Thursday, December 27, 2012

Parents: Ask the Questions. Tell the Story. Take Action.

I have created a Facebook page to support parents in learning more about Colorado's schools, but specifically to learn more about what to look for - what questions to ask in order to find out about real learning and real teaching in your child's classroom.  I have spent a lot of time in Colorado schools, much of that time supporting administrators and teachers in growing as reflective practitioners. While the Facebook page is set up specifically for Colorado, please know that it will benefit any parent in any state.

I created the Facebook page, Parents: What Colorado School Grades Doesn't Want You to Know as a result of being banned from posting comments on Colorado School Grades FB page, which grades schools based on standardized test data received from the CDE (Colorado Department of Education). The one thing I know clearly is this - standardized state test scores tell us very little if anything about our public schools. It tells me which areas are affluent and which are not. And, as a parent, surface level questions with predetermined answers are not enough to help me determine the growth my child has made as a learner and as a citizen. It is misleading to grade schools based on high stakes testing and it tells a false narrative about students, educators, schools and communities, and therefore parents, you need to be asking the questions and telling the story. Don't let the CDE or Colorado School Grades create a false narrative for your child, your child's teacher or your community.

Having worked in "F" schools I can tell you right now that the growth the children make is often astounding in these schools. "F" schools are often schools in which many children are on free and reduced lunch. There are often children with special needs and others who are learning a second language. The growth these children are making as they grapple with a new language or a special need is mind boggling - their brilliance should be commended, not punished. The expertise of the veteran teachers is immense and should be praised. Having worked in "A" schools I would also be interested in seeing the importance the school places on state test scores. While many "A" schools would excel anyway, simply because the children come from homes full of books and the school is fully resourced with quality teachers, librarians and more,  there is also the chance that the school has defined itself by its test scores and is sending the children a message that these scores are valued more than other assessment of learning, such as portfolio or project based learning. Many "A" schools pride themselves on their test scores because it's great for the real estate market, not so great for real learning - so just be careful and ask the right questions - the grade a school gets is not enough to know if creative, critical and conceptual thinking is occurring in your child's classroom.

Begin by talking to your child. Next, talk to your child's teacher. Here are a few questions to ask your child's teacher  (and the questions can be tweaked and you can ask your child the same questions). Feel free to add on to the questions in the comment space. 

  • What growth has your child made as a reader, writer, mathematician, a citizen?
  • Has your child learned to problem solve as a reader in new genres? Ask for examples.
  • Is your child able to draft and revise while keeping the needs of the audience in mind? Ask for examples.
  • How does your child work within a group? 
  • Does your child express his or her opinion? When and how (in writing? speaking?)
  • What has your child created or accomplished this semester as a musician, artist, athlete? Ask for examples.
  • Ask the teacher to show you projects your child has completed and specifically ask what growth occurred during the work on this project.
  • Do the projects allow your child's creativity or "voice" to shine through?  How so?
  • Has your child written on topics that s/he has independently chosen? Ask for examples.
  • What books has your child chosen to read, when given free choice for reading? 
  • Is your school using a program for math, reading, or writing? And if so, what freedom does the teacher have to make decisions about when and how to use the program? Ask the teacher, does s/he like the program? And if not, what would s/he do differently?
  • Does your child have recess? How long? What does your child do during recess time?
  • What sort of seat work does your child do? How much time is spent doing seat work?
These are just a few questions to ask. The body of evidence for each learner is rich. If your child's teacher shows you state test data and nothing more, don't stop there - push for more information - daily assignments, artwork, reading logs, writing pieces, push push push. Do not allow your child to be defined by a single test score.

It is time to shift the narrative, but to do so, we need to be the ones asking the questions and sharing the answers. The corporate education reformers have shaped the narrative around isolated numbers - these numbers take the heart out of teaching and learning and destroy the souls of communities.  The corporate education reformers take these numbers and create a story for each school - some stories are full of success, others are full of failure, in either case, the narrative is a false one because it is based on isolated numbers with no connection to real learning and teaching. It is a story defined by corporations who have predetermined your child's growth as a learner based on surface level questions with finite answers - this story is orchestrated so that the corporations can profit off of public education - tidy numbers are easy to crunch and easy to cash in on - real learning and teaching is messy and comes with passion that cannot be bought and sold.

So, start asking the questions and create a new story about your school and the learners and educators working inside that community, doing their best to learn and grow in a system which defines them by hollow numbers. Find out about the creative, conceptual and critical thinking that occurs in your child's classroom - if it's not there find out why! Discover how your child's teacher is resisting and rebuilding amidst a system which would prefer s/he remain silent and let the powers that be cash in on every child in the classroom. Perhaps you will discover that the teacher's hands are tied and the teacher is required to skill/drill for the test - if so, do something about it!

Start asking the real questions. If you need help determining what to ask or what action to take, post on the FB page - other parents and educators will be happy to share. Watch the story change and evolve into something much more intriguing and engaging than a number. Watch your child evolve as a learner. Watch the heart of learning and teaching seep back into the story.

When you know your child's story, whatever it may be, I guarantee that action will follow - you will feel the need to voice your opinion about your child's fabulous school. Perhaps you will discover that your child's school has been graded unfairly due to high stakes testing and you will feel the need to do something about it. Perhaps you will discover that the librarian or orchestra teacher was cut from the budget. Perhaps you will find out that your child's teacher is a force to be reckoned with and is refusing the mandates and allowing creativity to blossom within the classroom. As the story evolves amidst your child's potential and growth as a learner, please share. We can all learn from one another and we can improve and preserve our public schools for all children. Don't allow the corporations to write our story for us - do it yourself.  Arm yourself with knowledge and become empowered.


  1. Peggy, the questions parents ask teachers and principals are the key to a better understanding of a child's "real" progress. As a former principal, I would suggest sending the questions in advance of the meeting giving everyone involved ample time to think and prepare. Keep up the good work & HAPPY NEW YEAR. ~Bart

  2. Not only should parents be asking teachers these questions, but school boards should be asking administration these same questions.

    And, since most school boards do not know to ask these questions, they too should be educated by teachers, parents, or any citizen to begin asking these very same questions of administration...because, as you say;

    tidy numbers are easy to crunch and easy to cash in on - real learning and teaching is messy and comes with passion that cannot be bought and sold.