fresh voices from the front lines of change







A mantra recited by those who pride themselves as adherents to a movement known as “education reform” is that for too long policies governing public schools have favored “the adults” in the system at the expense of children. This rhetoric has framed any objections that classroom teachers may have to new education policies as being overly concerned about teachers’ interests and being negligent of the students.

That rhetorical positioning has been used by political lobbying groups promoting themselves as putting “students first” and taking a “stand for children” in order to claim a higher moral ground. These organizations assert that teachers who object to the continued degradation of their working conditions are really being selfish and inattentive to the needs of the students in the public education system.

However, there’s always been a group of adults who’ve been imbued with the power to understand best what students in public schools really need. Parents, legend has it, occupy a sacrosanct position of having an exclusive right to determine the education destination of their offspring.

The whole idea that parents should have a “choice” over where their children attend school is deeply grounded in the notion that parents know best about the education destinations of their youngsters. And school districts have been called “government monopolies” that are opposed to the “free choice” all parents should have in a “market-based” system.

When politicians make the case that parents, rather than professional educators, should run schools, they reinforce the idea that when education is the issue at hand, the only “adults” who matter are parents, and the interests of teachers are misaligned to the well-being of students.

So what do parents want?

A revealing new study indicates that parents don’t want what the education reform crowd is selling. Not at all.

First reported in The Washington Post, the survey, conducted by the American Federation of Teachers, found that “counter the argument made by those pushing policy changes that parents want more choice in deciding where to send their children and a market-based approach to education,” what parents really want is more aligned with what teachers have been saying all along.”

Much like teachers, most parents (61 percent) oppose closing low-performing schools and reassigning students to a different school. They – “more than three out of every four” – are against “reducing compensation for teachers or cutting resources for the classroom while increasing spending on charter schools.” They tend (56 percent) to oppose “giving tax dollars to families to pay for private school tuition.”

Most parents say “too much learning in the classroom has been sacrificed in order to accommodate state tests during the school year.” And, like teachers, they believe that “layoffs and a high turnover of teachers; closing schools in major cities; reducing art and music instruction to focus on math and reading; increasing class sizes; and cutting school budgets have had a negative effect on public schools.”

Instead of the “education crisis” that reformers say grips the nation, “nearly two-thirds of parents were satisfied with their children’s public schools.” And “seven in 10 parents said they were satisfied with the quality of their children’s teachers.”

What’s more, “roughly two out of every three parents polled said public schools were more important than religious institutions, businesses and the military in terms of providing important skills for their children.”

Anyone eager to make the case that the polling data is indicative only of what “average” parents believe and doesn’t reflect the desires of “parents trapped in failing schools” or the opinion of red-state parents who decry the “public school monopoly” is going to be disappointed when they dig into the results of the survey disaggregated by demographics. What they’ll find is that parent attitudes don’t differ all that much when income or neighborhood context is taken into account. And the variance among parents who identify as Democrats, Republicans, or Independent is not that far apart. (The full report on the survey results can be found here.)

In a speech at the annual meeting of the American Federation of Teachers, AFT president Randi Weingarten did not recite directly from survey results but clearly referenced the findings by stating that “for generations, parents’ aspirations for their children were matched and mirrored by the commitment we made as a nation to public education.”

The reality, of course, is that neither teachers nor parents are determining education policy these days. Instead, we have a system mostly aligned to adults who are at the periphery of the real consequences of “reform” measures.

Private foundations have lavished billions on marketing the idea that schools are in crisis, teachers are failures, and competition and choice will save the day. The richest and most powerful people in the world have erected a vast complex of organizational mechanisms to cast doubt on public schools and promote alternatives like charter schools, private tutoring providers, and online education services. Prominent pundits in the nation’s mainstream media reinforce the education reformers arguments by lambasting teachers and their unions at every turn. And for years, politicians have insulted teachers with impunity and ratcheted up the pressure on public schools with unfair and inaccurate “accountability” measures.

The fact that this immense effort to defame public schools and teachers has had little if any effect on parents’ overall positive attitudes toward these institutions is astonishing to say the least.

No doubt, the reform crowd is going to respond to the survey data with appeal for “better messaging” and ever more billions in spending from their propaganda machines. But more and better marketing has never been a way to increase demand for a product that just doesn’t sell.

In her speech, Weingarten declared that “the promise” of a quality education for all students “is under pressure and under assault. It’s under pressure from economic and societal factors outside the schoolhouse that make it much more difficult to achieve success within the classroom.” And it’s “under assault by those who want, for ideological reasons, to call one of America’s great accomplishments – public education for all – a failure.”

She called on teachers to “reclaim the promise of public education – not as it is today or as it was in the past, but as what public education can be to fulfill our collective obligation, our community’s obligation, to help all children succeed.”

Of course, rallying schoolteachers comes second nature to Weingarten. Parents – the sleeping giant in America’s education debate – have only occasionally shown a determination to correct the imbalance in the nation’s education policies.

However, signs that the sleeping giant is awakening are recurring more frequently. When these intermittent signs grow into a constant and persistent din, self-anointed “education reformers” had better watch out.

This post originally appeared on the Education Opportunity Network, our sister education website.

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