The Family and Essential Schools: Mobilizing Democracy Toward Equity

Students do better in school when their families get involved, all the research shows. But unless schools send clear messages of respect, families who don’t fit the mold may never trust educators enough to speak up or show up.

Before their ninth grade children began school this fall, the parents, grandparents, and guardians of students at Chicago Vocational Career Academy already had a pretty good idea of what they were in for. During one hot August week, they and their charges had attended classes, met teachers, and been thoroughly initiated into the ways of this 2,400-student Essential school with its eight mini-schools.

“There must be some mistake,” one grandmother remembers thinking about the summons to summer school. “My Carolyn is an excellent student.” But four years later, as Carolyn heads off to college, she recalls how helpful it was to learn just how and why students at CVCA would be treated as active workers, coached by their teachers in the academics that tie in to their emerging career interests.

Getting family members to spend several summer days at school isn’t easy, principal Betty Despenza-Green acknowledges. “I will call and arrange it with their employer if I have to,” she says.

Whether on the gritty streets of Chicago or in the leafy bastions of suburbia, no one quarrels with the truism that family involvement in the schooling of children makes an enormous difference to their success. Regardless of their socio-economic status, students whose families are involved with their learning have higher academic achievement, many empirical studies show, and children who are furthest behind make the greatest improvement. Programs to foster parental partnerships have been a dime a dozen since federal Goals 2000 legislation put them on the priority list for school improvement.

But under that apparent unanimity lies an uneasy clash of interests-between teachers and parents, between privileged and less privileged parents, even between reformer and conservative-that shows up in subtle ways in virtually every aspect of school life. And because so many students these days do not have “families” in the traditional sense-or are parents themselves-schools must also rethink the ways they construct the relations between home and school.

To reflect on the purpose and practice of parent-school relations, in fact, necessarily raises hard questions for Essential schools about equity, democracy, and the nature of inquiry in a learning community.

Of seven teachers Horace interviewed in depth about their professional lives, for example, most fell uncomfortably silent when asked what kinds of relationships they have with parents, and how those relationships contributed to student achievement (HORACE v14 n4). “It’s something I want and intend to do,” one said. “But in the face of everything else, it falls to the bottom of the list.”

That happens partly because dialogue with parents can be a struggle over turf and expertise, some have observed, especially as Essential high schools make changes like heterogeneous grouping and project-based learning. When families have fixed their sights on the top of the college admissions heap, they can wage fierce battle against strategies that don”t support a “sort and select” curricular bias. Whether their concerns surface in battles over tracking, a push for “skill and drill” teaching methods, or an overemphasis on test scores, they put a thorn in the sides of many Essential school people. “There is no national organization called Rich Parents Against School Reform,” charges Alfie Kohn in a passionate essay in the April 1998 Phi Delta Kappan, “because there doesn’t have to be.”

‘Parent as Worker’

But are pushy parents the real problem, or do such tensions arise because social class gives some an edge when they advocate for their children with persistence and skill? What would our schools look like if all parents got the encouragement and coaching to ask for evidence of their children’s learning, or for the courses that will support their future success? What would happen if schools learned to listen attentively to all parents and consider them experts on their children no matter what their class, color, or culture?

This can happen, as the Right Question Project (RQP) has proved in workshops with poor and minority parents in places like Jefferson County, Kentucky, which is home to a large number of Essential schools. (See sidebar below) “The process is simple,” says Dan Rothstein, who directs the project. “But just like Essential schooling, it requires a shift from the habit of delivering information to parents toward facilitating inquiry.” He grins. “It’s ‘parent as worker.'”

Simple it may be, yet educators’ commitment to the habits of inquiry often stops at the schoolhouse door, notes Seymour Sarason in his book Parental Involvement and the Political Principle (Jossey-Bass, 1995). Like most professionals, he says, educators usually fail to recognize their clients as assets, in this case bearing precious parental insight into how their children learn best. Ironically, he observes, teachers are often in the same position relative to school administrators: outsiders who are looking and wanting in, while a “superior” tells them what to do. If power shifts toward a dialogue among equals, in both cases problems arise.

Even less well recognized is the gap between the family cultures of many students and the remarkably constant institutional culture of American public schools-where middle-class Anglo-European habits dominate everything from teacher-student talk to lesson plans and report cards. Over the generations (mostly through the benefit of formal schooling), some families have accumulated resources-child- rearing styles, economic supports, even “school savvy”-that give their children an advantage on the turf of public school classrooms. Even the way such parents talk to their kids lines up with what the schools expect and reward.

But other families-especially those in which formal schooling does not go back for generations-approach school without the particular resources that match the school’s culture. Does the school, then, do some adapting of its own, learning to use different families’ cultural habits as assets, not obstacles, in their children’s learning?

Not likely, says a substantial research base that begins with sociologist James Coleman’s 1966 report for the U.S. Government on families and schools. Families may range all over the map in their backgrounds and cultures, Coleman’s data reveal, but the school culture rarely bends to meet them. Yet Essential schools have much to gain by paying attention to such matters. In many Southeast Asian immigrant families, for example, students across the grade levels learn important group study skills by doing homework together in the evenings around the dinner table. A 1992 study of 200 Indochinese refugee families by Nathan Caplan, Marcella H. Choy, and John K. Whitmore observed that as older siblings helped younger ones, they seemed to “learn as much from teaching as from being taught.”

Listen and Learn

To correct that imbalance, some bold Essential schools have moved involvement with families to the front and center of their mission. At the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the Met) in Providence, Rhode Island, parents help plan their children’s individual learning goals in thrice-yearly team meetings with a teacher-adviser, a workplace mentor, and the student. They keep in touch via phone calls and notes as the term progresses, and then they show up at the culminating exhibition to help assess the student’s progress. “You have a say in what you feel they have and have not learned,” one parent told researchers from the New Urban High School project, to which the Met belongs.

The Met’s highly individualized design virtually requires such an intimate partnership with parents to succeed. Each group of about 100 students stays with a team of teacher-advisors, who supervise a changing mix of internships and seminars that take off on student interests and needs.

In a very diverse urban community like Providence, it’s a tall order to get family involvement on this scale. But when parents know from the start, as in this case, that the school depends on their active involvement, and when they receive a steady flow of invitations to help, they are much more likely to participate, a 1997 review of research by Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey and Howard Sandler showed. Without such explicit prompting, “the best and most well-financed school efforts to invite involvement are likely to fall frustratingly short of success,” the study concludes.

At James Lick Middle School in San Francisco, Project Respect sets out to cultivate good relations with the families whose children come to Lick from neighborhoods near and far under the city’s desegregation plan. “Action groups” facilitated by parents and including teachers, the principal, and kids work through the problems that can come up when school staff and families come from diverse cultures or races.

“Lots of school structures and policies have a middle-class bias,” says Brad Stam, a veteran faculty member. “For example, parents told us that holding our after-school tutoring at the school instead of out in the neighborhoods made it hard for many kids to attend.” Conducting routine procedures only in English also created a chilling effect with Spanish-speaking parents in the counseling and main offices, action groups said. “It can be as simple as how we answer the phone,” says Stam, “or what kind of materials or help we offer.”

Now the staff regularly looks at family relations as part of the work of student learning. All teachers confer twice yearly with students and their guardians about the work in student portfolios, and intensive intervention takes place when needed. Monthly parent activities, tied to student performances, happen out in the neighborhoods rather than always at the school.

No matter how sturdy the culture of parent involvement in a school, it requires careful tending to last through the fast-changing generations of a school community. And since for 150 years schools have been in the driver’s seat telling less well-educated parents what to do, the habit of equity between teachers and families emerges slowly.

Brooklyn parents in a school network affiliated with the Center for Collaborative Education, CES’s regional Center in New York City, created a “parent development” task force-not just to help them organize, but to study their patterns of interaction with each other and with teachers, and to pass along their expertise to new parents. At the end of the year they could share their work with the network community, proud to have helped a new ethic emerge that went beyond “volunteering” to powerful democratic organizing.

Trust Builds Success

Such trust among families that their voices will be respected at school has an enormous effect on whether students succeed, research by Frederick Erickson and others shows. But poor and minority students often come to school already deeply distrustful of the institution and their prospects, notes Yale psychologist James Comer, whose School Development Program partnered with the Coalition of Essential Schools, Harvard University’s Project Zero, and the Education Development Center in the Atlas Communities project.

Schools won’t help these students succeed by trying to “change” their families to conform to school expectations, much recent research shows. But if they know their students well, as CES’s fourth Common Principle asks, they can build bridges to the home cultures through adapting classroom work and teaching styles. Just as important, they can work to develop a shared view of the purpose of schooling among teachers, administrators, parents, and children.

The Bay Area Coalition of Essential Schools models this approach by drawing parents into regular community conversations about actual student work and the learning needs of students. In the current climate of high-stakes testing, such conversations can prove an important reality check for schools, research shows. In one Colorado district that had experienced a backlash against the kind of performance assessments Essential schools prefer, 77 percent of parents told researchers that they learned the most about their students’ academic progress from talking with their teachers, a 1995 study by Lorrie Shepherd and Carribeth Bliem found. Only 14 percent said they found standardized test scores “very useful.” And when they saw graded samples of student work, parents greatly preferred them to multiple-choice test questions as a means of determining academic achievement.

These conversations can help balance the power held by parents and school people. “Why shouldn’t parents be as accountable for educational outcomes as educators?” asks Seymour Sarason. “What are the dangers when only educators are accountable?” Parents of all backgrounds, he says, will generally agree that the purpose of school is to motivate students to continue to explore, finding answers to the questions, issues, and possibilities that matter to them. The first step in altering power relationships between school people and parents, he urges, should involve coming together to establish that common ground.

A K-12 Pathway for Parents

Elementary schools typically involve parents in the work of the school more than do high schools, where they are often relegated to booster clubs and back-to-school nights. So as more elementary schools join the Coalition, they have important wisdom to share about making families “essential collaborators.”

At Kettering Elementary School in a diverse working-class suburb near Ypsilanti, Michigan, a multi-age program for grades one to three encourages parents to work in the classroom as well as with the child at home. For the five student-led conferences she holds with parents each year, says teacher Lana Tatom, she has 100 percent participation; and she augments the monthly parent newsletter with phone calls and home visits. The school’s media center is open to parents and students on Tuesday nights for activities or computer use; parents also come to special nights focused on reading and writing, math, and science-often with a $2 spaghetti dinner.

At Puesta del Sol Elementary School in Rancho Rio, New Mexico, teachers Monica Osborne and Lisa Moore are videotaping parents, teachers, cafeteria workers, and others as they read books aloud to children. “Not all our parents get to spend the evening with their children,” says Moore, so the tapes create a kind of extended family of caring adults who will read to them.

But of all the moments when a guardian”s presence at school is needed, probably the most crucial in terms of equity is eighth grade, when key academic choices for students’ high school years get made. The advantages of social class weigh in heavily at this point, research shows: College-educated mothers are far more likely to choose college-preparatory courses for their children, no matter what the students’ grades have been previously. Recognizing the risks if no one pays attention, Arkansas now requires parents to meet with the student and counselor at that point and make a four-year plan. And more Essential schools are charting high school course selection patterns and working early on intervening to yield more equity among students.

Once students are in high school, their parents can also be important resources for children not their own. Many serve as mentors, for instance, in the Essential schools that now incorporate senior projects, workplace internships, or other community-based learning into the curriculum. (See HORACE v14 n1) Others help coach students for such activities as mock trials, or assess their work in public exhibitions. And they are often eager to participate in study groups about Essential schools’ approach to teaching and learning. The schools in CES’s Independent Cluster have parent education committees that meet often throughout the year, then gather at Cluster meetings to share their experiences and ideas.

By these means and many others, Essential schools have long sought collaboration with parents. (See HORACE v9 n5) But as the Coalition’s focus on democracy and equity grows sharper, more member schools are making conscious efforts to hear, respect, and involve parents in the high quality education to which every child has a legal right.

Such change involves the entire educational system. Without explicit university support for Essential school ideas and practices, privileged parents will continue to block reforms they see as risking college admissions. Unless teachers are educated in parent relations, they will continue to mistake advocacy for interference. Unless administrators and policymakers join parents in discussing actual student work, a focus on raising standards will remain abstract and useless. “Why would we want parents to be involved?” the Right Question’s Dan Rothstein asks. “What does it mean for students, teachers, and parents if they aren’t?” As Essential schools begin to explore these questions, democracy and equity both grow in strength.

For Discussion: Why would schools want families to be involved with their children’s schooling? What does it mean for students, teachers, and families if they are not?