensure later conflict, especially when attempts are made to implement assessment procedures.

3. Equity vs. Excellence

The Learning Results will have universal consequences because they will apply to all students, but parents are generally concerned primarily with their own children. And what the state expects for every child may conflict with what parents expect for their child.
Adding to this dilemma is another, related, problem: How can we guarantee that both learning disabled and gifted students will succeed? If everyone is to be measured by the same standards, how can we structure classes and develop curriculum to ensure that some students aren't held back and others aren't pushed ahead?
The factory model of schooling is not likely to work very well anymore, but parents may not understand how other models (including such experiments as untracked high school classes) will help their children learn. They have a right to ask questions and to be concerned. Their children get only one shot at an education.

4. Changing Classroom Practices

New teaching approaches will require teachers to work more cooperatively with parents. Unfortunately, even when a parent agrees with an outcome, he or she may oppose the process used by the teacher to achieve it. For example, a statement describing the Guiding Principle that each student will be a clear and effective communicator reads, "Uses oral and written language conventions (such as grammar, syntax, and spelling)."
Many parents I talked with said language conventions should be taught through exercises and worksheets. A few even said students couldn't learn to write well unless they could label the parts of speech. In contrast, many teachers are familiar with the current research that shows grammar study by itself will not improve writing skills. They do not use worksheets because the research indicates students should develop the basic skills in the context of their own writing.
The parents I interviewed were particularly concerned about the failure of such teachers to correct spelling errors on student papers. On the other hand, the teachers argued that asking students to worry about spelling on drafts would prevent them from organizing and developing their ideas. The parents thought the teachers were ignoring spelling when in reality they planned to deal with it later in the process.
Collaborative learning also causes concerns for some parents. This practice is necessary, according to the Learning Results standards, so that each student can learn to be "a collaborative and quality worker ... [with] skills in teamwork, leadership, and conflict resolution." One parent I talked with told me she opposed having her child do any group work. She explained that her daughter had recently received a low grade on a group assignment. Her daughter had worked very hard, but the other students in the group hadn't. This parent eventually admitted that she thought students could learn from one another, yet she remained opposed to group work because she believed her daughter had been treated unfairly.
Thus, teachers not only must be concerned with helping parents understand innovative practices, but they also must deal with problems stemming from how those practices are implemented.

Partners in Learning

If educators are to even begin to resolve the problems associated with developing learning standards and changing classroom practices, everyone—educators, parents, community members—must participate in the dialogue. It is important to involve parents and community members who represent all segments of the population at the very beginning of the change process. Educators should not wait until decisions have already been made before they ask people from outside the school to participate.
But first, educators must learn more about the perceptions of individual parents and community members. What do they think students should know and be able to do? How can they best gain such knowledge and skills? A survey and follow-up interviews with parents and other community members are good ways to gather this kind of information. Such needs assessments can provide valuable insights.
The changes taking place in the classroom today are new for everyone—educators, students, parents, and community members. Because no one has all the answers, everyone must be a learner, and anyone can be a teacher. Educators must listen to the critics as well as the supporters before they can determine what all students should learn and how we can help them succeed. All the stakeholders must work as partners in a community of learners.

Assess Your School's PPPQ* (*Parent Perspectives and Participation Quotient)

This questionnaire is an informal, unscientific way to assess what you are currently doing to learn about parents' perspectives. Your responses also may help you discover other ways to involve parents in the life of the school.

Directions: Circle at least one response for each item. If more than one response describes your school, circle all that apply.

1. Most of our written communications (for example, informational letters, newsletters) could best be described as

  1. Jargon-free.

  2. Jargon-lite.

  3. Jargon-infested.

2. When we consider starting a new program or changing a practice, we usually

  1. Include parents and community members in the planning discussions from the start.

  2. Inform everyone before the change actually occurs.

  3. Hold informational meetings and/or issue news releases when the change is underway or near completion.

3. We get information on parents' perspectives about effective classroom practice primarily from

  1. Surveys of parents, followed by in-depth interviews and/or focus groups that represent all groups in our community.

  2. Those parents who speak at open meetings.

  3. Parents who have conferences with teachers or who contact the school when they have a question or concern.

4. At meetings to acquaint parents with new practices, we most often

  1. Provide opportunities for parents to understand and experience new practices for themselves.

  2. Describe planned changes and encourage discussion in small groups.

  3. Explain changes and answer questions.

5. Most of our parents

  1. Have visited classes and/or served as volunteers, guest speakers, or substitute teachers.

  2. Come to school only for conferences, open houses, or athletic and other school activities.

  3. Rarely come to the school (except perhaps when there is a problem).

6. Most of our parents get much of their information about classroom activities and assignments

  1. By participating in assignments and regularly reviewing samples of their children's work.

  2. From letters and newsletters from teachers.

  3. From informal conversations with their children.

7. Teachers in our school would probably say that

  1. Parents as well as students should understand why teachers have chosen a particular curriculum and teaching method.

  2. Students can probably benefit from knowing why their curriculum is important and why teachers have asked them to do assignments in a certain way, but this knowledge isn't essential.

  3. Parents and students should trust teachers to make the decisions; they probably don't care to know the reasons as long as the students seem to be doing okay.

8. When a parent is critical of a program or practice, our usual approach is

  1. To understand the nature of the concerns, to look for ways to solve the immediate problem, and to consider what general actions may be needed.

  2. To resolve the immediate problem.

  3. To minimize the conflict as quickly as possible by finding some way to appease the critical parent.

9. A fair estimate of the number of parents who have had a positive, personal contact with a teacher or administrator during this school year would be

  1. More than half of all parents, including some from every political, socioeconomic, and ethnic/cultural group in our community.

  2. About half of all parents, most of whom could be described as mainstream and middle class.

  3. Fewer than half of all parents, and few or none from some segments of our community.

10. Our school regularly provides the following opportunities for parents to share their ideas and concerns with the school (don't include one-way communications such as newsletters): _____________________

Scoring: A = 3 points; B = 2 points; C = 1 point. For question 10, score one point for each item listed. Then add the points to get your total score.

30 +: You are probably building parents' support for change.

16–29: The embers of dissent may be smoldering. They could flame up at any time, especially if you have not involved all segments of the community.

15 or less: Keeping parents so distanced from school is likely to create problems if you aren't facing an outright conflict right now.

—Copyright © 1995 by Anne Wescott Dodd.


Dodd, A. W. (1994). Parents as Partners in Learning: Their Beliefs about Effective Practices for Teaching and Learning High School English. Doctoral dissertation. University of Maine.

Johnson, J. (1995). Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of School Reform. New York: Public Agenda.

Johnson, J., and J. Immerwahr. (1994). First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools. New York: Public Agenda.

Landay, E. (1995). Analysis of Learning Results Surveys. Unpublished paper written for the Maine Department of Education, Augusta.

Maine Department of Education. Learning Results Working Copy (Draft 9/19/95). Augusta.

Anne Wescott Dodd has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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