If reports are any indicator, this is a year of school reform.
Currently, the first strategic plan in almost 20 years is being considered by District 97. Earlier this year, the series “From Here to Excellence” ran in the Chicago Tribune, and “The Burnham Plan for a World Class Education” was released by Illinois leaders.
The most intriguing recommendations, and not just because I have children in Dist. 97, are those for community involvement. (Involvement is invoked at least 17 times in the proposed plan.) Once plans are presented, involvement becomes our greatest influence.
On the one hand, involvement is old news. For decades, experts have argued that involvement is twice as likely as socioeconomic status–others suggest 10 times–to predict academic achievement.
Specifically, involvement produces higher scores and graduation rates, more motivation and self-esteem, better attendance and fewer suspensions, and reduced drug abuse and violent incidents. Moreover, extended involvement is needed, as it declines over grade levels, especially during the middle school transition.
On the other, this recommendation is more complicated than it might appear. According to the National Parent Teacher Association, only one of four parents–one of nine working parents–is involved. Some reasons, researchers report, are that parents are confused by complicated jargon, intimidated by education concepts, or alienated by consumer education.
Even when parents are involved, they sometimes have questionable motives. “You don’t know the money that the people of Evanston spend to get these scores on these tests,” says Katherine G., a learning specialist at a local university and a mother of an Evanston schools graduate.
She tells of her friend’s daughter with a perfect ACT and no intellectual personality. Her friend, she says, admits that her daughter doesn’t have “one intellectual thought” while at least her son, who struggled in classrooms, “sits and thinks” about ideas.
The issue, however, is not always intimidated or misguided parents. Schools, researchers report, sometimes resist because staff doubt parents’ abilities or have had previous problems. Such resistance can even be found at purportedly good schools, such as those in Dist. 97.
Sometimes, efforts are refused. One of my kids, who are mixed Filipino-German, was recommended for speech therapy, in part, I learned through my own research, because this kid’s speech differed from monolingual speakers in Iowa and Nebraska 20 years ago (However, neither staff nor administrators would discuss the relevance of these standards for a district with diversity in its mission statement).
Other times, these efforts are misconstrued. When one of my kids was refused reading enrichment, I asked for an explanation because this kid had been ranked by the school in the 97th percentile nationally. At a meeting, administrators lectured on the limits of a gifted designation, which was not my request. Then we discovered that this assessment was missing from my child’s file.
Still other times, these efforts produce unproductive results. After two unexpected report cards for one of my kids, I asked for an explanation of the scores to determine whether these were identified areas for improvement, which we could address at home, or misrepresented abilities, which had been done previously. In response, a new report card was issued. Although I never received an explanation, I was told by the principal that teachers are anxious because parents ask too many questions.
Still, we must persist because involvement provides an oversight that cannot be created through strategic plans or researched recommendations. At the same time, such efforts might require skillful negotiations and extensive fortitude.
While we have the right and the responsibility, as experts argue, to be involved, we might need to assert these rights and responsibilities. If these are not afforded at schools, we must pursue them at higher levels even though such efforts are not assured. After the most recent problems, I contacted the Dist. 97 Central Office for assistance, and four months later, I am still awaiting a response.
Given these, I was bemused to learn that communication is one of the top goals, and these plans are the work of the district for the next 3-5 years. If you ask me, the district has enough work for many years.
And we must make schools work to support school reform.