Jay Mathews

Educators Resist Even Good Ideas From Outsiders

By Jay Mathews
Monday, January 12, 2009

With two massive parental revolts nearing victory in Fairfax County, and mothers and fathers elsewhere in the area plotting similar insurgencies, it is time to disclose a great truth about even the best educators I know: As much as they deny it, they really don't like outsiders messing with the way they do their jobs.

I don't like that either. Do you? We know what we are doing. Most other folks don't. We are polite to outsiders, but only to mollify them so we can hang up and get back to work.

The problem is that schools, unlike most institutions, are handling parents' most precious possessions, their children. That aggravates the emotional side of the discussion. It makes it more likely that smart educators are going to write off parents as interfering idiots, even if they actually have a good idea and data to prove it.

I was a school parent for 30 years. The last kid graduated from college in 2007, but a grandchild has just appeared. That sound you hear is California teachers muttering at the thought of me at their door, brimming with helpful suggestions. I know how this works. The school people smile and nod, but nothing happens. Sure, some parent ideas are daft. But important queries are also shrugged off.

I wrote two years ago about public schools' routine refusal to share information about bad teaching with parents of affected children. The schools say the law requires them to stay mum, but some experts disagree. Private schools are even worse. Many parents ask me for information on the Advanced Placement programs at expensive institutions. But those well-regarded schools refuse to release statistics and sniff at parents who seem to think they should be able to compare actual data, as if they were buying a car or health insurance.

I asked some veteran parent activists who have passed my truth tests many times what they have found most annoying about these brushoffs. John Hoven, an advocate for gifted education in Montgomery County, said he joined a parent-staff committee to reach consensus on vital issues but after a year saw it was just a bureaucratic shuffle. The committee chairman, who worked for the county, encouraged trivial agenda items and insisted on formal presentations that left little time for discussion.

Dick Reed, a two-time PTA president in Fairfax, used a commercial metaphor to describe how parents and educators diverge: "People in the school system see the students as their customers, rather than their true customers -- those who pay the bills."

The two Fairfax battles are perfect examples. A parent-led group called SLEEP, for Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal, wants teens to get more rest. Another parent-led group, Fairgrade, wants the county's unforgiving grading standards aligned with other jurisdictions so their kids would not be handicapped in the competition for college admission and scholarships.

Sandy Evans, a SLEEP co-founder, said: "We kept getting told, 'It can't be done; we've looked at this many times; it's impossible.' We were told the buses couldn't be rescheduled without incurring huge added costs." The parents didn't give up. Five years later, transportation planners say there is a way to get rolling later at no extra cost.

Fairgrade co-founder Megan McLaughlin, a former Georgetown University admissions officer, thought officials would be interested in her view that the county's narrow grading scale and lack of extra grade points for honors classes was hurting Fairfax kids. Instead, she said, her credentials were ignored, an out-of-date study was cited as gospel and a school board member said her complaint was "not a majority concern among parents." Now she has 8,500 parent signatures and a new county report that opens the way for extra grade points, and maybe everything else Fairgrade wants if it keeps pushing. The county says it wants to keep its grading system to fight grade inflation, a losing cause if there ever was one. Only independent national grading systems, like AP, International Baccalaureate, ACT and SAT, keep us honest.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale praises SLEEP for "creating and supporting a community consensus on their issue." Fairgrade, in his view, has been more erratic, refusing at the last minute to sign a report it had helped the county write. Dale and other administrators say they cannot get in sync quickly with all these new ideas because they have to protect that ally of all leaders under siege, the Silent Majority, who might not be so keen to change school hours and grades but don't have time to sign petitions or send e-mails.

I think I speak for most parents when I say we would appreciate a more willing suspension of disbelief when we pitch a suggestion and an openness to data before school officials make up their minds. Is that going to happen? I doubt it. And if you don't like this column, well, you're just ignorant.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com

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