After four relatively flawless, under-the-radar years at the Delaware Department of Education, I made a “mistake”: I invited parents to a public meeting. Education leaders were scheduled to hold a committee meeting to discuss the future of the state’s teacher evaluation system and I sent an email invitation to dozens of parents. These were a diverse set of parents I had come into contact with during our team’s educator equity plan stakeholder engagement process. But my belief that policy conversations would be richer and more student-focused with a wider set of stakeholders in the room prompted an amateur mistake. I broke the unspoken rule of edu-bureaucrats and insiders: parent involvement is a talking point, an aspiration, and an excuse. It is not something we actually pursue actively.
No good rule, even an unspoken one, would hold much weight without enforcement. But who polices parent involvement encouragement infractions? A few days after I blasted an email about the DPAS-II sub-committee meeting to a group of parents, the Secretary of Education received a call from the state teachers’ union. It must have been this type of access that some of the education elite were hoping to have when they praised the Department’s new focus on communication and longstanding relationships.
They interrogated him about what his staff was doing inviting groups of parents to the meeting. They expressed concern that it looked like “the state had an agenda.” If seeking diverse and democratic participation instead of back-room deals is “an agenda”, then I don’t want to not have one.
Later that day the Secretary met with my manager to express his concerns and make sure we were aware of their unease about my rogue parent outreach. Education leaders normally “engage” parents and community members when it is a federal requirement for funding or there’s a casting call for political props. You don’t intentionally bring the attention of parents to important policy meetings. Especially meetings they should have no business worrying about: like how their kid’s teachers are evaluated and given feedback.
But the damage was already done. The invitation had already been shared with parents. I also included information about the meeting in our weekly email to principals to increase their participation. So we just needed to brace ourselves for the onslaught of ill-informed parents asking commonsense questions and seeking translations of our policy-speak. Or we needed to hope that the myth many share in the education sector was true: that low-income and minority parents don’t care enough to be involved.
I’m not sure what some feared so much. A couple of parents showed up for the meeting, asked questions, and offered public comment. After the meeting concluded some of the parents conversed with union leaders, principals, and state policy leaders– expressing their views and gaining clarity. One principal promised to share the rubric used for teacher evaluations with a parent. This parent did not know the rubric is publicly available on the state’s website. Another parent discussed her desire for teacher accountability with a union leader who shared his concerns about perceived issues with the state assessment. Democracy and dialogue at work!
But this was after the chair and co-chair of the committee chided me for inviting a large group of people to the meeting without giving them the heads up. I am not sure when and how this principal and teacher were also briefed on my infraction. Perhaps it was during one of the private meetings before the public meeting where everyone agreed to agree.
With all of this hype and hullabaloo around parent and community participation in a public meeting one has to wonder: do education leaders really want parent involvement? If so, why was I the only one among them guilty of inviting members of the community to such an important conversation? Surely the PTA, DSEA, DASA, DSBA, etc. know of a couple dozen parents and community members they could have invited.
Right now there are committees meeting at the state level about redesigning education funding, evaluating our use of assessments, reforming educator compensation, implementation of the new federal education law, and much more. Some of these committees have “community” or “parent” representation but few parents or community stakeholders are invited or made aware of these important conversations. And many of the folks at the table must be content with that reality.
If education leaders really wanted parent involvement, you would expect them to listen when they do receive community feedback. 5000+ Delawareans were surveyed about school reporting preferences and 73% preferred school ratings or grades. In response, school performance reports were only shared with insiders and these reports did not include ratings.
Some of the parents who attended the teacher evaluation committee meetings later took the time to share their thoughts in letter format (see here) with decision makers. If education leaders really want parent involvement they’ll consider these parents’ recommendations in their decision-making process and seek more input from diverse groups.
Meaningful parent and community involvement is certainly much harder than the surreptitious, status quo approaches that serve the interests of the few. And there are many new opportunities and conversations that could be enriched by true engagement. Education leaders just need to learn something from my unapologetic effort to make room at the big table. Parents and members of the community will come and engage….if those at the table ever care to invite them.