Almost all schools need parent volunteers, and educators will universally agree that getting supportive parents and other family members to be part of the educational process is crucial. This involvement can be anything from just making sure a child does their homework all the way through volunteering at the school, tutoring, helping the PTA organize schoolwide events, raising money, attending school board meetings and other district events and forums, or dozens of other ways parents can (and should) get involved. Parents have essentially become the part-time workforce upon which our schools rely, particularly in this age where public education is being defunded.
Each school district will likely have its own approach to engage parents and other community members. The ones more focused on this engagement often have inclusive decision-making processes with multiple community committees and other ways to encourage involvement and feedback (both positive and negative). But even if they do, it’s inherently a self-selection process as parents will choose how (and for what issues) they want to get involved (or choose not to get involved). Many of the specifics are dependent upon both the size and culture of a particular community, but I believe that most districts recognize the power of the community energy unleashed by such involvement, but often struggle to harness it well.
Part of this is based on the fact that in modern public education, parents are placed in the odd position of being simultaneously the customer, the shareholder (as taxpayer), and the part-time (unpaid) employee of the school district. And this relationship happens on a daily basis – very few services are consumed with the frequency of public education. There is no relationship on earth, with either public or private institutions, that rivals this intimacy.
This dynamic creates a number of side effects on both ends of the spectrum. On one end, there are communities where it is difficult to harness this type of community energy, which could be based on factors like limited economic resources and/or a less-educated parent community. Parents may just not have the time, money, or knowledge to be involved to the extent the school needs them to be. On the other end of the spectrum are parents who crave to be involved and whose schools thrive on such involvement. But a segment of these often highly-educated, higher-resource parents take the stance that they “know better” than the hired “experts” at the school. Although it’s certainly possible that any individual parent is an expert, most are not (and even if they were, it doesn’t mean they understand everything that’s actually going on in that school).
There is a fundamental difference between being involved intimately in supporting schools and actually running a school or educating children. We’ve all had the experience of believing we can run the restaurant better because we all eat. But intellectually, we know it’s very different to actually run a restaurant than to patronize one. Yet we are all too easily tempted to believe that we better understand how to educate children because we all went to school.
Already schools deal daily with parents who are requesting that their kids be in certain teachers’ classes, complaining about a teacher or a policy, or arguing with a teacher over their kid’s grades. Although most parents are actually quite supportive of their schools and their teachers (and many of the criticisms are justified), it would be disingenuous not to recognize the incredible burden of time, effort, communication, and justification that our public schools have to carry because of the organization’s accessibility and intimacy with its community. Although not common, there are more extreme examples, such as parents actually telling principals or teachers “you work for me” (yes, that happens!) or parents suing the school district because of a minor procedural error made in a child’s Individualized Education Program (on a related note, there is an interesting article in the University of Chicago Law Review about the side effects of our current adversarial system for enforcing special education services).
Also, this dynamic can lead to convenient sounding yet ultimately flawed policy decisions; for example, allowing a “parent trigger” to fire principals, teachers, or even a superintendent because a school is underperforming. It grossly simplifies the likely issue with that school and makes an inherent assumption that the parents somehow know better. Although there may be examples where this is true, they are likely the exception. To be clear, I am not excusing poorly performing schools (or teachers or administrators or board members) – there should be accountability and remedies to address problems. But automatically assuming that parents know better is a very dangerous slippery slope.
Parents and all community members can believe multiple truths that are not in contradiction: that it is absolutely our job to demand great schools and to hold people accountable, but at the same time have a level of humility to recognize the fact that we are not experts, that schools only succeed as a partnership between the school the community, and that there is a fundamental difference between being a foodie and running a restaurant.
Seth Rosenblatt is the president of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District, currently in his second term. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, in regional and national publications as well as on his own blog. In his business career, Seth has more than 20 years of experience in media and technology, including executive positions in both start-up companies and large enterprises. Seth currently operates his own consulting firm for technology companies focused on strategy, marketing, and business development. Seth holds a B.A. in Economics from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.