After two tumultuous years of intermittent school closures, parents and caregivers are claiming their power within the education system in a new way. It ain’t always pretty. Recent board meetings across the country have devolved into chaos as families argue with officials—and each other—over mask and vaccine mandates, critical race theory, and reopening plans.
Remote learning granted parents unprecedented visibility into their children’s learning and required caregivers to be hands-on in their kids’ day-to-day schooling. Activated and emboldened, families are coming forward en masse to voice their opinions. However, politicians are seizing on parents’ efforts and anxieties to stoke arguments that only serve to factionalize adults and do nothing to help children. As a country, we have to make a choice: Do we accept that the intersection of home and school must be characterized by the same partisanship and rancor that permeates so many other aspects of modern American life? Or, do we forge collaborative partnerships that better serve families, educators, and—most importantly—students?
When it comes to kids’ learning, families have long been in the dark. According to research from Learning Heroes, nine out of ten K-8th grade parents think their child is performing on grade level in reading and math, despite the fact that barely one-third of students are actually meeting those standards. With such limited visibility, it is exceedingly difficult for families to be savvy and demanding advocates for their children’s learning needs. Overnight, school closures turned the lights on. For more than a year, Zoom and Google Classroom transported tens of millions of families into the classroom on a daily basis. The notion that America’s education system is falling behind is no longer abstract to parents. It’s in front of our eyes, and it’s personal. Our children’s future hangs in the balance, and we now see it first-hand.
In many ways, this awakened a sleeping giant. The political right has capitalized on families’ angst for partisan purposes. “Parental rights” has become a clarion call to galvanize voters around lightning rod issues. Conservative PACs, for the first time, are pouring resources into school board elections, which have historically largely managed to avoid the crucible of politics.
Indeed, parents can be a formidable political force. However, there’s nothing partisan about parents’ desire to advocate for their kids. That is a natural instinct forged by millions of years of evolution. Our love for our children is a bottomless well, a renewable resource among the most powerful in nature. Behind the shouting matches and clenched fists at school board meetings are impassioned parents desperately seeking any and every measure to give their kids a better life.
We can’t allow our love to be co-opted to win political arguments that focus more on the needs of adults than children. We must find productive ways for families and educators to join forces in service of everyone’s common interest: student learning. It will take intentional planning, tools, and collaboration, but there are already solutions out there to help cultivate these partnerships.
One example is Family-Educator Learning Accelerators (FELAs). These are 5-10-week cycles during which teachers and parents team up to help kids reach learning goals. At the outset, educators and families build a relationship, set a goal, and make a game plan together. Over 5-10 weeks, teachers and parents convene weekly or biweekly to share skills and support each other’s efforts. On a daily basis, students work toward their goals by practicing with their teachers, practicing with their families, and practicing independently. At the end of the cycle, each child’s progress is measured and celebrated. Whereas remote learning felt isolating, amorphous, and interminable for so many families and teachers, FELAs are collaborative, winnable, and timebound. Small wins lead to big wins, helping families, teachers, and students crystallize a new habit: setting and achieving goals together.
The FELA method—and other tools like Academic Parent-Teacher Teams and Family Playlists—offer student-centered alternatives to political skirmishes. Groups like the BELE Network and Danielson Group are working to design policies and standards that center family and community partnerships in schools. Collectively, these efforts will create a more positive and sustainable experience for teachers, who are leaving the profession in droves, and for families, who are struggling to find fruitful ways to engage in their children’s education. But more importantly, these methods will serve students, who are facing an uphill battle to recover from pandemic-induced learning setbacks that may follow them for a lifetime. Kids need the adults in the room to work in tandem, rather than in opposition.
The pandemic has presented an opportunity to reshape the American education system so that families and educators collaborate in service of student learning. Let’s not squander that opportunity by allowing parents’ well-meaning energy to be diverted into cantankerous fights. Let schools be a bastion in which we eschew politics in service of a greater purpose: helping children realize their full potential.