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Seeking Something Better Than the Trigger

February 7, 2011

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 SchoolMonth ThreeMonth 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]

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2011 10:49 pm

    David – appreciate the thoughtful critiques from you and your ACT colleagues of our work. A few thoughts I wish you’d grappled with a little more in the post:

    * Your title was “Seeking Something Better Than the Trigger,” but we never got to hear any actual proposals along this front. The closest we got a vague desire for “measures that would actually support all parents and all schools in our pursuing our mutual interests in goodwill.” Would you concede that the balance of power in public education needs a little (or more than a little) re-calibrating in favor of empowering parents? And if so, do you have any concrete ideas on how to further that policy objective better than the Parent Trigger?

    * We absolutely agree that charters are not the solution to what ails public education. We maintain our firm belief that moving forward, the strong majority of parent trigger campaigns will not be demanding charter conversion. In fact, we actually feel quite confident that the most common use of this law won’t be any one of the four transformation options at all, but more subtle negotiated changes achieving through the threat of organized parents effectively using their newfound power as a bargaining chip.

    * Since you apparently love Fensterwald as much as we do, I do wish you had linked to Ben’s post where he explains the above comment and pushes back on some of John’s arguments re: charters

    * Also, you linked to the wrong video. That one pre-dates Parent Trigger, this one is much more relevant now:

    * Obviously nothing in this world is guaranteed to work and there is a panacea for fixing public education. I do, however, wish given you would be a little more open-minded about this law given a) the absolutely disastrous status quo in districts like Compton Unified (and across CA) and b) the complete lack of power historically given to public school parents. It strikes me as quite unfair to only allow parents to pursue kumbaya-type reforms for their kids that enjoy 100% support from all stakeholders, essentially forcing them to get a permission slip in order to change anything about their kids education. In many instances, parents and teachers will march together on school transformation efforts through the Parent Trigger, and that’s great! Sometimes, they’ll disagree, and I think we need to be OK with that too. Disempowering parents b/c we are afraid of potential conflict seems like a cure that is far, far worse than the disease.



    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      February 8, 2011 12:28 am

      Gabe – thank you for taking the time to read and comment and enrich the conversation. I clearly have strong feelings about the issues and disagree with your approach, but I’m glad that we can have a civil disagreement. (If other readers jump in, I’d ask them to maintain the same tone). I also wish to clarify that any critiques that have come from ACT members represent that individual’s viewpoint alone, and not the any formal position or consensus of our members or leadership. Now, taking your points one at a time:
      • You’re right to push me for some more specific ideas on parent engagement, though I’m not going to go much further than to say that I think it looks different in various schools and communities. I believe that the best solutions are going to come from the local level. Larry Ferlazzo and his colleagues at Luther Burbank High School provide a great example, and his blog and book go into more detail. Where I live and work, the issues are much different and the parent engagement strategies are much different. I will not concede that the balance of power needs re-calibrating, because I may believe we parents already have more power than you believe we do, and yet I’m not convinced we should use the mechanism of a parent trigger. I will agree that some schools and districts could do more to encourage parents to use the power they do have when they are deeply involved in the school and local community, because I have seen first hand how that power can work in my own setting. Of course, I’m speaking from a decade grounded in a small suburban district; LAUSD is a much different creature. If you want a suggested measure that would empower parents further without the trigger, I would suggest the state could provide some incentives to schools and districts to work with parents to devise or improve organizational bodies of all stakeholders, to guarantee parent participation and feedback in various reports and accountability measures already in place, and perhaps offer an incentive to schools to create more transparent reporting on how they handle parent concerns and plan to improve parent engagement.
      • It’s nice for you individually to offer some agreement that “charters are not the solution to what ails public education” (and let me clarify something that should have been in the post, which is that I am not opposed to charter schools as a whole, but I am opposed to for-profit charters). However, to the extent that I follow their work, most of your funders and allies seem to want not only a sharp and rapid expansion of charters (and some of their hedge funds are banking on it), but also a serious departure from funding and labor provisions that would be much more radical. I regret if that seems like I’m engaging in some guilt by association, but I think it’s important to recognize that the skepticism around Parent Revolution comes from the top-down nature of the work – the sources of the funding, and the fact that you send people in from outside the community to organize and run a campaign that bypassed parents at key points. Did the Compton parents come to you, or was it the other way around? Did Compton parents have any input on selecting the charter option, or the selection of the specific CMO? If some did, it certainly wasn’t in any open process. Did the petition come with any information on the CMO and their record, or did most parents sign based on a brief conversation and a leap of trust?
      • Ben Austin’s post offers a belated and suspect endorsement of an open and transparent process. The whole mess in Compton was rather predictable (Larry Ferlazzo, again!), but there was no call for transparency (or protection) up front. I can understand that – it would have been quite slow and messy to do things that way, and Parent Revolution needed a publicity score in a shorter time frame. But unfortunately, that’s how we operate in public schools. It’s slow. It’s painful sometimes. It’s necessary. As a community member, parent, and teacher, I’ve seen all sides of years-long debates over calendars, schedules, changes in curriculum, other policies … you could look at it and say it’s process run amok, but decisions made rapidly or without transparency actually produce less confidence in the system and less chance of success with the outcome.
      • You direct me to the newer video, which serves us well for seeing how you frame the law as it stands now, but the tone isn’t much better. The opening gross generalizations about public schools (bad) and parents (good) are insulting. The law doesn’t give parents power to fix schools, only power to change them. The definitions of failing schools, as I noted in my blog, are too simplistic, even misleading. And not content to label the targeted school with an “F” in the video, someone thought it would be clever to give it an “F-“. Nice. Would you concede that the prior video erred in offering the 3-year guarantee?
      • On the final bullet point I think you distort my position and try to paint me as alternatively naïve and paternalistic, but let other readers decide. You ask me to be open-minded as if I’ve somehow failed to consider your points. I considered them. I understand what you’re saying. I just don’t think your approach comes close to addressing the root causes of the problems in most schools, and I don’t think there’s any reason to expect success at a rate any greater than random chance by pursuing unproven turnaround models.



  2. CarolineSF permalink
    February 8, 2011 6:36 am

    A newspaper editorial writer (from a publication that has vigorously endorsed education reform and hammered on public schools and their supporters) told me that their attitude is based on the notion that “we have to try something — anything.”

    That would seem to be the principle behind the Parent Trigger, too.

    Of course, if you consider applying that principle to other areas, such as medicine, you get remedies like bloodletting and lobotomies.

    A movement based purely on the notion that “we have to try something –anything” would already be subject to some skepticism, merely over the efficacy of that principle. When you add in the deep involvement of the charter school industry and individuals in its pay (or, in Gloria Romero’s case at the time, future pay) in the Parent Trigger movement — well, let’s just say that should intensify the skepticism.

  3. February 8, 2011 9:59 am

    Excellent piece, David. I’m urging people at our Facebook page to read it.

    I’m wondering why conversion to a public magnet school is not one of the possible outcomes mentioned in the parent trigger. Same school, perhaps some changes in staff, definitely a new curriculum and focus. There could be tremendous opportunity to engage parents and the surrounding community in re-orienting the school.

    To your knowledge, has this ever been explored?

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      February 8, 2011 12:19 pm

      I’m not sure what the process is for setting up a magnet school, though I did attend one in LAUSD for 5th and 6th grade. Good point, though – I haven’t heard any mention of magnets in this debate.


  1. “Seeking Something Better Than the Trigger” | Engaging Parents In School...
  2. The Best Resources For Learning Why The Parent Trigger Isn’t Good For Parents, Kids Or Schools | Engaging Parents In School...
  3. Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… - The Best Resources For Learning Why The Parent Trigger Isn’t Good For Parents, Kids Or Schools

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