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Ken Robinson — education expert, author, TED Talker — and Ted Dintersmith, education activist and author, urge parents to be prepared for back-to-school night. It’s a perfect time to talk to the teachers and really dig deep into what is expected of your children this year. Here are their tips.  

With the new school year upon us, parents will be attending a back-to-school night at their child’s school. Many ask us, “What questions should I be asking?” Here are seven you might explore with your child’s teachers and principal. We hope they’ll shed light on what to expect during the coming year and provide constructive food for thought for you and your school’s educators.

  1. In what ways will my child’s learning be connected to the real world? Too often, students don’t see how school assignments relate to their lives outside school. Their engagement can soar when they see how those assignments help with other activities they enjoy. If they love singing, for example, how can writing exercises help them with composing lyrics? If they love sports, how can math assignments help them create interesting team statistics? What’s even better is if your school gives children the opportunity to collaborate on practical projects that they know will make their world better.
  2. How will my child be assessed? Assessment is meant to inform and support your child’s learning and development. That’s less likely to happen if the school’s assessments are only in the form of numeric or letter grades that hinge on a child’s ability to commit material to short-term memory. To what extent will your child be assessed on creative or analytic written work, in-depth exploration of intellectual interests, completing complicated projects, or generating thought-provoking questions? Will assessments encourage a student to take risks and make productive mistakes, and allow them to produce original work of which they’re proud?
  3. To what extent will my child be setting their own goals? Students who set their own goals can develop a sense of personal agency and responsibility that will serve them well as adults. And they’re likely to be more motivated as learners. Even children in the earliest grades can rise to this challenge. Explore whether your school is open to letting students set their own goals, and take part in wider discussions about how the school is run and the activities it provides.
  4. How important is student engagement in this class/school? Bored students are less likely to learn well. Teachers know this and want their students to find school interesting. But how will your school determine whether students are engaged? Would they be willing to periodically poll students anonymously to gauge their interest in specific classes and activities or excitement about coming to school? Would the school be willing to change its approach — in teaching, curriculum and assessment — based on that information?
  5. What skills and mind-set should my child be developing in this class? During this school year? The saying “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there” applies to education. Ask teachers and principals about the skills and mind-set they want students to develop. Consider how you would answer this question, as well. Do you want your child to be a creative problem solver? To be a good communicator? To be able to work on a team? To be able to figure out complicated, ambiguous problems? To have empathy? To be on a path to responsible citizenship? Make your own list before back-to-school night. How will the coming school year help your child develop these skills and attitudes? How will your school know that progress is being made?
  6. What is our school’s approach to ensuring a healthy and supportive environment for children? In any environment, including school, unhealthy dynamics can unfold. And social media can turn small issues into huge crises — to the point of putting lives at risk. How is your school thinking about social and emotional learning? What do educators look for as early warning indicators? What are the respective roles of educators and parents when an unhealthy dynamic starts to unfold? It’s far better to clarify these issues before they arise, when no one is emotional or defensive and when preemptive measures can have a positive impact.
  7. How much time will my child spend preparing for and taking standardized tests? Unfortunately, education in the United States still largely revolves around standardized tests. Do not blame your teachers for this. The tests are imposed by state and federal mandates, not by teachers. There is a lot of criticism within the education community about the value, impact and validity of these tests. Educators know the flaws of the assessments and struggle with being held accountable by them, and with their impact on students and their families. If you share their concerns, ask how parents can play a constructive role in reducing the impact of these tests. Parents can have more influence than teachers with state legislators, so encourage your parent community to call members of your state legislature, particularly those on the education committee. Tell them, “If you’re going to determine how my child is assessed, and hold their teachers accountable for the results, we need to understand what’s being tested and why.” If they argue that the tests are essential and well-founded, you might challenge them to take the tests themselves and publish the results. If they refuse, press them to say why. After all, good chefs should always be willing to eat their own cooking.

Finally, keep in mind that parents should be supportive and helpful to a school’s educators, but they can also be disruptive and negative. Stay positive. Recognize how hard the great majority of teachers work, how much they care about their students and how — all too often — they’re struggling to make financial ends meet. You’re not necessarily helping when you only complain about your child’s grades or that your child’s school experience is different from yours (it probably should be). Elevate the discussion and work as a team to ensure that your child is learning what really matters, in a safe and supportive environment.

Robinson is the author of “You, Your Child and School: Navigate Your Way to the Best Education.” Dintersmith is the author of “What School Could Be.”

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