My View From the Ground: A Public School Parent's Perspective

As an active urban public school parent for more than 17 years, I have acquired a large body of useful first-hand knowledge about some of today's so-called "failing" public schools. I have personally experienced the year-long work efforts of 11 principals and 70 teachers, as well as that of a number of assistant principals, guidance counselors, school security officers, and other school and district personnel. I gained additional insights when I worked as a public middle school parent coordinator for seven years. I've learned to respect what is known by the people in the schools who are never consulted.

My children's schools have not always been perfect, and yes (as readers will expect me to address the issue), we have experienced a few bad teachers over the years. I've seen how principals, when strong and experienced, will do what it takes to usher a bad teacher out. Due process will work if it's made to.

I agree with Richard Rothstein's assessment that the employee/supervisor ratio in schools should be reduced to a reasonable level. This would especially help the struggling urban schools because they have such high administrator and teacher attrition.

I am in complete disagreement with today's too-popular consensus that public schools and their teachers should be held primarily responsible for our country's international test score rankings and other social woes. I strongly believe that the current national fixation on "bad" teachers and their unions is a particularly nasty case of scapegoating, which is mostly being perpetrated by people who have little first-hand knowledge or true understanding of what actually goes on in public schools.

Over the years, I've learned that a district or school -- led by individuals whose primary "improvement" tactics are to increase turmoil, make threats, and assign blame -- produces an extremely stressed and demoralized human organization, leading to even higher turnover and an even smaller selection of strong prospective candidates. Too much of this is happening these days.

The working conditions in our urban public schools are universally acknowledged to be difficult, and my children's schools have been no exception; I've known too many good teachers who have departed for greener pastures. Stability, needing children and schools which are trying to improve, can't thrive in an environment where so many people are perpetually starting over. And despite all the talk about "bad" teachers we hear in the media, the dirty secret is that there are many more good teachers who desert the urban public schools than there are bad ones who stay. Find a cause and cure for the high attrition, and teacher quality will gradually improve.

The parent inhabitants of the public school world often, but not always, have a great deal of knowledge and ideas for improvement. Unfortunately, tapping their thoughts in a meaningful way hasn't made it on the radar of today's education reform. Parents are instead being encouraged to abandon their public schools and head for the privately-run charters; in fact, millions of dollars have been spent by external pro-charter forces on such marketing. Still, many parents value their traditional public schools and prefer that model. Not billionaire-funded or powerfully-connected, these parents have had a hard time getting their voices heard.

I am fortunate to have found a group of like-minded public school parents, and last spring we formed a new organization, Parents Across America (PAA). We are of the opinion that, too often, the people who are making decisions about our schools send their own children to private schools. Why are they so determined to deprive our children of the same quality conditions that their own children enjoy?

PAA is strongly for small classes, building parent involvement, and offering public school children a well-rounded, rich curriculum, and other aspects of a quality education. We are against the privatization of public education and the current emphasis on punitive test-based accountability. We seek a meaningful level of collaboration which works towards the improvement of schools, rather than mass firings and school closure -- or their conversion into charters. Our initial effort was a letter to President Obama and Congress to express our reservations about the administration's "Blueprint for Reform." This letter was also published in Education Week. We have a growing list of members on Facebook. Our motto is "Our children, our schools, our voice."

Look for the increased activity of Parents Across America in the upcoming months. We believe that, on behalf of all public school students, the voices of their parents must be included in the debate about the direction of today's education reform. PAA intends to work both smart and hard until that goal is achieved.