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January 11, 2010

The Parent Trigger: New Leverage for Parents

Originally posted at the National Journal's Education Experts blog, in response to the provocation: Under a provision known as the "parent trigger," if 50 percent of parents at a given California school sign a petition, the school board must choose among several options, including closing the campus, converting to a charter, or replacing the principal and other administrators.

Is the parent trigger a good idea? Did California make the right choice by adopting it, or should the state rely on other school improvement strategies?

The Parent Trigger is a fabulous idea!

Not because it will — by itself — turn around many of California's low-performing schools. But because it will change the conversation among parents, community activists, and school boards across the state.

Some years ago, I attended the Public Education Network's national conference. Darv Winick, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board at the time, said something to the attendees that surprised me given his position. It was to the effect that — at the end of the day, after all the laws are written and the regulations are promulgated — the schools in a community are about as good as the community wants them to be.

Now, we all know it’s more complicated than that. State and Federal policy certainly have a major impact on school quality.

But what makes the Parent Trigger such a great idea is that it provides a meaningful framework for parents to be involved in the struggle to bring quality education to their community. If a school really stinks, local organizers — parent activists, community-based organizations or clergy – can rally the parent community to consider the facts and consider "pulling the trigger."

The potential value of the Race to the Top grants is that they get everyone thinking and working together on priorities that are at the center of education improvement. And the potential value of the Parent Trigger is that it gets parents and community activists thinking about key questions like: How good is our school? What is good enough? If our school isn't good enough, what are we going to do about it?

The Parent Trigger provides a mechanism for parents and communities to have a larger ownership of education improvement. The way things stand now, education reform is almost completely "owned" by elected officials, business leaders and a certain class of activists. As Checker Finn describes in his recent National Affairs piece, the gulf between professional education reformers and parents is a major impediment to further progress.

When parents get involved, we can expect them to be concerned about more than just the standardized test scores that drive practically every aspect of accountability systems today. Among other things, they're going to be concerned about student safety, community values, the responsiveness of teachers and administrators, how engaged children are in school and the availability of after-school care. These things are important too. And it’s up to parent and community leaders to make sure that "how much our children are learning" remains a major component of the conversation.

Part of the value of the Parent Trigger is the potential to transform up to 75 low-performing California schools. (The California Legislature capped the number of schools that can be impacted by this program at 75.) But most of the value will be in the thousands of conversations that the trigger inspires between parents and community activists, and the new leverage that the trigger gives to parents when they deal with administrators and school boards.

Of course, for this value to be realized, parent leaders and community activists have to respond to this invitation to get involved. I hope they do!


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I hope you're right about the quality of the conversation that will occur. I have two main fears.

1). The conversation is not truly a dialogue among partners, but rather a set of demands brought by parents whose passions may be stoked by short term, personal concerns for which they seek long-term, systemic changes. Those changes are now less likely to be formulated and evaluated in an atmosphere conducive to good decision-making.

2). The conversation isn't really a conversation, but rather a signature gathering campaign, driven by a relatively small segment of the community, and likely stoked by outside elements like CMOs that stand to gain financially from the outcome.

I am a public school parent in addition to being a public school teacher. I have sympathy for parents who feel a school is not responding to their children's needs. I have also seen parents and community members become embroiled in controversies where passions run high and feelings are intense... for a while... until they're not. Then we look back and wonder what we were so worked up about. But at the height of the problem, could you have produced enough signatures to force an unnecessary change? Perhaps. I will also dare to say that parents don't always know best. Parents know their own children best, but a first-time high school parent might have some things to learn from those of us who have helped thousands of students through high school. Sometimes it takes a teacher/counselor with a more dispassionate long-term view to introduce a healthy alternative perspective. The epidemic of helicopter parents, and students lacking resiliency and a growth-mindset - these are starting points for that conversation, I think.

If the goal is really about dialogue and partnership, I have to think there are better frameworks than handing one set of stakeholders a trigger to pull on the others. Maybe this will provide a useful shake-up of the power monopoly currently held by school boards and the state, but if used unwisely, it will not lead to improved learning for students.

I'm the teacher and you are the parent. Let's both do our jobs to the best of our abilities.

When a parent can have me fired without being trained to do my job, then I want to be able to fire them as parents. It works both ways.

When a parent can have me fired without being trained to do my job, then I want to be able to fire them as parents. It works both ways.

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