Do Parents Matter? Questions Senators Should Ask Education Nominee Betsy DeVos

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Who are the most powerful influences on students’ academic achievement? Teachers? School administrators? D.C. Beltway policy wonks? Foundation officials? Civil rights organizations?

Most people with common sense would point to children’s parents. Whether or not they grew up in a family (i.e., not in an orphanage), most people know that students’ families are more important to school performance than any other factor.

Indeed, we have known for decades that such direct school-related factors as average number of students in a class, quality of a school’s physical plant, per-pupil expenditures, size of a school’s library, and the principal’s salary have little effect on school outcomes. Nor have the ideas of current policy makers had much positive effect, even though they’re sure they know what education policies are best for other people’s children. (Those ineffective ideas include, by the way, annual grade-by-grade standardized tests.)

The famous James S. Coleman report of 1966 (Equality of Educational Opportunity), authorized by what was then known as the U.S. Office of Education, pointed out the significant influence of children’s families on children’s academic achievement so clearly that the author was denounced as a racist. That issue may lie at the heart of the problem — policy-makers do not know how to address the influence of children’s families on their academic achievement without inviting charges of racism from those whose ideas have failed but who have garnered lots of national publicity from their sensationalistic charges and costly policies.

As a society we need to be able to focus policy on what the most extensive piece of research on school achievement had to say:  parents matter. But how can we, when they are seemingly ignored by the major media?

The talking heads in the media, education schools, psychology departments, and think tanks tend to think highly of what each other writes about (such as “demanding new standards,” “grit,” “tenacity,” or social and emotional learning) as if what they are referring to could really make a difference for the better in our public schools.

But not only do these talking heads usually have no skin in the game (i.e., children in Common Core-d schools) — even more bizarrely, our national leaders seem to think parents are part of the problem, not part of the solution. So, they go out of their way to keep children’s parents from having any say on what these talking heads propose to do to these parents’ children.

All public officials seem to want is their children’s live bodies in the schools — to judge by the conflicting statements on opting-out in the Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA. (That’s the 2015 congressional re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — ESEA — that is supposed to focus on improving the education of low-income children but has become the mechanism for centralizing education policy-making in Washington.) The Every Student Succeeds Act demands 95 percent participation of all students in federal/state-mandated tests at the same time that it says states can pass laws letting parents opt their children out.

(For more on that, see the last paragraph here or read this article.)

On Wednesday, January 11, the Boston Globe ran an editorial raising concerns about the nomination of Betsy DeVos to head the U.S. Department of Education. Not one word about parents’ concerns. The main topic mentioned in the Globe editorial was charter schools and DeVos’s support for them.

Most Globe readers don’t have kids in charter schools and their kids won’t be eligible for new ones that might be created. (That is, they are typically not low-income parents.) Do the editors have any children in the state’s regular public schools? Aren’t they aware of the massive amount of criticism by parents and teachers of federally promoted student tests, whether or not based on inferior state standards?

Instead, the Globe has practiced omerta on the controversy over MCAS 2.0. It’s supposed to replace the current Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test that students have been required to take at various grade levels. The new version is a supposed compromise between an official Common Core-based test (known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC) and an MCAS test, which by law must also be based on the state board’s adopted Common Core standards. But a 2015 analysis of practice test items for PARCC suggests that any Common Core-based test would be inferior to MCAS tests based on the state’s pre-Common Core standards.

Amazingly, the Globe couldn’t even tell its readers that the state’s commissioner of education wouldn’t let the public know in January 2017 what percentage of test items on the MCAS 2.0 tests to be given in March 2017 come from PARCC. Bay State Parent did, though.

In another egregious example, Education Week recently blogged on questions that could be asked at the DeVos hearing, which is scheduled for Tuesday, January 17. Not one question came from the many parent groups sending questions for their federal senators to ask, such as here and here and here.

Parents want to know, for example, what DeVos might do “to end Common Core” or “what specific strategies” she has for “reducing USED’s influence on American life.”  Indeed, the Education Week bloggers didn’t bother to mention that parents had concerns, never mind concerns other than the ones that Education Week offered.

If our media are insensitive to parents’ interests in their children’s education and the crucial role they have always played, how do “reformers” expect to make public education in this country the success it once was?

Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.