Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How Are Parents to Know? : An Open Letter to Lewiston Leaders in Education

I'm a teacher.  Testing, standards, and pedagogy from EdWeek, HuffPost Education, NCTE, and BATs fill my Facebook feed.  On Twitter, I follow Diane Ravitch, Kelly Gallagher, Alfie Kohn, Maine Educator's Association, and Maine DOE.  I have five Pinterest boards dedicated to education, totaling about 600 pins.  Oh, and I have a teaching license and a Master's degree in education.  I've come to follow education news the way some people follow football or celebrity gossip. More than just my job, education is a quest for knowledge. 

But how do other parents get their information about education?

Some parents are like me: They are educators or related to educators, and they spend a lot of time reading and researching education.  Other parents develop a passion for education somewhere on their children's journeys through school.  Maybe, they research to fight for their child's unique needs to be addressed.  

But these two descriptions don't cover all parents.  In fact, I'd argue they don't even cover most.  Most parents expect local educators to guide them when it comes to education news. 

See, I expect my doctor to mention new discoveries pertaining to my health, my mechanic to inform me of recalls on my car, and my roofer to let me know if my house isn't up to code.  We can't all possibly know everything in this age of information explosion.  Thus, parents look to the resident education experts to help them.  

First and foremost, parents have relationships with and trust in teachers.  Sadly, most of the general public does not understand how dangerous it can be for a teacher to speak up.  Yes, Maine has unions, but teachers are people with families and mortgages like anyone else, and they have to include  the possibility of ending a career when they start a fight.  But, teachers don't stand alone as the sole distributors of information.  There's also administrators, superintendents, school committee members, PTO leaders, and a slew of other roles, both local and state. When these individuals are silent, parents assume everything is okay, and they focus their attention on other priorities.   

But here's the problem: Our community education leaders are often silent, and the rest of the time engage only a portion of the population -- the potion that can manage to make an evening school committee meeting a priority; the portion that frequently reads the Sun Journal; the portion that follows the superintendent on Facebook and Twitter. 
What about everyone else?  What about people like my husband, who if he hadn't married a teacher, would know only what the district told him?  Who would never consider subscribing to the DOE's newsletter or attending a school committee meeting, and who doesn't subscribe to the paper and barely uses social media?  It seems obvious to these parents that the school would communicate what they need to know.  When they discover that perception is false, it is shocking.  

Its the district's responsibility to inform all families within our city boarders.  As a teacher, I serve all families, not just the ones who engage me first, not just the ones who conveniently fit my schedule and preferred method of communication, not just the ones who already know their rights.  All.  

Education leaders in our district have remained silent on many topics.  Some information is local.  For example, the recent problems with the Smarter Balanced exam administered on iPads.  Or some redistricting committee information.  Or issues surrounding how proficiency based learning was rushed.  Some of this information is reaching a lot of people.

But other information regarding state and federal education news is not communicated to parents even though it affects us as much as district news.  The extra layer of separation makes it less accessible to parents, and puts it farther off their radars.  Lewiston parents should know: The biggest education act in history is currently being reauthorized and the federal government is seeking input; the state requested feedback on the Maine Learning Results / Common Core State Standards; parents can opt out of state testing and why thousands are doing so nation wide; how Governor LePage came to adopt proficiency based learning state wide, what PBL is and is not, and it's pros and cons; that the federal government is pressuring Maine to increase the percentage of a teachers' evaluations that depend on test scores and criticism of that practice.  

How do parents learn about these topics when teachers, administrators, superintendents, school committee members, PTO leaders, and the other experts in the city remain silent?  Well, they probably don't learn much.  

Here's an example using one of my favorite topics: Testing refusal.  The state says they inform parents that they can opt out of testing.  How do you find that information if your school won't give you a straight answer?  Well, I would Google it.  So I tried it.  Googled "Maine department of education opt out," and none of the first 100 hits were information from the DOE about opting out of tests other than NAEP.  So, I tried searching "opt out" on the DOE web site.  I spent roughly an hour before on the 50th hit I found my answer, but it was by coincidence because the "opt" refereed to opting for pencil tests.  I looked at 100 hits for "MEA" on the DOE site, but none led to general information on the test.  Instead, to learn of right to refuse the MEA, a parent would have to know to click the A-Z index (if they even noticed that tab), then go to Assessments, or know what MEA abbreviates, or know that its also called Smarter Balanced.  Once at the MEA page, a parent would then have to go to FAQ, and then participation.  And this is how we clearly communicate with parents their rights?  This is how we expect parents to know they can refuse?  One lost sentence on the internet?  What about the population of parents lacking the skills to navigate that rigamarole who rely on the face to face communication with live human beings to inform them of their rights?

The district is controlling the information the community hears.  Sometimes convenience is why information is not shared.  Its easy to just let a Sun Journal article cover it; easy to let only the the people who attend the school committee meetings know.  But there are other ways the information could be shared.  The district website, newsletters, automated phone calls, informational meets at different times of day, a district blog, etc. 

But not all information is withheld out of convenience.  During the February 2nd school committee meeting reported in a Sun Journal article the following day, Mr Webster admitted pressure from the state for the district to keep quiet about parental rights to refuse testing.  Its bad enough that government threatens schools with loss of autonomy and funding for noncompliance, but the DOE unofficially threatening the district to tie educators' hands is reprehensible.  How can an educator put students first when they are told to hide some of the options?  How can a parent choose without all the information or options?  Why do we allow positions of power to smile at the public and then make threats in the shadows?  Its revolting and undermines the heart of education.  Education is about the flow of information.  Not data.  Not money.  Not compliance. The district is failing if its not actively pursuing that distribution of information and the subsequent honest dialog.  

Thus, I challenge this district to inform it's citizens: Hold a forum on standardized testing.  Invite all parents through means that reach as close to 100% of families as possible.  Invite teachers so the community hears teachers speaking up for our children and their profession.  Invite the Maine Educator's Association so those teachers who speak are not persecuted.  Invite a DOE representative to speak.  Record it, so that only truth is shared which can be acted upon, instead of the dual messages circulating now.  And because some parents will always not be able to attend, allow teachers to share the information freely, as well as their opinions as respected professionals, and send home written material for both sides of the debate as well an refusal form for those who may ultimately decide to exercise their right once they have finally been informed. 

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