This was written by Harold Kwalwasser, former general counsel of the Los Angeles Unified School District, an education consultant and writer in Washington D.C. He is the author of the upcoming book, “Renewal, A User’s Guide to Remaking American Schools for the 21st Century,” to be published by Rowman and Littlefield this fall.

By Harold Kwalwasser

Every time I think about the phrase “parental involvement” in elementary and secondary education, I am reminded of that wonderful porridge in the fable of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Like Goldilocks’ demand for her porridge, educators often want their parents “just right.” They don’t want them too activist. At that point, they start to think of parents as meddlesome control freaks, or shills for some undeserving child who will face a bad grade or some other punishment without a parental rescue.

But at the same time, educators don’t want parents uninvolved, particularly when it comes to convincing their kids about the benefits of education. Without that parental support, educators fret that they are incapable of stirring listless kids to take a real interest in their own learning.

In fact, one superintendent I interviewed for a book I just completed on education reform told me that he “did not have a parental outreach strategy” because he expected it would not likely yield good results, and he did not want to give his principals and teachers an excuse for why their children were not learning.

Unfortunately, there are simply not that many parents who are “just right.” And that is a problem for No Child Left Behind.

Ten years after NCLB’s passage, we know two things to be true. First, there is little evidence the obligations for parental consultation have improved the quality of education in Title I schools.

More importantly, there is no evidence that the process has stoked any kind of populist movement for school reform. That is not surprising since the money spent on parents has been insufficient to make the involvement genuinely robust enough to be effective. So, what the provisions have done is allow schools to build a façade of parental involvement without really disrupting their preference to deal with only those parents who are indeed “just right.”

The law has done no better with uninvolved parents. There are still legions of children who lack adequate support at home. No one thinks NCLB has done much to reduce the numbers. And nothing in Title I or elsewhere has pushed schools to find a Plan B: If whatever parental involvement efforts wind up failing, what are the schools going to do to ensure the social and emotional development of their students? It is as if those students are to be punished because, once again, their parents are not “just right.”

No new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, known in its current form as No Child Left Behind) is going to change educators’ attitudes any more than it is going to make some uninvolved parent suddenly take a great interest in his or her child. Some things one cannot mandate.

But there are some things that a new ESEA can do. First, it can entice school administrators and teachers to increase real parental involvement – even if that is not what they really, deep in their hearts, want to do. How?

An example: The Obama administration wants districts to follow one of four distinct strategies to overhaul failing schools. Rather than mandating the four, the law might afford districts the right to select their own strategy – provided it was adopted in a public referendum where at least a significant percentage of voters participated. Otherwise, Washington’s rules prevail. If a superintendent’s choice is to deal with her parents and voters or with Washington, she might well choose to deal with those she can shake hands with any day.

By giving districts the option to address this problem and potentially lots of other issues first through a process requiring broad parent participation, a new ESEA gives parents a new way to be involved, even if it gives greater control to those who are not “just right” in the eyes of administrators. Moreover, it bridges a difficult divide in Washington over the degree to which Washington should be able to dictate what happens on the ground. There is local control if the districts take advantage of the opportunity to act, and federal direction if they do not.

And when it comes to parents not supporting their kids, the law might give districts a greater incentive to develop a Plan B. The experience of some private, parochial, charter, and even some traditional public schools is that they do better when they acknowledge an institutional obligation to promote the social and emotional well-being of their children.

Indeed, the irony of asking school staff to take on such obligations is often that it actually significantly increases parental involvement. In Lawrence, Ma., for example, the district adopted a staff mentoring program in 2000. Not only did that give students a district adult to support them, it increased the likelihood their parents would become more involved. At the start of the effort, just 18 parents turned out for parents’ night. In 2009, it was 1800.

A new ESEA can authorize that money devoted to drug or crime prevention and special education may also be used for children’s social and emotional development, including, for example, district mentoring. No one doubts that a more motivated and confident child is less likely to get into trouble or seem impervious to learning. It is prevention rather than repair, and it is assuredly money well spent.

These ideas may not make the new ESEA “just right,” but we are getting closer.


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