Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Half Baked Idea for School Reform (part II)

My initial idea about school reform is here which basically amounts to nothing more than getting parents in the classroom. I thought about this idea for the past couple of days and now it's time to flush it out a bit more.

I can think of a couple of problems with my idea:

1) What about parents with more than one child - especially when the children are too young for school. These parents would not be easily available to help in the classroom.

2) What about parents who because of work obligations can't get help.

3) What about marginal parents. I am sure there are some parents who would simply not be good in the classroom.

Well, first let's start with the obvious. If in a classroom with say 20 or 30 kids in attendance. Let's say every parent with school age children, that could volunteer as a teacher's aid in the classroom did. My first question, since I simply do not know, would teachers be accepting of this help? My second question is, how many parents could we get in the classroom - certainly we could get at least a few, right - and that would be huge. And even if a parent had multiple school age children and wanted to be in both classrooms, the teacher would at least get this parent a couple of times a week. (By the way, my next door neighbor volunteers at an inner city school in Phoenix once a week - so I know this sort of thing is possible and valued).

Now, if we were sending our kids to publics school, my wife would not be one of those parents (or me certainly) who could easily be in the classroom - with a newborn and a two year-old in toe. But let's increase the numbers slightly. What if (once our newborn got older) we could get a babysitter a couple of times a week - say we split time with another parent who also had young kids. This would increase the level of participation.

Let's expand this idea even more. Let's say the school, in an expansive attempt to get as many parents on the campus as possible, started to accommodate parent volunteers with younger children - say a mother with a slinged newborn could come in the classroom and maybe a day care or pre-school was part of the school where the two year old could be temporarily deposited.

Finally, what about single parents who have to work? Well, why not hire them to be teacher's aids in the classroom? This is a bit tricky and would only work for marginally paid single parents - since I just can't imagine a scenario where we could pay them very well to do this. And it's tricky because you would want other parents who didn't need to work to do the exact same classroom work for free.

But this used to be the way things were to some extent at least.

Consider this passage in this book about the near poor in America, some of whom have been pushed off of the welfare rolls because of the welfare reform bill passed during the Clinton presidency in the 1990's. This book is a bit dated - now with near 10% unemployment, many of these people have probably been pushed back into the realm of the unemployed and poor.

Here's the passage about a mother, Danielle, who used to volunteer at her children's inner city school:

Danielle used to do much more for her children. Until she started her workfare job, she was the treasurer of their school's PTA and she spent nearly thirty hours a week volunteering there. It was a labor of love but also a cause of frustration. Sometimes only ten people would show up for meetings - in a school of seven hundred kids. Though Danielle found plenty to gripe about, she wasted no time mustering a constructiive response. Making a difference at P.S. 57 became her mission.

Ironically, it was her very freedom from work that allowed Danielle to become a fixture at the school. Because she didn't have to clock in at an office, barely a day went by in the late nineties when she wasn't at the school, working in the library, going over PTA accounts, helping out with playground or lunchroom supervision. She visited with the teachers, became a conspicuous adult presence during dismissal, dropped in on the principal most mornings as kids climbed off the school buses, and made sure that she was present to fight for the cause at every District Five school board meeting. For someone fighting depression, her devotion was impressive.

It was also pragmatic. 'If you're not involved with what's goin' on behind doors, then you don't know what's behind [them],' she reasoned. She has seen teachers yank kids by their clothes, push them against the wall, and scream at the top of their lungs. By inserting herself into the school hierarchy, Danielle made sure she could protect her own.

Danielle's proactive presence at P.S. 57 was not without its detractors. Whenever her name came up, school security guards would roll their eyes skyward. Some of the Latino parents thought she was high-handed. Even the PTA president, someone Danielle worked with fairly closely, denounced her on occasion. 'Are you a crackhead or something?' Yvonne, the president, yelled down the corridor during one of their dramas. When Danielle retored with an equally unpleasant rejoinder, Yvonne told her in no uncertain terms whose ass she could kiss. The whole incident left Danielle so steamed that she considered quitting the PTA and pulling her kids out of P.S. 57. In the end she decided against it. The school had become her avocation. She knew enough about its inner workings to guarantee a certain level of attention for her kids, and she couldn't give up that advantage. Still, the episode taught Danielle that you can't rely on anyone but yourself. Nobody covers your back. On the other hand, nobody covers your kids either. That's a mother's job.

Until welfare reform pushed them into the labor force, mothers on welfare like Danielle were the mainstay of many Harlem elementary schools. They were the helpers whom every school depended on to keep things on track. In middle-class suburban schools, this 'job' falls to nonworking moms (and a few dads) who organize bake sales, publicize the school play, ride along on the bus when kids take field trips, and drum up class representatives for as many grades as they can manage. Principals and teachers depend on these parents to keep the institution running, and in big cities, where budgets are always tight, they have become ever more important for maintaining basic order.

When there is no money for official, paid classroom aides, non-working moms - often on public assistance in poor communities - do what Danielle did. They watch the hallways and the lunchroom and pitch in during bus-boarding time, dismissal, and those Friday afternoons when, to hear Danielle tell it, the whole school goes 'off the hook.' They make sure that kids return the forms that qualify them for free lunches, which provide nutrition that is better than what many families can afford.

Welfare reform put an end to this volunteer workforce. Danielle and thousands of other mothers like her now spend their days toiling at the office or sweeping the city park and struggle to find the energy to get to evening school meetings when they can. Their days as hallway monitors are over."

This is the unintended consequences of welfare reform - it drove single parents out of the schools and weakened their influence over their children's lives. Granted not all parents took advantage of welfare to engage in the community and in their children's schools, but certainly some did.

Why not reform this reform? Pay parents who are willing to volunteer in their children's school. Why not provide society support to keep mother's actively involved in their children's lives. I guess what I'm suggesting is that we as a society should reform our schools in ways that encourage parents to get on the campus and in the classroom of the schools their children attend. Because, really, nobody is motivated to teach a child like that child's mother.

My third and final post on this subject will propose an even more radical idea for school reform.


H said...

Oh Scott, I love that you're an idealist. It makes me crazy, but I love it.

From a charter school perspective- one where 40hours/ school year of volunteer hours are supposedly "required", I can tell you that it doesn't happen. The hours are honor based and even parents that have chosen a school, drive their children there, provide their own lunches, and sign a form saying they will donate their time, do not.

Did that make sense? Basically, even committed parents don't actually do what they say they are going to do. It may be because nobody is checking up on them. Maybe they don't feel needed or wanted. Maybe there is not enough structure or follow through on getting their assistance. OR maybe they are intimidated by other parents on campus or in meetings. I've seen and felt it all these last 3 years. I still fight, but I'm a bit like Danielle in that I won't give up to better my child's educational experience. Who knows, maybe I come off as a crackhead too :)

Sara said...

From what I've heard about that school I'm pretty sure it's because there is not enough "structure or follow through" on the volunteer issue! Over there at Ward they run a tight ship and track those hours...

So come on H and April, you're already running enough over there but get on too of those volunteers already!

tempe turley said...


Thanks for your comments. But I see a growing home school population that would, in some sense, provide a counter-argument to your perceptions.

I think what's at issue is that societal expectations have embedded themselves so firmly in the way schools work.

You just send your kids off to school and pick them up at the end of it. Help them with homework and all's done.

But I think if we could change the culture just a little bit - that parents really are primarily responsible for the education of the very beings they brought into this world.

That schools are there to support the parent not the other way around.

If that paradigm shift could be pushed a little more in that direction - I would hope more parents would be willing to do more.

But the school would have to adjust to accommodate that help. I don't know since we're not a part of it, but my suspicion is that the schools are a bit resistant to a lot of parental intrusion.

I would be interested to know more.

H said...

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the parents that want to participate are trying to. The ones that try and can't, yes, are probably not being welcomed by the school. The schools that demand volunteer hours and track them rigidly can not be compared to public school because they kick the parents (and the kids) out if they don't comply. Our charter school is very lenient, to a fault, but I feel that makes it feel more like a public school. Did you know a charter school can't actually compel you to pay the amount you commit to at the beginning of the year? They are public, so they have to let you stay. We actually have several homeless children attending our school. I think that is pretty awesome. I don't care who they are, nor do I care who is not pulling their weight on the volunteer hours or tuition. It is what it is and we do the best that we can.
And I do believe that there are people out there that are taking charge of their children's education. Everyone does it a different way and for us to judge which way is optimal isn't fair to anyone. There are several different types of online schools now and one sounds like what you are talking about, Scott. The classes are online and they students go in once a week for guidance from a teacher. Otherwise, the parents and students are primarily responsible for the work getting done.

Honestly, I think we are all missing the big picture here... LIFELONG LEARNERS!!! It doesn't matter how much I contribute to my child's education, if he or she does not want to learn it does no good. My goal, as a parent, should be to encourage them to learn no matter where they are or who is teaching them. Every interaction we have with any person, place or thing is an opportunity to learn. I don't know how I learned that but I feel I take that to heart for the most part. I turned out alright and was raised by a single working mother who rarely entered my classroom, never helped with my homework, and certainly didn't have input in my high school curriculum. Maybe I'm an exception, but I doubt it.

tempe turley said...


I agree with you here. Stepping back with you, I'm responding to the fact that our Arizona legislature is probably going to be cutting school funding to balance the budget. I'm also responding to the fact that our schools already don't have enough money - especially in less affluent districts.

And even if the money was there, I'm not completely sure it's easy or even possible to find enough good teachers at pretty low salaries to run our nation's classrooms at a student/teacher ratio that's suitable to provide kids with enough individual attention I feel is necessary.

The core of my half-baked idea is that if we hire fewer teachers, pay them more and then supplement them with parents in the classroom who have extra motivation to see their kids learn, we may be able to get a better situation than our current approach.

Admittedly this is a half-baked idea. :-)

By the way, I'm also generally focused on the elementary years where it's so critical to build a foundation for lifelong learning. And it's also the time where some kids get left behind in some subjects and then end up abandoning the subject altogether. I think as the child approaches high school, they probably can be more self-directed and would be more able to rely on peers and less willing to rely on parents :-).

(Those kids who believe they aren't that good at math probably just weren't taught the subject well at a young age).

I generally agree that no matter what the environment some kids will learn and prosper. And many (most?) are involved as much as they are able.

And obviously, I don't expect every (or most) parents to be able to spend 20-30 hours a week at school.

But even if a small percentage of the parents were willing I think that would make a huge difference.

H said...

Well, as typical, it took quite a bit back and forth for me to figure out where you were coming from. I have so many thoughts on pay scales, but the bottom line is that it's just too hard to figure out in a public setting with such a tight budget to work with. You need to be willing to spend more on seasoned teachers that are making a difference, and cut loose the ones that aren't cutting it.
I understand what you are saying about kids being left behind, but don't you see that more now that in years past? (Like when we were little) Scott, they've pushed things so far up in school in some make believe effort to keep up with I don't know who. It's sad really. Kindergarten used to be a place for learning to get along with others, now you're behind if you can't read by spring break. It's heartbreaking to me. While some children may be ready to read, others are not and they are getting lost in the shuffle. That's why the system is failing, the system is pushing too hard. I have had countless conversations about this very thing with so many concerned parents, aunts, teachers, etc. And don't even get me started with "my baby can read". Ugh.

H said...

Hey, I just got an email newsletter from our charter school. In it, the director answered a question about how Waldorf prepares it's students for the future. He said:

"The intention of the Waldorf curriculum is to prepare students so that they are well-rounded individuals, with the ability to
think for themselves and with the social maturity to make sound decisions for someone their age-- not solely academically and
intellectually “trained.” With such characteristics, a Waldorf graduate stands out among others of their age. Studies have
shown, and my personal experience in England is consistent with this, that those qualities were a significant factor in the acceptance
to college after interview."

Just thought I'd share what I can't explain very well. :)

tempe turley said...

Thanks Helena, those are some profound words.