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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Is it schools, parents or both?

From the blog Redefined Ed, by Ron Mattus

It’s a common refrain in ed reform debates: If only more parents would do the right thing, schools would be a lot easier to fix. Especially, it seems, black parents.

Whenever I wrote a newspaper story about struggling black students, it was guaranteed to make the web site’s “most commented” list. Scores of angry people would write in to berate and belittle black parents, often in blatantly racist terms. Bill Cosby makes similarly hard-line arguments in a tough-love kind of way. So do some media personalities, like nationally syndicated columnist Bill Maxwell.

In his column last Sunday, Maxwell takes on a faith-based group in Pinellas County, Florida called FAST, which stands for Faith and Action for Strength Together. FAST recently made headlines for urging the Pinellas County School Board to do something about abysmal reading scores in 20 high-poverty schools, many of them with predominantly black student populations. In a public meeting, 3,000 members of the group called on the board to adopt a “direct instruction” approach.

As he has done before, Maxwell called for more accountability from black parents. He suggested it was a waste of time to focus on what schools may or may not be doing. He said the district’s web site had plenty of good tips.

Maxwell is right to stress how much parents matter. Nobody in their right mind disagrees. But like many things in education, this isn’t a case of either-or.

Instead of slamming parents, I think it would be more useful to talk more about key questions that don’t get asked enough:

• Why is it that some parents are not as involved as much as we’d like?

• What efforts are truly successful at getting them more involved?

• What should schools do while they’re waiting for parents to become more involved?

• And why is that some schools – most notably the “no excuses” charter schools, but also some traditional public and private schools – are able to get traction with struggling, low-income students despite a lack of parental involvement?

The truth is, schools matter, too.

High-poverty schools often compound the problems of low-income students by saddling them with a far greater percentage of less-effective teachers. As I wrote last week, everybody knows that’s true – but with high-poverty schools it’s just kind of accepted in a way that it would never be in more affluent schools. We know how much teachers matter. So that kind of look-the-other way response has devastating consequences. It ensures the cycle becomes that much more vicious.

In Florida, it’s also clear that some school districts are making stronger gains with black students than others. Compared to black students in Florida’s 12 biggest districts, black students in Pinellas are dead last in both reading and math. That black-black gap is growing, even though the free and reduced price lunch rates among black students in Pinellas are about average.

Pinellas also stands out in this way: Next to black students in the other big districts, its black students have among the highest rates of being labeled disabled, a rate of 20 percent.

Given those numbers, isn’t the school district a fair target for scrutiny, too?

All this isn’t to say that FAST is totally right.

I respectfully say I don’t agree with the group’s general approach to making change or, in this case, its specific, proposed solution. FAST puts school board members and other high-ranking officials on the spot, literally, by having them stand up in public and answer “yes” or “no” to whether they will commit to a specific proposed policy. This makes for interesting drama and it’s good for generating news stories. But I still think honest dialogue – and I say this carefully, because I know how frustrated FAST members must be, and how much every minute matters in a situation this dire – is a better way to go.

I also think that while FAST’s remedy in this case, direct instruction for reading, may be useful for many students – and maybe even needs to be expanded to more students – I cringe at solutions that smack of one-size-fits-all. We need more customized learning for students, whether it’s the school they’re in or the curriculum they’re exposed to, not the other way around.

On the whole, FAST deserves a lot of credit. In a day and age when established parent groups usually ignore the glaring issues facing low-income parents, it is beyond refreshing to see a group that doesn’t – and to do it with the urgency it deserves.

They shouldn’t ignore Maxwell’s good points. But they shouldn’t ease up on the district either.

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