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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 10/12/2011

Parent trigger laws: Part of school reform’s ‘silly season’

This was written by Mark Phillips, professor of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

One of my earliest recollections as a high school teacher is of a meeting in which the chairman of my department angrily fired a pencil across the table at the leader of a parent group. The parent was demanding a voice in setting our department’s curriculum. While my department chair’s behavior was straight out of a black comedy movie, his voice was clear: “Curriculum should be left to the experts. A parental voice is out of the question.”

A few weeks later, prior to my first parent-teacher night, I received opposing advice from two faculty members. The first told me to speak for the whole allotted time and leave no time for parent questions. The second told me that this was an opportunity to develop a good relationship with parents and that they were my best potential allies, not the enemy. I took the latter advice. He was right.

The nature of the relationship between teachers and parents, introduced to me in those encounters, has always been important to me, as both an educator and a parent. I hadn’t thought about it much for the last few years until the issue recently moved to the level of statewide policy.

There is a new wave of legislation, called the parent trigger, which has been proposed in almost two dozen states, already adopted in some, and that is taking parental involvement in education to a whole new level.

California was the first to adopt it. Parents in the state whose children attend a failing school can organize, and if 51 percent of them sign a petition, the district must provide a new set of administrators to run the school. Or the parents can request that a charter school operator be brought in to take it over.

In Connecticut, a different variation recently became law, one that calls for powerful parent councils to help run the school. In Texas, parents can intervene and after two or more years of an “unacceptable” performance rating, they can force the school to be transformed or move their children en masse to another school.

I’m sure that other variations will be coming soon to other states. Parents have suddenly become major players in educational reform.

Not surprisingly, the same regressive ways of thinking and making decisions that are misguiding our other educational reforms are in prominent evidence in this case. The “silly season” of educational reform has now been expanded to include parent power. Once again, the plan is like something out of Lewis Carroll.

To be clear, I strongly support a parental voice in education. I’ve spent years as an educator urging teachers to develop close relationships with parents and to listen and be responsive to parent concerns. I‘ve helped form parent-faculty school councils focused on shared decision-making about school rules and support services for students. I believe parent inclusion is essential. Parents must have a major voice in the education of their children.

But, the new trigger law approach is foolish and potentially destructive.

Once again, policies are being initiated which are impatient rushes to simplistic solutions, neither acknowledging the complexity of the problem nor exploring alternative solutions. Like using standardized tests because they are easy to score and provide the illusion of certitude, these trigger laws seem to provide a quick and easy answer to the challenge of giving parents a voice in their children’s education.

Part of this approach is to give parents the primary power to make decisions regarding schools. It is power conceived as “power over” rather than shared power. Shared power is more complex. It involves parents, administrators, and perhaps even students, working together. Rather than creating a learning community and a feeling of mutuality, the trigger approach will create further divisiveness and a split between teachers and parents. It will create conflict, not mutuality.

More importantly, it is power delegated to individuals who have neither the expertise nor the knowledge base needed to make the right decisions. This is part of a broader troubling trend in our society.

Knowledge, scientific thinking, and historical facts are all being relegated to the level of irrelevancy by some of our political leaders. In a society in which prominent politicians dismiss science and mess up their historical facts, it makes perfect sense to turn school decision-making over to parent groups who know little about education. Teachers and administrators, those with the expertise, are pushed to the sidelines in this process.

There has been enough written about the limits and dubious validity of using standardized test scores as the sole or even primary measure of a school’s success without beating that one to death. But using this as a basis for parents to pull the trigger on a school takes this to a dangerous level of absurdity.

Without additional training and education about pedagogy, curriculum, and school administration, parents cannot make effective decisions about any school. Additionally, given the time pressures on most parents today, the primary decisions will likely be made by a handful of parents who have the time, and not by a majority of parents.

We need shared, informed decision making about each of our schools. Teachers and administrators, those who have the most experience, expertise, and knowledge, should lead that process. It should fully include parents and students. Determinations about school quality should be based on multiple means of assessment, not just test scores. Changes should be made through a process of shared deliberation.

But this would be a complex, sometimes messy, process that would take effective leadership, hard work, and time. The results would not be immediate, or easily measureable. The new wave of trigger laws runs counter to such a process.

In the guise of progressive reform it is again a rush to a wrongheaded regressive policy that will further weaken the already fragile structure of public education.

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