Parents and School Reform
How Parents Can Make a Difference

Of all the stakeholders in the debates about how to improve our schools, parents may be the most powerful and the least aware of their power. Nothing terrifies administrators or teachers quite as much as an angry or demanding parent. Parents are, after all, the customers, and money follows their children–in both public and independent schools. As school choices continue to increase, administrators become ever more responsive to the “squeaky wheels,” those parents who advocate most loudly for their children.

Sadly, this power tends to be used only in individual skirmishes–to get Sally into teacher X’s class, to get Joe away from teacher Y, to move Chantelle into honors math. Imagine what a cadre of parents might accomplish if they joined forces, armed themselves with a deep understanding of research into how people actually learn, and confronted teachers and administrators who have failed to study this research themselves.

Parent associations do not have to limit their work to providing cupcakes, raising money and supporting soccer teams. These associations can help parents to organize and become active voices in the effort to improve our schools and student learning. After all, parents are also teachers; they need to understand how their children learn every bit as much as professional educators do.

Rethinking Education

Rachel and Jim became increasingly baffled as they listened to Mrs. Saunders, their son Jamie’s 8th-grade math teacher. This was their second meeting to discuss Jamie in two months, and Mrs. Saunders kept insisting that Jamie seemed to understand the lessons in class, yet the boy continued to fail the tests.

“Well,” said Rachel, “he certainly doesn’t understand how to do the homework you assign. We struggle with Jamie every night. Eventually, he gets through all the problems, but we have to sit with him and help him with each one.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Mrs. Saunders sighed. “During class, he really seems to get it. And I have to keep moving on. I can’t re-teach the same concepts day after day. We have a curriculum to get through.”

Despite all the attention and money and well intended reform efforts, nothing much seems to have changed in schools. This parent-teacher conversation could have taken place in 1950 or today. No one claims that our schools have fundamentally improved. Summer comes as a great relief for everyone. No more teachers, no more books.

Although many families have lived with the anxiety of school for generations, the fall of 1957 marked the beginning of the national anxiety about education in America. On a clear, cold October night, children all over the country stood outside and watched the silent passage of Sputnik, a steady brightness moving among the stars and leaving in its wake a rumble of discontent and panic. The sky is falling. Science education in America is a disgrace.

Although by 1969 we had landed on the moon, the dissatisfaction with education in America has continued. In the ‘70s, discontent with education resulted from student riots and sit-ins to protest its “irrelevance.” Then, in 1983, in response to declines in standardized test scores, Secretary of Education T. H. Bell’s commission issued its Nation at Risk report (“the rising tide of mediocrity”), which has been followed over the years by No Child Left Behind, The Race to the Top and Common Core—all attempts to address what many continue to see as a crumbling system of education, typically measured by standardized test scores and international rankings, but also reflected in our high drop-out rates and too many poorly educated, unmotivated children.

The one constant during these years of discontent has been the focus on teaching and teachers. Only relatively recently, especially over the past two decades with the growing use of the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) that allows researchers to study the living brain while it thinks, has the focus begun to shift to learning and the learner. Researchers offer us important insights into how we learn, insights that suggest a need to rethink both learning and teaching. More of the same old solutions, whether packaged in NCLB or Race to the Top, are not going to improve education for our children. Although researchers don’t have answers for us, the insights they provide into how we learn have implications for how we design our schools and how we teach our children. For this reason, all of us who are responsible for education—parents, teachers, administrators—must examine our schools through the lenses research provides so that we can find the answers to an incredibly complex question: How can we help our children become better learners?

Why parents

Over the years, I have worked with, read about and watched innovative teachers struggle to improve education in their classrooms. Yet, despite the work of these teachers, their schools—the practices and policies—doggedly cling to the old assumptions about learning that remain basically unchanged from what they were 100 years ago. What these innovative teachers need are innovative schools—schools that embody new insights into learning, schools that support rather than conflict with the efforts of good teachers whose work already reflects these insights.

As potential allies in the effort to create better schools, parents will also benefit from learning about this research.

Parents have a dual role: they are teachers at home, and they are advocates for their children in school. In fact, parents can exert tremendous pressure on schools. As teachers, parents need to understand how learning happens. Over time, as people develop and age, they often forget their own experiences as young learners, and research can remind them just how difficult the process can be—the struggles, the misunderstandings, the moments when ideas gel, the need to revisit a new idea repeatedly, the emotions, the conditions under which we do our best learning, the effort required—the whole messy, non-linear process.

Research into learning and the brain provides insights that can help parents understand and talk about the complex issues involved in learning. Like any teacher, parents can improve their skills in helping children not just with their studies at home but with the emotions that school can stir up. For example, understanding that brains really are different from each other, that regression (“failure”) is a necessary part of learning, that developing new skills and understanding usually requires some degree of support before a learner can solo, that context (the conditions that support or don’t support learning) is critical to success and that emotion is central to learning—all of these insights can be tremendously liberating. They provide parents with a context for developing strategies to help their children instead of just admonishing them to “get to work,” “work harder,” “study more.” And these same insights free children from feeling that their struggles with learning mean they are stupid. Understanding the brain and how it learns can demystify the learning process and reduce frustration. Knowing what to expect and its causes benefits the whole family.

These insights from research will also provide a language that parents can use to discuss their children with teachers and administrators at school. The truth is that parents have considerable power. All the talk about tiger mothers and helicopter parents reflects a certain degree of fear that educators feel when confronted by knowledgeable, demanding parents. As a result, parents who are knowledgeable about learning, parents who have read and thought about the research into learning, can be real forces for change and school reform. The combination of knowledgeable parents and knowledgeable teachers might move mountains. And mountains—over a century of building and protecting a flawed assembly-line model of education—are exactly what need to be moved.

Parents can also influence teachers and administrators. Parents who take the time to study and think about some of the research and who bring their knowledge and ideas to meetings with school personnel can exert pressure on educators who are not current in their field. Being current in education means more than being current in subject matter; it means being current in the neuroscience of learning. In fact, parents have every right to expect that educators read and think about research into how people learn. What sort of profession allows its members to ignore relevant research and development in its field?

People would not tolerate doctors or hospitals that failed to remain current with medical research—research that constantly expands our understanding of how to maintain and improve health. Yet, in many ways, while our understanding of learning has grown, our schools continue to resist not just what research is revealing about how the brain learns but what some individual teachers have been discovering for themselves for over a hundred years, all the way back to John Dewey. It is way past time to redesign schools that reflect how people learn rather than how teachers want to teach. Too many teachers and administrators pay no attention to significant research into learning.

And, finally, parents can form alliances with those educators who do stay current with research into learning and the brain. These partnerships can push for changes to address weaknesses in the system and accelerate the movement toward schools that support learning. Knowledgeable parents and knowledgeable teachers can make powerful allies.

So what can parents actually do?

Although some parents are already active and involved in their children’s schools, many others who might like to become involved find the prospect daunting. How does a parent become an ally with educators to effect change?

  • Parents are teachers, the first teachers their children have, so they truly are colleagues of school teachers. Taking this point of view can help reduce the separation parents might feel from other teachers by altering the psychology of the relationship.
  • The best place to start is to study and understand the research, implications and principles that emerge from the research—read about them, think about them and discuss them with other interested parents and teachers, and then test them at home. Parents are always teaching at home—whether helping with school work or helping their children develop social skills. So they can observe their children through the new lenses offered by these research principles. For example, they can become conscious of how performance depends on the degree and type of support in the learning environment, how emotional relevance affects motivation, what the process of building, regression and rebuilding skills looks like. A good place to start is a relatively short, easy-to-read ebook: Learning, Schooling and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions available here from Amazon (Kindle).
  • Parents can work with other parents to support their own learning. They can create small discussion groups on the model of a reading club. If their school has an active PTA, they might form discussion groups that could also include interested teachers and administrators. Or these groups might try working through a course together. The course Neuroscience & the Classroom is available on the Annenberg site for free. It can be taken formally (for graduate credit) or explored informally, dipping into it where and how individual interests may suggest: www.learner.org.