Monday, September 08, 2008

Parents Getting Into the Mix On Improving Public Schools

Parents Getting Into the Mix On Improving Public Schools

By ELIZABETH GREEN, Staff Reporter of the Sun | September 8, 2008

Posted here.

Senators Obama and McCain have a panel of education advisers each, and there is no shortage of school administrators, union bosses, business leaders, and policy wonks who would very much like to be in those ranks.

A new group is urging the presidential candidates to pay attention to another constituency as they craft their education platforms: parents.

Led by two parent organizers — one in New York City and one in Chicago — this group says it's parents, not the unions, not the CEOs, and not even many of the academics, who have the right idea of how to improve public schools.

"There's a complete disconnect between what we're being told by the politicians and the businesspeople about what we should want schools to do, and what parents want schools to do," the executive director of the Chicago-based Parents United for Responsible Education, Julie Woestehoff, said. "But frankly what parents want schools to do is better for their children. They know best."

In hope of narrowing the gap, Ms. Woestehoff's group is issuing a several-page manifesto outlining its ideas for how to improve schools. Among the top suggestions of the document, titled "Common Sense Educational Reforms," are easing overcrowding; lowering class sizes; offering a more well-rounded curriculum, and increasing parental involvement.

The letter is co-authored by the executive director of the New York City-based advocacy group Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson, and has 75 signatures.

The prescriptions sharply contradict ideas recommended by two major groups this summer that were themselves at odds.

One of those groups, led by Chancellor Joel Klein, recommended tough accountability standards that would lead to the firing of bad teachers and the closing of failing schools; the other, called the Broader, Bolder Agenda, argued that accountability alone cannot dissolve the achievement gap — that additional investments in improving health care and after-school programs are required to do so.

The parents criticize both groups. They dismiss Mr. Klein's as offering only a beefed-up version of President Bush's unpopular No Child Left Behind law. Mr. Klein's prescriptions are "NCLB on steroids," the parents' letter says.

They also reject charter schools, which are embraced by Mr. Klein and his supporters as a means of giving opportunities to poor children. The Common Sense group says charter schools actually further exacerbate income disparities by admitting only children who can do well at their schools and leaving the rest to flounder.

Admission at charter schools is regulated by strict lotteries in New York, but the parents argue that only the savvy students apply to them, and they say that the schools encourage more troubled students to leave.

The parents' statement also criticizes the Broader, Bolder Agenda's argument that schools alone cannot end the achievement gap.

"We cannot and we should not give up on schools being able to make a really transformational difference in kids' lives," Ms. Haimson said.

In addition to parent organizers from New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, some teachers and academics signed the petition.

The director of a teacher training program for elementary schools at Columbia University's Teachers College, Celia Oyler, said she signed the petition because its concerns with standardized testing resonate with her experience.

"In New York City elementary schools, the pressure to raise children's standardized test scores has systematically stripped many of resources," Ms. Oyler said. "In too many classrooms, 'test prep' has become the curriculum."

Here is the letter written by Common Sense:

Dear Senators Obama and McCain:

We would like to congratulate you on your nominations for President. As public school parents and other stakeholders, we want to bring to your attention the critical need to improve the opportunities of millions of children throughout the country who attend markedly inferior schools that deny them an adequate chance to succeed.

We have read your education positions and believe that the concerns we raise and the proposals we suggest would help focus and strengthen your plans for improving our nation's schools.

In recent weeks, two different statements have been released by advocates, academics and elected officials, with very different perspectives about how to improve our nation's public schools, particularly for poor and minority students. The first statement called for even more high stakes testing, merit pay for teachers, competition, and charter schools, and pointed to the teachers unions as the major obstacles in achieving success.

We would call this approach NCLB on steroids. Rather than improving our schools, more high stakes testing and merit pay based on standardized test scores will likely further punish our neediest students, diminishing their educational experience and lead to even more teacher turnover, test prep, narrowing of the curriculum, and less time and effort given to authentic learning in their schools. It will also contribute to more test score inflation, meaning that students_ scores will no longer provide reliable evidence of their actual level of achievement.

The other new coalition of academics and advocates argues that although some educational programs should be supported, without major investments in health care and reducing poverty, it is wrong to ask schools alone to significantly narrow the achievement gap between ethnic and racial groups or improve outcomes for our neediest students.

Although we believe that as a society we should be doing more to expand healthcare and reduce income inequality, we also believe that this perspective significantly understates the potential for dramatic improvements, particularly in those schools that most minority and high-poverty students attend, and the need for critical reforms to enhance their chance of success.

The following are the improvements that we believe are necessary and would change the lives of literally millions of children throughout our country.

1- Safe and uncrowded schools with more counselors: Many of our students, particularly in urban areas, attend overcrowded schools in near third world conditions, contributing to a variety of disciplinary problems that make it difficult for them to learn, leading to more violence and higher dropout rates. In addition to less crowding, these schools often require many more guidance counselors; in many, there is only one counselor for six hundred or more students.

2- Smaller classes: Despite the abundant research that conclusively demonstrates that smaller classes can significantly narrow the achievement gap, poor and minority students continue to attend schools with much larger classes on average than those in wealthier districts, and thus are deprived of the individual attention they need to succeed. Small classes in all grades K-12 have been linked to more classroom engagement, more time on task, higher levels of achievement, and lower dropout rates. Moreover, in national surveys, educators throughout the country overwhelming say that reducing class size would be the most effective way to improve the quality of teaching in our public schools.

3- Adequate resources and teacher support to assure that all students receive a rich, well-rounded curriculum including the arts, physical education and project-based learning in a curriculum connected to their own lives and culture, with progress evaluated by high-quality, appropriate assessment tools that are primarily classroom-based.

4- More parental involvement: Studies show that the more involved parents are at the school level, the better the outcomes for students. And yet the top- down, corporate approach to school governance currently used in cities throughout the country such as Chicago and New York has consistently and systematically worked to eliminate the ability of parents to have a real voice in decision-making and thus to be true partners at the school and district level.

Competition, including charter schools and vouchers, has not and will not lead to a significantly better or more equitable public school system, just as it has not brought us better access to health care. In fact, the continued proliferation of charter and other schools requiring interviews and/or application processes risks creating wider disparities between the haves and have-nots; and what is often advertised as increased parental choice actually means the ability of such schools to exclude our neediest students. The last thing our nation needs is a "trickle down" educational system.

As a nation we have an overarching moral imperative to provide all our children with the same educational opportunities that our more advantaged public and private school students take for granted, including the right to attend a safe and uncrowded school with smaller class sizes, a rich, high-quality curriculum, and more parental involvement.

Until these goals have been achieved, we cannot and should not give up on the potential of schools to transform lives.

We urge you to recognize this imperative, and if elected president, do everything in your power to ensure that every child who grows up in this country has the opportunity to attend the sort of school he or she needs for a better chance to learn and succeed.

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