Most schools are better at telling parents what children will be having for lunch than they are at explaining what children will be learning the rest of the day. So I was not surprised—though I was concerned—when a recent nationwide Gallup poll reported that only 32 percent of superintendents agreed or strongly agreed that “parents have a good understanding of our district’s academic model and curriculum” (quoted from the November survey report entitled Understanding Perspectives on Public Education in the U.S.—Results of a Gallup Survey of K–12 School District Superintendents: Survey 2).
Many administrators and teachers—and even some board members, who should know better—think that very few parents have the time and background they would need in order to think constructively and critically about what their kids are learning in the classroom. But sometimes parents know more than you think.
The problem is to figure out how districts should provide parents with the help they need in order to get a good understanding of their district’s curriculum—because I would like to see those Gallup poll numbers go up next time around.
I have found that even school districts with curriculum objectives, approved by their own local school boards, rarely communicate those objectives to parents—that is, curriculum objectives that detail what students are supposed to learn. My nonprofit solved that problem years ago. I showed the solution to a savvy superintendent quite recently. He said, “If only we had it! It would make such a difference.” Well, here “it” is.
When my nonprofit organization was working in Cleveland for the Federal District Court, the school district was the subject of more Court orders on desegregation than you could count. Among other things, the Court was deadly serious about improving the reading achievement of Cleveland students and about closing the gap in the reading test scores of Cleveland’s black and white students. We did a lot of things in Cleveland to try to make that happen—with remarkably good results. But maybe the most surprising thing we did was to send home checklists of the newly revised and improved reading objectives to parents of all Cleveland public school children in grades 1–9.
Many people told Roger Lulow, the smart and gutsy State-appointed superintendent, that this idea was a waste of time. Lots of Cleveland parents won’t even be able to read the “parent checklists,” people said. After all, the objectives in the parent checklists were the exact same objectives that the teachers themselves were teaching in the classrooms. And even if parents could read them, people said, they wouldn’t be able to help their kids learn them. Fortunately, Roger didn’t listen.
Instead, we went on to write parent handbooks—one for each grade. Each handbook contained the reading objectives, of course. For each objective, we provided a short explanation of what the objective meant, a couple of easy-to-do activities for use at home to help kids learn it, and a test question just like the ones that would be used to test that objective in the new district tests we had written. The user-friendly parent handbooks turned out to be so helpful that churches and community groups started using them to tutor kids in after-school programs.
This is how a district can make its curriculum an open book for parents. This is how to get that Gallup poll number up.
A few years later, we were working in Savannah, where we had just revised and upgraded the K–8 English, math, science, social studies, and health curricula. Savannah’s new superintendent, the remarkable Ron Etheridge, decided to send parents all of the new curriculum objectives for the grades their children were in—just as we had done in Cleveland with reading.
We broke down the curriculum objectives into marking periods and sent them home every six weeks so that parents wouldn’t be overwhelmed. We formatted the objectives, as we had in Cleveland, as actual checklists with boxes in front of each objective so that parents could keep track of what their children were learning. People were worried that Ron was wasting the taxpayers’ money. But we knew that he wasn’t—because we had talked to Savannah parents first.
Ron persisted for a year, sending home checklist after checklist after checklist. The next August when school opened, the central office was late sending out the first parent checklists. Principals around the district said that their phones were ringing off the hook, with parents saying, “Where is my checklist? How do you expect me to help my child this year without my new checklist?”
We have sent out parent checklists in a variety of districts, including in one tiny rural northern California district filled with the kids of migrant workers. They always work.
Research and common sense tell us that a goal is much more likely to be reached when everyone is focused on that same goal. Parent checklists help keep everyone’s focus on student learning—objective by objective.
We often say to groups of parents in meetings, “How many of you would make any use at all of a parent checklist of the academic skills your child is expected to learn? For example, would you bring it to a parent–teacher conference? Would you talk to your child about some of the academic skills listed? Would you put it on the refrigerator with a magnet?”
In such an audience, some parents’ hands will always go up—sometimes half of them. Then we say, “What if half of you used the parent checklist in some sensible way? What if only 25 percent of you did? What if only 10 percent of you did? Would learning improve in your school?” The answer from parents is always the same—“Yes.” And that’s the truth. Learning would improve in a school if even 10 percent of the parents were paying attention to exactly what children were expected to learn.
We used to tell audiences of school staff members and board members that printing checklists to distribute to parents doesn’t cost much—maybe a dollar each. We used to say that districts couldn’t think of a better way to spend a dollar per student—that is, a cheaper way to improve learning. I guess now a district could put parent checklists on its website so the district isn’t spending anything at all on printing. Or a district could do both, because not every parent is going to go onto the website. And a district could print those checklists in whatever languages its parents speak. Districts still can’t think of a better way to spend a dollar per student.
So that’s my solution for how to get that Gallup number up.
It is time to take a look at what your superintendent is doing to make sure that parents in your district have a good understanding of your curriculum:
All parents: Ask your school board to discuss how important it is to the board that parents have a good understanding of the curriculum. Ask the board to get input from your PTAs as part of the discussion. Ask the board to have the superintendent rate district parents’ current understanding of the curriculum, just as the superintendents who responded to the Gallup poll did.
Ask the board to discuss the idea of creating parent checklists of the objectives that make up your district’s curriculum. Does your district have clearly written objectives that could be disseminated to parents? If not, should it? How should parent checklists be disseminated to parents—on the district website, at school open houses, by children taking them home, or by mail?
This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to talk with the superintendent about these ideas before the meeting.
If you are interested, you can download a free copy of one of the parent checklists my organization created for the Early College high school I co-founded in New York City. In these checklists, we used the New York State Learning Standards as the content. Your checklists could use state standards, too, if they are any good and if your district doesn’t have specific curriculum objectives adopted by the board. Read the cover letter from founding principal Chris Aguirre to his parents. You will see that he had expectations for everyone—not just for his students.