Parents want to be more involved in the education system. That should be good news — in my experience, it’s hard to get parents involved in their own children’s homework, let alone participate in the macro-level planning of the Department of Education machine. But something in Civil Beat’s recent history has made me feel uneasy.

It’s a good overview that covers several angles of legitimate frustration. Schools feel overburdened and understaffed, under increasing pressure from all sides to do more work in less time. Parents are upset that communication from the DOE and the Board of Education is inconsistent, unnecessarily difficult, and unintelligible riddled with acronyms. They feel left out of important decisions that directly impact their children, during one of the most precarious times in modern American life. It is easy to sympathize with them.

But some things felt wrong. Although several parents and education groups were interviewed there, not a single person communicated anything specific that they wanted to change, just that parents “want to have more voice” in the creation of a statewide education plan. But what does that mean exactly?

Does “more than one vote” mean greater influence in how funds are allocated by the legislature, or how they are spent at the state, district, or school level? Does this mean greater control over what is taught and how it is taught? Do they talk about changing break or bell times, how to address vaping, cyberbullying or chronic absenteeism, what interventions are most effective for students performing below grade level standards?

You could say that the answer to all of these questions is “yes”. Some would have more to say on one subject than another, but in general, parents should be involved in all of these decisions. The problem is, frankly, that many parents are completely unaware of the realities on the ground in schools and therefore lack the expertise to meaningfully weigh in on these issues.

While the comments section on Civil Beat is genuinely more thoughtful than most websites I’ve contributed to, it’s easy to sift through the comments of virtually any education article and find people offering bad ideas that have been completely debunked by research as simple, quick-fix solutions.

A commenter on the article earlier this month responded to the report on low test scores by saying, “Start retaining students. This should no longer be an option. This idea resonates with a lot of people, but in reality, holding a student back dramatically increases the likelihood of them dropping out of school altogether. This has been observed over and over again.

DOE Department of Education building.
Parents say they want more say in the public education system. But what does this mean concretely? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In a recent column I wrote about some of the innovative things happening in public schools across the state, many of the responses echoed a similar sentiment: It sounds fun that teachers are making classes more engaging, but why not just focus on the “three Rs” of education: reading, writing and arithmetic?

What they don’t understand – and, in all honesty, what I failed to adequately communicate – is that studies show that incorporating these skills into engaging lessons improves student performance. learning, as students interact with ideas on a deeper level than they do during exercise and -kill exercises.

Most parents know little about current research on education policy or best classroom practices. And why would they? They have families to support, jobs to do (often more than one) and other responsibilities to fulfill. They have neither the time nor the reason to look into teaching via the puzzle method, or the Socratic seminars, or reciprocal teaching, or any number of proven methods that they have never experienced personally. .

Worse still, much of the “parents’ rights” movement, both locally and nationally, is a hotbed of repeated bizarre conspiracies based on hyper-partisan information about cable, an entertainment product (as opposed to a educational service) designed to annoy viewers.

I follow some of these local “parent advocacy groups” and for the most part they think that schools are indoctrinating children with a “woke” curriculum instead of teaching them the basics, all because the library of the school offers books with gay characters or promotes black authors during Black History Month.

These groups routinely call teachers groomers and child abusers as a default truth that teachers must somehow refute. They are not interested in working with schools to solve real problems, choosing instead to focus on imaginary problems where the only solution is a complete pivot away from public education.

It’s a brainworm thing that’s completely out of step with reality; they would know if they spent half the time they usually waste watching TV and browsing Facebook reading books with their kids, helping them with homework, or volunteering at their local school. They don’t want “more than one vote”; they just want to bark orders and do whatever they want without doing the hard and messy work of learning and collaborating.

Parents need to approach their involvement with humility to understand the limits of their perspectives, their willingness to accept new information, and their commitment to actively reinforce learning at home.

What troubles me most is that this all stems from low test scores, which not only means we’re still shocked that a global pandemic has had negative impacts on learning (or at least learning that can be easily measured by standardized tests), we always blame schools for wider social problems beyond their control.

It is a fundamental error of analysis that prevents us from speaking accurately of educational reform, and if we do not even know how to speak of improving schools, we cannot really improve them.

Makana McClellan, a member of the BOE, rightly noted that the performance gap on standardized tests and low college attendance rates among Native Hawaiians were big problems. The questions to ask are therefore: what are the causes of these problems, and does an education plan address these causes?

If you place the demographics of poverty, homelessness, and standardized test scores side by side, you’ll see a lot of similarities between them. What do you think impacts a student the most: the lack of a strategic education plan or prolonged periods of hunger and not having a safe and reliable place to sleep? ?

Instead of looking at the confluence of large-scale forces that affect children in and out of school, we look only at the effects visible during the school day and attribute them to school because that’s where we see them. It’s an easy interaction with reality.

Standardized tests are useful for identifying where problems exist, but they are not useful for identifying why these problems exist. We should be collaborating on a public education plan, but if we expect it to solve issues like poverty, homelessness and trauma, it doesn’t matter what parents’ voices are in creating it. The solution does not address the causes.

None of this is to say that parents should be left in the dark. Far from it: we need to create a space where parents and school staff meet regularly, listen to each other and work together, review the data and interpret it into something actionable. The community should be involved in school policies, as well as in decisions about how to spend school funds.

The DOE, BOE, and individual schools must have clear and consistent communication about what is being done and honest reflections on its results. We must respect parental input and welcome it as part of the educational landscape, because it is.

Parents need to approach their involvement with humility to understand the limits of their perspectives, their willingness to accept new information, and their commitment to actively reinforce learning at home.

Communication, honesty, respect, humility – notice how essential and necessary these things are, and how none of them can be measured in standardized tests?

Parents should have more voice in education. But if they really want their voice to matter, what they really need is more of a presence.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.