Seeking Something Better Than the Trigger
California’s State Board of Education will be revisiting the “parent trigger” law in their meeting this week, and newspaper editorial boards up and down the state are opining in favor of keeping the law in place. Their uniform opinion is generally uninformed in a few key regards:
1. It’s wrong to assume that we can identify with enough precision which schools are underperforming.
2. It’s not real parent empowerment.
3. The solutions don’t address the problem, or offer better chances of success.
Before tackling those three ideas in greater detail, I must say I have great sympathy for parents who might be looking for greater input in their children’s schools, and who might be frustrated at the lack of options. My opposition to the parent trigger idea shouldn’t be construed as a teacher siding against parents. (I have two sons in public elementary schools). The main source of my opposition is the conviction that most teachers and most schools are doing the best they can under difficult, sometimes dysfunctional circumstances, and the parent trigger only introduces greater tension and potential dysfunction, fostering conflict among potential allies rather than galvanizing efforts to join together, forging coalitions to work for solutions. It would be far better to organize stakeholders to address the real sources of our main problems further up the flow chart, at district and state levels. My colleague and co-blogger Martha Infante has done an excellent job of detailing how outside pressure to improve can actually make it harder to improve. If you want to understand the damage done by simplistic labels, rigid formulas, bogus options and false solutions, I highly recommend these three blog posts: Month One as a Failing School… Month Three… Month Five). In the last of these posts, Martha writes about having to donate her time and extra work to keep up with charter operators that can pay their staff for a full-time effort to take over the school. Nice to know that while the budget means teacher layoffs, the “philanthropists” can afford to hire.
Here’s an interesting way to look at the problem from a California perspective, courtesy of my state senator, Joe Simitian, who offered these numbers as rough approximations in a community meeting on Saturday, February 5th, 2011. A decade ago, California’s budget was around $78 billion. Had we kept pace with inflation and population growth, our current budget would be in the neighborhood of $118 billion, but instead, the current budget cycle is focusing on a plan that might land around $86 billion. Essentially, in the past decade, our state has slashed spending overall by nearly 30%. With layoffs, furloughs, larger classes, and all manner of new curricula and rotating mandates, teachers and schools are already laboring under incredible stress. Parent engagement in such circumstances can be a tremendous support to the school and teachers, but bracing for a revolution organized by an outside professional campaign is no help at all.
So, why is the parent trigger law currently on the books such a poor mechanism for school reform?
1. It’s wrong to assume that we can identify with enough precision which schools are underperforming. It’s one thing to think a school is underperforming, but another to place it on a list when such a move creates significant legal and financial ramifications. And if we’re going to be honest about this, the state’s API rankings really don’t offer any certainty about “performance” unless you are content to take state test scores as the functional measure of performance. We already know quite well that test scores match up with community poverty more than any other factor; there are no affluent failing schools in California. So basically, we’re using tests to tell us what we already know. The fact that API rankings break down the results to show performance comparisons to similar schools does not help: it’s too much like a distinction without a difference. Coming in first place among the losers or last place among the elite leaves you right where you started, either among the losers or the elite. I’m not saying the schools don’t vary, but rather that tests and API rankings aren’t a useful measure. (For a more complex picture of the purposes of education, most of which have nothing to do with our rankings, consider reading The Goals of Education by Richard Rothstein and Rebecca Jacobsen). Furthermore, a recent analysis of California data shows how schools can be mislabeled. And in one of my favorite examples, an EdSector study of Florida high schools showed that with state “report card” grades of “A” and “D” failed to predict which high school did the best job of preparing graduates for college: the “D” rated school was producing students with higher college grades and retention. Would a parent trigger law in Florida lead to unwarranted changes based on faulty information?
2. It’s not real parent empowerment. My colleague Larry Ferlazzo is something of an expert on parent engagement with schools, whose parent engagement blog and book are both informed by continual practice with his colleagues and community. Larry has been quite vocal and eloquent, in multiple writings, about why the parent trigger is a flawed approach. California PTA President Jo A.S. Loss, posting at Thoughts on Public Education, offered a guest commentary with similar misgivings about the parent trigger in its current form. In the one case where a parent trigger petition has been submitted, the parents were not presented with a list of options prior to the circulation of the petition, and reports state that some parents were misled about the petition’s purpose. The lack of transparency about options and the selection process should be a huge warning sign. Furthermore, when a supposed “parent” revolution operates in secrecy to avoid detection by the parents currently most involved with the school, it’s hard to trust their motives, or to believe that the “trigger” is being pulled to foster productive, ongoing parent engagement.
3. The solutions don’t address the problem, or offer better chances of success. There is nothing about this law or process that actually makes any effort to analyze or understand the root causes of persistently low performance. Even if those causes could be identified, the law doesn’t empower anyone to act with any careful thought or precision to address the problems. Instead, petitioners have limited choices, none of which has a proven track record, and in fact, conversion of some schools has just led to the exact same results. Doesn’t this suggest that schools are struggling with many community factors beyond their control? A true school turnaround is an incredibly challenging task – one that many reformers are acknowledging takes years if it happens at all. Meanwhile, the Parent Revolution has a video to encourage parent trigger petitions, in which we hear the ridiculously simplistic and vague claim, “we will guarantee your child a great school within 3 years.” There’s no evidence that as a group, charters outperform traditional public schools; the best argument you could make would be that the results are quite mixed, though I think the CREDO study makes the strongest case for tempered enthusiasm or expectations regarding charters.
Parent trigger supporters might counter that the law does not dictate charter schools as a solution, and strictly speaking, that’s true. However, for a good analysis of why, in practice, parent trigger petitions are most likely to aim for charter schools, see Thoughts on Public Education, by John Fensterwald. Not just on that point, but overall, Fensterwald has pulled together a strong sampling of information and opinions, and offers a well-balanced examination of the issues – weighing the principles of parental rights and the legitimate concerns about flaws in this particular law. His conclusion: “If the law is to be more than hope and hype, the parent-trigger regulations must be written right. The new board was smart to take its time – and a second look.” I concur, but only with the hope that the second look will be the one before the law is discarded in favor of measures that would actually support all parents and all schools in our pursuing our mutual interests in goodwill.
[EDIT, 2/9/12: removed a reference to a blog post I intended to write for follow-up but never completed]