Testing and accountability policy has consistently been held up as a way to empower parents, especially in poor neighborhoods. Give parents clear, objective information about how schools are doing, and schools, facing complaints from parents and shrinking enrollments as parents opt to send their children elsewhere, will be pressured to reform themselves. In essence, accountability policies have aspired to create a breed of super-consumers who, like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in the movie Won’t Back Down, act as reform-oriented rebels taking on an entrenched, unfeeling education bureaucracy.
If only parent empowerment were that simple…
In reality, parent empowerment is a complicated process, one that demands a more holistic intervention than a single school report card—especially if the intended targets for mobilization are poor parents.
The Challenges of Poor Parent Empowerment
Ten years ago, UCLA professor John Rogers published a case study of a parent activism group in Los Angeles known as Parent-U-Turn, which organized poor and minority parents into a collective force capable of changing policy in their districts. The case study shed light not only on the activities of the group, but also the nature of education participation among poor parents.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
A key observation in the study was this: Testing and accountability policies like those embodied in NCLB (and now its predecessor ESSA) exhibit a notion of parent empowerment that is closely aligned with the idea of consumer power. In this way, school report cards are designed to operate much like consumer reports for other products, letting consumers known if the products they’re using are high-quality or dangerously defective. Moreover, when parents are unsatisfied with their schools, they are encouraged to use the information to act as consumers would—by bringing their individual complaints to local educators or enrolling their child elsewhere. In this way, education reform would be driven by millions of individual consumers acting autonomously in their own self-interest.
This vision of education reform might work in some environments, but as Rogers points out, it has little value for poor parents, who historically have achieved power not as individual consumers acting alone, but as collectivities acting together. This is an important observation, albeit one that may not be surprising. After all, scholars of political participation have shown us that low-income people tend to have fewer of the tools necessary for political participation. They have significantly less resources (namely, time and money) than wealthier people. They also tend to be less educated, less politically engaged, and less trusting of their ability to adequately express their concerns to policymakers. Furthermore, they are less likely to be asked to participate or give their opinion on important issues. As a result, when poor parents are provided with information about school quality, they may not have the resources, skills, and social networks to act upon it.
Thus, if we are serious about improving the schools in poor communities, Rogers argues there must also be a shift in the narrative of school reform away from “consumer power” and toward “public power.” Unlike consumer power, public power entails parents advancing their goals through collective action. Through public power, parents are organized into newly conscious publics seeking school improvement. They are given the opportunity and resources to systematically learn about education problems in their community, investigate the causes of those problems, deliberate about solutions, and advocate their ideas in public forums. Whereas consumer power mobilizes the individual, public power vitalizes the entire community—uniting the parents around a commonly established vision of school quality and giving them a platform from which to advocate for it. Moreover, the focus is not just on one’s own child, but all children in the community.
Collective Ways Forward
What might this look like in practice? For starters, revised accountability systems could include parents in the deliberations that define school quality and use them to help create more useful report card indicators. (This is already partially the case in some places, such as Rhode Island, where parents and community members are asked to participate in a survey each year about their perceptions of school quality, and the results are widely published). Additionally, when schools are identified as struggling, parents could be asked to offer their own explanations or investigate the causes themselves by researching and communicating with others in their neighborhoods. At the same time, districts could set aside resources for the creation of institutionalized parent advocacy organizations that would be consulted in all major policy debates.
More importantly, however, any attempt to promote parent empowerment among the poor must also include wide-ranging social welfare policies from the state and federal level aimed at building the capacity of these individuals to participate—by providing them with the resources, skills, and communication channels that will allow them to organize and advocate for themselves. The challenges facing the empowerment of poor parents are macroeconomic in nature and they cannot be solved by local institutions alone.
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