Patrick A. Hope, a 39-year-old health-care lawyer and member of the Virginia House of Delegates, recently observed his daughter learning to read at Barrett Elementary School in Arlington County.
It was just an hour, he said, but “I found it incredibly rewarding to watch my child in this environment, and it gave me ideas and techniques to continue advancement at home.”
So when he saw my columns about school districts discouraging such observations, he decided to do something. He added this sentence to his House Bill No. 400 on education:
“Local school boards shall adopt and implement policies to ensure that the parent or legal guardian of a student or prospective student enrolled in the school division may, subject to reasonable notice and with minimized disruption, act as an observer in the child’s classroom.”
I don’t expect Hope’s bill to get far. This is only his second term as a delegate. He is a Democrat, the minority party. The Virginia Education Association, which represents teachers, is likely to oppose anything that contradicts the popular notion that parents are an unnecessary distraction in the classroom.
What Hope has done is still remarkable, for legislators — as well as journalists — rarely pay attention to little school administration habits and traditions that seem trivial but are no less frustrating to parents. They include slow response to complaints, vague privacy rules that keep parents in the dark about classroom problems and reluctance to let parents observe classes.
When I write about the resistance to observations, veteran educators I respect often ask me what the big deal is. In an era of deep budget cuts and oppressive testing, why am I wasting space on this? One commenter on my blog said, “I can’t believe out of all of the things wrong with public education, that keeping a few helicopter parents happy is worth bashing a very good school district.”
This is a common, and unhelpful, point of view. The image of helicopter parents hovering over their children and denying them a chance to grow up is at odds with reality. The National Survey of Student Engagement shows that students with actively involved parents have better experiences in college. Those of us who have been school parents know that the mothers and fathers most likely to attend all the events, volunteer at the school and show up at games on weekends are also most likely to be positive influences, both on their children and on the school.
But for some reason, at many schools, such parents aren’t allowed to watch their children learn. It is hard to find written rules on observations, making resistance to them that much more difficult to change. Whether to allow observations is left up to individual schools and, sometimes, individual teachers.
Hope said he didn’t like that inconsistency or the odd explanations for banning observations.
School administrators often say, in essence, “We’d be swamped if we let everyone do that.” In fact, very few parents seek the opportunity. Some schools say they lack the staff to handle any parent observations, neglecting to mention that their stance is based on the odd assumption that every parent needs an official escort for every second they are inside the building.
Parents denied observations are never told that there are no set rules and that other schools allow them.
“The more I investigated,” Hope said, “the more I realized that most public schools allow this, so it troubled me that some schools decided on their own they didn’t think this was very important. So we have a concept that is accepted as a positive, but not all schools, for various reasons, choose to follow.”
State legislatures probably won’t order local school districts to let parents observe. Still, why don’t the districts do it anyway? They have great teachers. What harm could come from letting the people who care most see that?
For previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to postlocal.com.