Teachers in Trouble, Parents Ignored -- Part I

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 14, 2007; 10:52 AM

I have written several columns about clashes between educators and parents, a subject that rarely gets much attention because it is so personal. Those involved are often reluctant to give details. Over the last few years I have been saving material on some particularly interesting cases in which parents feel school officials froze them out of the process of dealing with their children's teachers. A few months ago, less-detailed versions of these episodes were reported in The Post. Today, and in the next two columns, I will describe four cases at more length, and follow with a column of reader reactions, and one on how experts in parental issues think these cases should have been handled.

What do you think explains these communication meltdowns? What can be done about them? Two of the cases I will examine are about teachers who allegedly abused students and were eventually fired, with parents unable to get the full story. I will start however with a different situation: a teacher who was fired for reasons that made no sense to the many parents who loved her work. They tried to influence the decision, but found their views rebuffed.

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Veteran third grade teacher Soon-Ja Kim was recommended for dismissal from the Montgomery County, Md., schools in the spring of 2006, despite letters from more than 100 parents saying she was one of the best teachers they had ever seen. Like many parents, they were used to being ignored on school personnel issues, but in this case, they said, the circumstances were particularly galling.

The parents told the county school system that the Lakewood Elementary School teacher was "a phenomenal role model" and "in a peerless category" and had "enhanced confidence, self esteem and motivation" in her students. They begged that Kim, with 20 years experience, be allowed to keep teaching.

But the county schools review panel that has the most influence on dismissal decisions declined to read any of the parent letters before its hearing, according to a leader of the panel. The panel members included eight teachers and eight principals.

In 30 minutes the hearing was over and Kim was soon told she would not be coming back to Lakewood Elementary, one more defeat in what parent activists say has been a long, losing war to get useful information and have some influence when their children's teachers get into trouble.

Education officials throughout the Washington area, as well as the rest of the country, have been calling for more parental involvement in public education as the demand for better schools and better trained teachers increases. Recently the Maryland Board of Education voted to support a range of pro-parent initiatives, including evaluating teachers and administrators on how well they involved families in their work.

But school administrators who say they want parental involvement act very differently when parents ask questions about teachers. Parents whose children witness teacher abuse are typically barred from hearing the details of investigative findings, and decisions to fire popular teachers appear to be carried out with parent objections mostly ignored.

"As parents of children enrolled in the public school system, it seems that we're informed about issues that affect our children in one of three ways. Too late, too little, or not at all," said Tonye Gray of Wilmington, N.C., who is editor of The Public School Parent's Network Web site at psparents.net. "It's as if there is an unspoken, unwritten code of silence keeping us at arms length from being true participants in our children's education."

Montgomery County school officials say that they, like school administrators across the country, are handicapped because state public information laws and union contracts prevent them from telling any outsiders, including parents, the details of such cases. They say their decisions about teachers must be based on the law and judgments of professional educators, and not which teachers parents like.

The Kim case is one of the few instances in which a teacher being accused of incompetence agreed to have her case files, and supporting parental letters, made public. It provides an unusual look at the frustration generated by such cases, for both parents and educators.


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