Lesson 4: Proactively Explain Changes to ParentsBeyond school staff, parents have the most at stake in ensuring that every class is taught by an effective teacher. But given the initial emphasis on internal communications, direct parent outreach understandably has been a secondary priority for these organizations. A few early lessons have emerged.
Rely on teachers to help reach parents. Years of research show that parents consider teachers and school staff to be the most credible messengers about school information. Hence, all the districts are using teachers as key communicators, not just with their peers but with parents and the general public as well (see Lesson 6).Make parent messages relevant. Most parents do not know how teachers are evaluated or receive professional development. And understandably most are not interested in the details of these policies and programs. What they do care about, however, is that their own child has a great teacher in every class and every subject. And they do want to know what their child should be learning in each grade. That is one reason why Communities for Teaching Excellence has published a guide, in English and Spanish, to help parents talk to their children’s teachers. (Other excellent examples are the National PTA’s grade-level guides to the Common Core State Standards.)"If parents are talking regularly with teachers, they are more likely to support reforms that help those teachers thrive."
— Jason Mandell (Communities for Teaching Excellence)
Promote transparency. You cannot expect parents and others in the community to be involved until they know what is going on. To that end, groups such as A+ Schools and the Hillsborough County PTA have provided information in multiple forms, from meetings to websites, to help raise parents’ awareness of teacher effectiveness issues, always in the context of the broader school improvement efforts.
Involve parent leaders directly. In Pittsburgh, for example, parent volunteers recruited and developed by A+ Schools played a key role both in building support for the initial reform plan and then in conducting school site visits to check on progress."Monitoring implementation has been crucial. Parents need to know what's happening in schools with professional development and whether teachers and principals have what they need to be effective."— Carey Harris (A+ Schools)
Make sure parents are at the table. Parents (and other community leaders) can play a critical role both in designing sensible policies and in crafting ways to communicate about them. Although they are not experts, they can provide an important, common-sense reality check. They have on-the-ground credibility that district staff often do not. And they can help counteract negative perceptions spread by teachers who are dissatisfied."If there's a groundswell of community support for
this, the negative teachers will not find sympathetic ears."— Melissa Erickson (Hillsborough County PTA)
Examples from the Field:Communities for Teaching Excellence
The nonprofit is providing research, messaging, and outreach support in several communities, including Pittsburgh, Memphis, Hillsborough County, and Los Angeles. Its Teachers Matter guide for Memphis parents underscored four main points: (1) Teachers matter most in boosting student achievement; (2) the old system for hiring, evaluating, supporting, and rewarding teachers did not work very well; (3) Memphis has adopted smart policies to fix it; and (4) parents can help in multiple ways, from signing the I Teach, I Am pledge to learning more about what their students should be learning in every grade. Its parents guide to the academic standards helps encourage constructive conversations between parents and teachers. And its monthly e-newsletter tells stories about the champions of teaching effectiveness, from Pittsburgh parents who help guide policy change to Los Angeles teachers working with parents to develop a model teacher evaluation system."Stories can help paint the picture of what teaching
effectiveness and community support really look like."
— Jason Mandell (Communities for Teaching Excellence)
A+ Schools (Pittsburgh)
The nonprofit organization has several main priorities, including improving transparency across the board, improving student outcomes and equity, and ensuring teaching quality in every classroom.
Parents are a key constituency and have participated in multiple ways: signing petitions supporting the original district-union reform plan; helping monitor implementation as part of school review teams; creating detailed report cards on school board meetings; and participating in a rally and signing pledges encouraging the district and union to use effectiveness, not seniority, when making decisions about layoffs. Three community organizers work directly with parents, helping them become more informed and training them to be more involved."Ultimately we want parents and students to be the most empowered advocates for great teaching so that future decisions about who teaches and where they teach are based solely on what is best for kids."
— Carey Harris (A+ Schools)
Hillsborough County (FL) PTA
Local PTA leaders have played an important role in building understanding and support for the district’s efforts. As described in the district’s e-zine, parents have been active on many fronts. And the Empowering Effective Teaching work has given parents a more prominent role. Former PTA President Melissa Erickson offers several recommendations.
"Parents need to fully understand the content
- Make sure parent leaders are involved at the front end in helping shape policy. They can be an important sounding board.
- Simplify the content and deliver it in bite-size chunks. Hillsborough has a basic overview video and PowerPoint presentation, supplemented by more in-depth presentations on issues such as “value-added” test scores and performance pay.
Go where parents are: school libraries, community centers, churches, and the like. And target the content of your meetings to the particular hot spots of each community.
Provide ongoing training. Hillsborough has trained teacher leaders in each of its 226 PTAs, with regular booster shots of information and training throughout the year.
Have parents and district staff co-present information and field questions.
- And perhaps most important, focus the discussion on how these changes will make a positive difference for their kids. Some parents fear that their students will get left further behind, while others fear that a disproportionate share of resources will be shifted to support struggling students.
before we can be asked to communicate about it. But we're not experts. It will mean spending
time to help us catch up."— Melissa Erickson (Hillsborough County PTA)