Some parents would still like to see what their kids do in class, or even observe the daily routine before enrolling them in a new school. Such requests are usually rejected. Parents are told in-class observations are too distracting, too cumbersome, or violate student or teacher privacy — even though few schools ever try them.
Individual school districts may allow observations but often just 15 minutes or so. The nonpartisan Education Commission of the States, a policy organization headquartered in Denver, said it could locate only three states — California, Washington and Michigan — that explicitly gave parents the right to observe classroom activities. Some states allow parents to observe children with disabilities or disciplinary problems, but that’s it.
My eldest child once attended a school where the innovative principal allowed observations. I watched my 10th-grader grill a math teacher on several fine points of a lesson. I was grateful for the chance to see he didn’t need any help from me in his studies.
When parents complain about being denied a chance to see what’s going on in class, I wonder about the fairness of letting a stranger like me, by virtue of being an education writer, spend time in hundreds of schools taking notes about what other people’s kids, and their teachers, are doing.
I once interviewed a parent who persuaded the Fairfax County, Va., school district to let him sit in the back of his children’s classrooms for one full day each year. He got past the no-observations rule because he was respected, and maybe feared, for being an attorney who helped the Parent Teacher Student Association deal with money issues. He didn’t think his presence distracted anybody. The few students who knew him smiled or waved but then ignored him.
He was fascinated by the contrast between what he had heard about certain teachers and what he saw in class. “In some cases, teachers with wildly positive reps were, in my opinion, barely competent, albeit entertaining, and teachers with drab or mildly negative reps were, in my opinion, doing an excellent job,” he said.
Getting permission to observe classes is even harder for mothers and fathers who want a firsthand look at how children are taught before selecting a school.
A couple I know took the standard tour at a public school famous for having everyone reading by the end of kindergarten. They asked to sit quietly in a class for an hour or so to get a better sense of the place. Absolutely not, the school said.
When another couple I know took a tour at a popular private preschool, they also asked if they could observe a class for an hour. During the tour they had seen one child hitting another without any staff intervening. They wanted to make sure that was just an anomaly. The school director not only denied their request but also said she was so troubled by their attitude that she was tearing up their application.
Joost Sluis, a retired electronics technician in Mokena, Ill., said recently in a letter to the Wall Street Journal that “it was the video of remote learning that stimulated parents to object to school abuses. For many years our schools have worked to keep parents out of the classroom.”
He told me that his wife observed the classes of one of their children and that that helped her become close to the teachers and staff.
Thomas Hatch, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, said, “I’ve seen schools, usually elementary schools, employ a variety of strategies to encourage parents to visit their classrooms, in some cases inviting parents to drop their children off in their classrooms, staying and even participating in early-morning activities.” He said he also thinks one reason parents rely so much on standardized test scores is because so many schools make it difficult “to go inside schools and see what and how children are learning.”
Some of the people angry at schools these days may find classroom observations neither helpful nor relevant to their complaints. Some educators say such visits are intrusive.
Jeremy Gilbert is principal of Highland Park High School near Dallas. His well-regarded school is known to Dodgers fans like me because it produced Clayton Kershaw and Kershaw’s high school buddy Matthew Stafford, now quarterback of the L.A. Rams. Gilbert’s district limits observations to 15 minutes. He said he has yet to receive a parental visit request as a high school principal.
“The school classroom is a sacred community that a teacher spends countless hours nurturing and cultivating” to “create a safe and risk-free learning environment for all students,” Gilbert told me. “Students will surely act differently if a parent is in the classroom as they are . . . not part of the climate-building process the students and teachers enjoy.
“Most of the families that I work with do not want other parents in the classroom because they do not want the disruption,” he said. “I am not wanting to try this experiment because in a school like mine, once the gate is open to the classrooms we would have 1,000 requests.”
I think he is wrong about that. I said in this newspaper in 2011 that Arlington County, Va., a district similar to Highland Park, allowed parents to observe for an hour or so. That did not spark a rush of parents to apply for the opportunity.
Gilbert and I agree on what may be a significant barrier to parents visiting classrooms. Their children, fearing embarrassment, are likely to forbid it. “I threaten my own high-school-aged son that I am going to visit his class when he starts acting up,” Gilbert said.
Perhaps only the bravest parents would ask to sit quietly near the back and learn from what they see and hear. So why not give at least them a chance to do that?