Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Turnaround, Transformation, and now Trigger: Repositioning parents in reform recipes

It is worthwhile to think about the ways parents are positioned in school reform models, old and new ones. Until 2010, parents were engaged in education policy primarily, if at all, through School Site Councils, in Chicago known as Local School Councils, which are local decision-making bodies of parents, teachers, and community members that make school policy such as but not limited to curriculum, principal hiring and termination, and budget. This has changed in some ways with the US Department of Education School Improvement Grants Program endorsed school reform models: turnaround, transformation, restarts, and school closure. Of the 4,941 eligible Struggling Schools: 71% of schools have chosen turnarounds, 21% transformation, 5% restart, and just 3% of schools have chosen closure. In turnarounds and transformation models, parents’ roles are not explicitly outlined, whereas charter and voucher models position parents as consumers and choosers.

Seeking to reposition parents higher on the decision-maker ladder, Parent Trigger allows parents to choose their own reform recipe. Working closely with Parent Revolution, California Democrats passed the first Parent Trigger law in January 2010. Their bill held that parents who lived within the boundaries of, or whose children attended, an eligible failing school could sign a petition that would, with 51% parent body endorsement, trigger the school district to turnaround, transform, restart, or close the school. California remains the only state to allow all four reform recipes. With the exception of Louisiana, six other states have moved in a restart-to-charter-only direction. Here’s a state-by-state synopsis:

Revolutionary? Yes. Progressive? Sure. Policymakers are demonstrating efforts to move beyond involvement and toward engagement. Effective? We don’t know yet, but probably not. For now, here is a working hypothesis of why: The causal relationship between “pick a reform” and “watch your school transform” is weak, at best. Rather than jumpstarts, a more likely improvement scenario would include building authentic relationships around the co-construction of a school that includes community, parents, teachers, and students. Let’s look at this a bit further:

Parent Trigger supporters contend that the law will affect change, reform, and school improvement. The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, thinks this is pretty easy: “A. Organize with fellow parents; B. Pick your reform option; C. Get signatures on your petition; and D. Watch your school transform!” Yet, we can see that parents are empowered to neither change, reform, nor improve schools. In California, they are simply empowered to choose a preferred reform recipe. Elsewhere, they are simply empowered to ask for a restart. Instead, several data reveal that what parents want is to see change happen within their own schools, in their own communities, and in their own unique contexts. Parents’ comments from McKinley Elementary School, the site of America’s first Parent Trigger, reveal that they wanted to see change happen within the walls of their own school. Perhaps this is why only approximately one-third of parents who signed the pro-charter petition actually moved their children to the new nearby charter school. Desert Trails Elementary parents, reveal similar discontent: after a year-long, highly public fight to pass their pro-charter petition in Adelanto, CA, less than one-third of parents who signed the petition voted the new charter authorizer for their school. Their choice of charter authorizer came down to the charter that demonstrated experience with students and families of color, despite its “traditional” approach to education. And in March of 2012, in a last minute flood of letters to Florida Republican Senator Rory, parents demanded a recall against Trigger on the grounds of false empowerment.

These parents’ perspectives do not stand alone. Data on parent engagement in school improvement reveal true value in cooperation, inclusivity, and validation of parents’ roles as partners in school decision-making. Findings from a few recent studies are particularly provocative:
- The Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) found that community organizing over time led to mutual support between under-served communities and school districts that yielded several stronger metrics of school improvement;
- In her study on Chicago’s Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Soo Hong finds that trusting relationships and equalized distribution of power are “core strategies” for school improvement;
- In their study of community organizing efforts in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, San Jose, and the Mississippi Delta, Warren et al. found that collaborations between educators, parents, and communities led to “deep, and sustainable school reform”;
- and in his participatory study with Latino/a high school students, Irizarry et al. uncover improved educational experiences for Latino/a youth through connections to Latino cultural and linguistic communities (Irizarry, 2012).

We need to do a lot more to better understand parents’ roles in school improvement. Empirical evidence is indeed hard to come by, as experimental models have to draw a strong, statistically significant causal relationship between parent engagement and school improvement. That aside, the rigor and richness of the qualitative data above and of other high quality studies remind us why Parent Trigger is unlikely: it’s nothing new. It’s the same four reform recipes, at best. The “easy as A-B-C-D” Trigger process jumpstarts reform but does not necessarily extend toward improvement. Reversing the effects of a historically tenuous relationship between parents and schools, particularly for low-income communities of color, is a complex process. Perhaps new Reform Recipes should consider repairing the parent-school relationships as a vehicle by which to move from reform and toward improvement.

Irizarry, J. G. (2011). The Latinization of U.S. schools: Successful teaching and learning in shifting cultural contexts. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

By: Priya Goel


Anonymous said...

"False empowerment" is a great term. But how exactly is disenfranchising voters and taxpayers "progressive"?

Matt Linick said...

I think that the point of the Parent Trigger (at least to those that tout it as a tool of parental empowerment), is that it is giving Parents a voice at the cost of taxpayers and voters. So, the power gained by parents outweighs that lost by voters and taxpayers.

I'm not agreeing with the logic, especially since Priya clearly establishes that that empowerment isn't real, but I think that is why some might label it as progressive in that it is redistributing concentrated union/school board power to parents.

Priya Goel said...

Why progressive? Firstly, I agree with Matt. It's the first policy that's positioned parents at the top of the ladder in school reform. Whereas charters and vouchers positions parents to choose schools (in theory), Parent Trigger allows parents positions parents to choose reform itself, a power that has till now been held by central school district offices and state boards of education. Secondly, I think it's progressive in that it's reignited a quite unique conversation about what constitutes parent empowerment. Web conversations over the past two years reveal that parents are moving from discussions of false choice to discussions on false empowerment, and they are connecting these issues to their roles in school reform. In this way, the dialogue is fresh: it's by parents, it's about parents, and it's connecting the dots between parent empowerment in incentivist reforms.

Anonymous said...

How is empowering or positioning parents to choose necessarily equated with progress...progress from something bad to something better?

Priya Goel said...

I don't personally see positioning parents to choose as progress, but the "effort" toward redistribution of power toward parents (which presumes that was the intended effort-and that is debatable) is certainly progressive. We've seen that power to choose certainly hasn't empowered parents. Still though, acknowledging parent voice and values through policy is, in theory, where we should be heading.