What Is Your Most Important Conversation?

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Most school districts are better at telling parents what children will be having for lunch than they are at explaining what children will be learning the rest of the day. Yes, principals and central office adminaistrators might say the latest buzz words—“Common Core.” Before that, they might have said, “The State makes us do it.” But even school districts with detailed board-approved curriculum objectives (like some of the districts we have worked with) rarely communicate with parents about those objectives—that is, about learning.

Most administrators and teachers—and even some board members—think that very few parents have the time and background they would need in order to think constructively and critically about what their children are learning in the classroom. So why bother to tell them?

But sometimes parents can do more than you think.

The Savannah Story

Years ago, we were working in Savannah, where we had just revised and upgraded the K–8 English, math, science, and social studies curricula. Savannah’s new superintendent, the remarkable Ron Etheridge, decided to send parents the new curriculum objectives for the grades their children were in. (We had done just that earlier in Cleveland when we were working for the Federal District Court on desegregation. We sent home the reading objectives to parents of all children in grades 1–9 in the city. But that’s a different story.)

Back to Savannah. We broke down the objectives into marking periods and sent them home every six weeks so that parents wouldn’t be overwhelmed. We formatted them as checklists so that parents could keep track of what their children were learning. Everyone told Ron that he was wasting the taxpayers’ money. They said that many parents in Savannah wouldn’t even be able to read the “parent checklists.” But we thought something different because we had talked to parents first.

Ron persisted for a year, sending home checklist after checklist after checklist.

The next August when school opened, the central office was late sending out the first parent checklists. Principals around the district said that their phones were ringing off the hook, with parents saying, “Where is my checklist? How do you expect me to help my child this year without my new checklist?”

Wouldn’t you want to be a parent in Savannah?

But What About New York City?

When we worked to open City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology (City Poly) in Brooklyn in 2009, one of the first things we did was talk with founding principal Chris Aguirre—one of the most innovative principals we have ever worked with—about the importance of helping parents focus on the right things. We all agreed that parents should know exactly what their kids were expected to learn. At that time, we were focused on meeting New York State Standards so that students would be successful in passing the Regents Examinations required for high school graduation. We decided to send parent checklists home.

We went straight to the New York State Standards and published them as handy checklists for parents. We encouraged parents to talk to teachers about what was in those checklists. We encouraged teachers to talk to parents—and students—about what was in those checklists. We made posters for the classrooms so that students could see those New York State Standards every day.

Research shows that a goal is much more likely to be reached when everyone is focused on the same goal. Parent checklists help keep the focus on student learning.

Does Learning Improve?

We often say to groups of parents, “How many of you would make any use of a parent checklist of the academic skills your child is expected to learn? For example, would you bring it to a parent-teacher conference? Would you talk to your child about some of the academic skills listed? Would you put it on the refrigerator with a magnet?”

In such an audience, parents’ hands will inevitably go up—sometimes half of them. We say, “What if half of you used the parent checklist of what your child is expected to learn? What if only 25 percent of you did? What if only 10 percent of you did? Would learning improve in your school?” The answer from parents is always “yes.” Learning would improve in a school if even 10 percent of the parents were paying attention to exactly what children were expected to learn.

Wouldn’t you want a parent checklist?

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