Saturday, February 20, 2010


by Jay Matthews in the Class Struggle/Education blog of the Washington Post

February 19, 2010; 5:30 AM ET -- I have been exchanging emails with Gabe Rose, communications director of something called the Parent Revolution in my home state, California. Rose and his organization are part of a movement that has, to my open-mouthed amazement, persuaded the state government to give parents the power to close or change the leadership of low-performing public schools.

It sounds great. It has many parents excited. It could shake up the state educational establishment, including the education department, school boards and teacher unions. They could use some shaking up.

Yet I can't shake my feeling it is a bad idea, a confusing distraction that will bring parents more frustration, not less, and do little to improve their children's educations.

The parent trigger has become part of the state's proposal for federal money under President Obama's Race to the Top educational innovation plan. That shows how daring its sponsors are. The Obama administration didn't ask for anything like this. It could put a chill on California's chances for the big federal bucks, since the president of the California Federation of Teachers--big supporters of the president--has already called the parent trigger a "lynch mob" provision.
Here is how it works:

If a school's average test scores are low, parents may circulate a petition demanding one of a set of options set out in the law, including closing the school, turning it into a charter school or firing or reorganizing the staff. If 51 percent of the school's families, or 51 percent of a larger group of parents whose children are on track to attend the school, sign the petition, the change takes place unless the school district can persuade the state to choose a different option because the parents' solution is impossible or harmful.

The law says no more than 75 schools will be subject to the trigger. That is still a lot since the number of schools that have undergone this process in America so far is zero.

Rose and I agree that getting that 51 percent will be very hard to do. He thinks that is good, because "no school will have a chance at hitting such a high metric unless there is extremely broad parental consensus around whatever change they want."

I think it is bad because it will lead some of us parents interested in politics to use some of the worst tricks of the game, like distorting data, ignoring information contrary to our argument, offering material inducements, you name it, in order to get that 51 percent. It is likely to split the parents into factions, since not all will agree on the solution they want to support.

Most importantly, at the end of the process parents will be even more cynical and disheartened about our education system than they already are. Here are some likely scenarios, and what conclusions parents will reach because of them:

1. They fail to reach agreement on what to say in petition. Likely conclusion: This community just can't get its act together.

2. They fail to collect the 51 percent of signatures. Likely conclusion: The school district bought off those parents on the next block with a big party. Or, this parent trigger was just a scheme to make us waste our energies on a dead end. Or, this community just can't get its act together.

3. By some miracle they get the 51 percent, but the district persuades the state to reject their chosen solution as unworkable or bad policy. Likely conclusion: We did all this work, passed the test, and the system still ignored us.

4. They get the 51 percent, the change is made, and it doesn't work. Likely conclusion: The law was flawed from the beginning. They didn't tell us how rarely reorganizing or firing the staff works.

The two options in the trigger that have in my view the best chance for success---closing the school so parents can transfer to better schools or turning the school into a charter---are the least likely to happen because closing the school would seem inconvenient to petition signers and it would likely be difficult for them to find a charter organization willing to commit to taking the school over.

Rose makes one reasonable point: "Just the threat of a trigger, even if it's never pulled, will give parents enormous bargaining power vis-a-vis the district and other powerful interests," he said.

That makes sense to me, at least at the beginning. But if the first few attempts to trigger change end in failure, the establishment's fear of this tool will diminish rapidly.

I think parents would be better off if we relieve them of the burden of fixing their local schools and instead create systems where they have a wide choice of schools in their localities. We parents don't know much about how to make a school better. But we know more than anyone else about what our children need and haven't gotten from their schools so far. The proposals in a recent Brooking Institution report for making every school in each district available to every family would take us further than the parent trigger.

Nonetheless, the trigger idea may spread. Education blogger Alexander Russo says legislators have introduced it in Connecticut. Its successful passage in our most populous state will have an impact.

I wish legislators would stop wasting their time on schemes that won't work and instead forge solutions for the many parents who find state laws in their way when they try to get more information about their school and its personnel. State privacy laws keep parents from knowing what abusive teachers are doing in their classrooms if the abuse is not directed at their child. State education department Web sites usually have little information on the relative level of challenge in state high schools. The data on crime incidents in schools is particularly distorted.

I like Rose and his organization. I wish them luck. Maybe my fears and doubts will be proven groundless. Maybe just getting parents together to fix their schools will bring improvements even if they fail to pull the trigger. But the parents I know whose children attend low-performing schools already have very busy lives. I am not sure many of them have time for this.

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