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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 10:52 AM ET, 05/12/2011

Turn parents into school reviewers

Most of us who went to college remember the course guides written by students. They included incisive, sometimes dismissive, reviews of the professors.

At my college, the student newspaper published the guide. I often wrote for it. These days, many universities and faculty members distribute their own post-course questionnaires to students in hopes of learning how the professors can improve.

Elaine Wolf Komarow, a parent in Fairfax County, thinks that might work in public schools. I remember when such reviews had an impressive effect in one private school. My daughter had a bad experience with an awkward and insensitive math teacher. He was conscientious, however, and had his students critique his work at the end of each year. Within three years, he had transformed himself into one of the best teachers in the school.

Komarow thinks such reviews would be useful to school principals. “It might be only one review out of 20 that is helpful,” she said, “but put them all together, and I think patterns would become clear. . . . Sit in on a group of parents after their kids have gotten their class assignments for the year, and it will become obvious that reviews of teachers are known and shared. Why don’t the principals want to know?”

She has seen the failure of school-parent communication done without much parental input. Her middle-school child often has four hours of homework a night. Komarow said she didn’t want to fight with faculty members about this but wondered how she might report back to teachers “how much time their homework is taking and whether it seems useful and helpful.”

Her urge to do this was strengthened by a teacher who announced at Back-to-School Night: “I only give 20 minutes of homework per night, and if your child comes to you and complains that they have more, then it is reflective of their classroom work habits.”

Komarow’s translation: “It’s not me, it’s them. What a way to shut down communication. It would be useful to gather data from students and parents to get a sense of whether this teacher might actually be consistently underestimating the amount of homework she is giving.”

I have heard many stories similar to one Komarow told me about a middle school’s attempt to educate parents about its grading scale. Homework, the school guide said, did not count much in a students’ final total. Encouraged, Komarow felt she could say to her child on a late night: “Hey, this assignment doesn’t seem that useful, and it is only worth a point. Getting a good night’s sleep is more important than completing it.”

That era of good feeling lasted about a week, she said. “Now several teachers give lunch detention if homework isn’t done,” she said. “With only 25 minutes to eat under the best of circumstances, that is a tough penalty.”

As all parents know, there are teachers who don’t listen carefully to what they are telling parents and students. One teacher, Komarow said, repeatedly told students they would have to advocate for themselves if they had a problem. She wasn’t interested in talking to their parents.

Komarow saw her point. But when her daughter asked the teacher about a grade report that showed a missing assignment, the teacher said there was no time in class to discuss it. See me during study hall period, the teacher said. The student tried that for two days but was told it was not a good time. On the third day, she was told it was too late to make up the assignment.

Many educators make time no matter how inconvenient it is for them. But too often parents who try to make a point that seems the least bit critical are treated as if they don’t know what they are talking about. Being encouraged to fill out a form each year recalling such moments might make a difference.

By  |  10:52 AM ET, 05/12/2011

 
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