Last month, I wrote that parents don't yet understand the power they have under the new No Child Left Behind law passed by Congress last year ["More Parent Power: New Law Pledges Details on Needy Schools," Jan. 2]. For example, parents whose children are in schools that receive federal Title I funding will be notified if their child has a teacher for more than four weeks who is considered not highly qualified, and they will have the power to ask that their child be transferred into the classroom of a teacher who is considered highly qualified. The following is a response.
I am a reading specialist in Prince George's County, and I have been in this school system for 10 years. My question to those people who feel that this power parents will soon possess is the cure-all to the problems in the public schools is, what are schools going to do when you have a class of 35 students with a teacher whom parents deem "unqualified" and they all want to move their kids to another class?
Furthermore, when is someone going to hold these parents accountable for their children's progress? These parents are supposedly concerned but will allow their children who are deficient in major subject areas to become even more deficient by not supporting them at home or trying to reinforce what teachers are doing in the classroom, because they feel that everything should be done at school.
We are paid next to nothing and treated like glorified babysitters, which demeans our profession (yes, we are professionals). Now parents are going to be given the right to pry into what should be personal information. As usual, instead of placing the blame where it belongs -- on many sources -- teachers are being made the scapegoats for the problems in public schools.
Teachers have students for one year. Parents are with them throughout their school years, but they couldn't possibly be the problem! Until teachers are paid a decent living and given more respect, you will have more unqualified people coming in because the qualified people will be leaving to find jobs where they are valued and compensated for the work that they do.
You are expressing the frustration many teachers feel, and it is completely understandable.
However, I have to disagree with you when you say that parents are going to be given the right to pry into what should be personal information. Parents are not going to have the right to pry into what I would consider personal information, such as marital status, hobbies and medical conditions, but into professional information, such as college and university degrees, major areas of study and years of experience.
This is not a small point. It gets at another of your arguments, which is that teachers are professionals. Professionals -- such as lawyers and doctors -- post their credentials on their office walls for anyone to inspect. What makes a job a profession is standard training and some kind of accountability mechanism, controlled by members of the profession, to make sure that the practitioner is working according to standards.
Even then, the public is wise to carefully question the credentials of professionals and critically evaluate their work.
To take the example of the medical profession, all doctors are trained in such a way that the worst doctor in the country knows the basics of human anatomy, the etiology and progression of common diseases, types of medicines used to treat various illnesses and when a condition requires more specialized care than a general medical practice can provide. In addition, all doctors are expected to practice medicine according to professionally set standards of care. There are mechanisms (admittedly sometimes faulty) to ensure that they do.
Even with all that, patients are wise to study the diplomas and certificates posted on their doctors' walls and question doctors' judgments if they think circumstances warrant it.
But there is no standard professional training of teachers: Every college and university has its own standards, and many of them are pretty lame. As a result, teachers come to the job knowing a lot about the neuroscience of learning and brain development -- or nothing. They come knowing a lot about reading and math -- or nothing. They come knowing a lot about how to manage a classroom of 20 or 30 kids -- or nothing. They come knowing a lot about the latest research in their discipline -- or nothing.
To truly be considered a profession, teachers need, among other things, to make sure every member of their profession knows the kinds of things teachers must know to be effective. The teachers unions have made some baby steps in this direction, but they haven't gotten far. The new federal law may give the process a welcome boost.
Parents as Partners
I wholeheartedly agree with your summation in the Jan. 30 Homeroom ["Students May Make the Grade, but Their State Test Scores Don't"] that grading and expectations in Prince George's County deserve closer attention. The question now becomes how to ramp up the discussion.
My son is a third-grade student in the talented and gifted magnet program within Prince George's County. My attempts to question the curriculum planning, educational targets, course objectives etc. have been met too many times with referral to 60 pages of text on the Web site, no response from educators, and with disdain and sarcasm at the administrative level.
When I schedule and appear to meet with my son's teacher, she seems extremely surprised and has even said on more than one occasion, "You don't need to meet with me, [your son] is doing great!"
Unfortunately, it seems that Prince George's County schools don't yet have a clear expectation for themselves, much less the students they serve. Those students who consistently do well and excel on state-mandated tests are ignored.
Stimulating academic experiences, challenging work assignments, invigorating and interactive lessons are rarely utilized for these types of students. It seems that the overall goal is to speak to those who don't excel academically. Mandatory summer school is just one example of this.
As a parent, I continuously and consistently struggle with how to ensure that my son gets the best academic opportunities and education while remaining in Prince George's County. The A's on report cards and high scores on standardized tests are only a temporary diversion from this battle between my expectations as a parent, the reality of the Prince George's educational system and my sincere wishes and desire for my son to be a "true" academic success story.
You are expressing the frustration many parents feel, and it is completely understandable.
Here you are, apparently ready, willing and able to support your child's academic life as you are continually told you should, and yet you feel stymied by what you perceive as a lack of interest on the part of the school.
I'd be interested in hearing from parents and teachers on this subject. Do you have any suggestions for this parent?
My preliminary suggestions run along the following lines: Many teachers are unprepared by their academic or professional training to fully incorporate parents as partners, and parents need to be mindful that their attempts to be helpful can be seen as intrusive or even disruptive.
So you need to think about how much effort you want to put into this. If you have the time, you could try to volunteer on a regular basis and offer to do the scut work that no teacher really has time to do, such as photocopying, cutting paper and hanging student work on the walls. Or, if you don't have the time to volunteer during the day, you could offer to do chores in the evening that many elementary school teachers need done. By making it clear you want to help, you may be able to convince your son's teacher that you really are a partner and gain her trust.
On another level, you should try to participate in your school's School Improvement Team. Every school has one, and it is supposed to be the engine of improvement. When I read your letter to Ronald Peiffer, deputy superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education, he agreed with this suggestion.
"The School Improvement Team is probably the best course of action," he said.
For more information about how the School Improvement Plan is supposed to work, go to mdk12.org/process/index.html.
I'd love to hear from people who are serving on such teams: Have you found them useful or just another source of frustration?
Homeroom, which appears every other week, is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, Prince George's Extra, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20072. The fax number is 301-952-1397; the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
www.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.