A Parent Empowerment Approach to School Quality
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At Families Empowered, we believe parents have power, and that, when given accurate information paired with opportunity, parents will use everything in their power to provide for the best for their children. As a parent service organization, listening to parents is core to our mission and culture. Accordingly, we have not defined school “quality” for parents. But we know they care about it. In survey after survey, year after year, conversation after conversation, thousands of parents have told us what they want in a school: academic quality. It’s that simple –and sure, it is related to other factors they also care about like safety, environment, and quality teaching – but, first-and-foremost, parents want schools to educate their child and set them up for future success. Unfortunately, we also know that many parents have a difficult time finding and understanding information on school quality and performance.
On the one hand, we at Families Empowered are thrilled about the Every Student Succeeds Act that requires new levels of school, district, and state-level accountability. On the other hand, we are realists and, well, reformers. We know that the system is not necessarily set up to provide parent-friendly, accessible data; we also know districts and education agencies are required to serve multiple stakeholders, not just parents, and are subject to political pressure. So, although we have advocated for accountability measures such as A-F, we also understand that this alone is not enough information for parents who are searching for a school for their children. Parents need to have easy access to the information, they need to know how to interpret it, and, most importantly, they need to know what to do about it. For example, our friends at Learning Heroes were unable to find a single parent in the state of Mississippi who knew their school’s A-F rating despite the system being place for three years. When the A-F system was being debated in Texas, we heard over and over again, “But how will parents feel if their kid is going to a D or F school”? As if that was an argument against clear and accessible performance data. To us – this is the point.
So – what is a parent-empowerment approach to school quality? Well, for one, it would respect the fact that parents want both information on quality and if they are not satisfied with their child’s school quality, it would respect their right to act on this information. And – to go a step further – it might provide them with accurate and actionable information on what their real options are, other than wait for a school that isn’t serving their kid well to “turn-around” (research shows that there are precious few years to waste once a child is already behind), or for the state to shut it down. Finally, a parent-empowerment approach would respect parents’ time and intellect and communicate with them in a way that is culturally sensitive, in their preferred language, and attuned to the deeply personal and important nature of educational decisions for families.
This exactly what Families Empowered does – each year we make tens of thousands of personal calls, in Spanish and English, to parents across Texas who have asked us for help in searching for a school. During these calls, we listen to parents – what they are looking for and why, what are their constraints, what kind of help and support they seek. We follow up with emails, texts, and live events, all of which are designed to make parents aware of specific opportunities to enroll in a district, charter, or private school. This summer, we be piloting a new initiative to provide parents a short, optional walk-through of their current school’s performance data, during which we will listen to and answer their questions. We hope that this will empower our parents with the tools they need to help guide their decision of where to send their child.
But which school ratings to use? There is already an organization, GreatSchools, who provides objective multi-measure school quality ratings, includes all schools in their search tool, and, most importantly, is mission and culturally aligned. As a philanthropically-funded non-profit organization with an independent board, just like Families Empowered, GreatSchools, is not accountable to schools, political parties, or unions; they are doggedly focused on serving parents. Not only do we share this foundational value, but, we are both evolving, learning organizations – curious about practical and evidence-based ways to deepen and broaden our impact.
In this vein, we plan to follow up with our parents in the pilot program in a few months to see how they used this information and how – and if – it impacted the way they conducted their school search, and the schools they eventually choose. This study will produce cutting-edge data on how parents choose schools, in the real world, test our assumptions about what criteria is really important to them, as well as some of the barriers they face. At Families Empowered our m.o. is to ensure that parents are at the table and have a say about decisions are made that affect them deeply. With this study our goal is to make a contribution to the national debate and body of evidence around the opportunities that meaningful school choice affords – especially to low-income and working-class parents –parents’ whose views are often excluded. Or, as our friends at the Memphis Lift say, “if you’re not at the table, you’re part of the feast.” Since this is the first kind of research partnership in the nation, our study has attracted the attention of two academic researchers from University of California Irvine and University of California Davis, who have already significantly contributed to the research design, and will provide objective analysis of the findings when they are available next year.
Both GreatSchools and Families Empowered have been plugging away at this for over a decade, and like many nonprofits, we have come to the acute realization that the deep social change we are trying to enact cannot be affected by one organization alone. It is this kind of innovative partnership that gives us fresh optimism about the power of social entrepreneurship.