Parents Getting Into the Mix On Improving Public Schools

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The New York Sun

Senators Obama and McCain have a panel of education advisers each, and there is no shortage of school administrators, union bosses, business leaders, and policy wonks who would very much like to be in those ranks.

A new group is urging the presidential candidates to pay attention to another constituency as they craft their education platforms: parents.

Led by two parent organizers — one in New York City and one in Chicago — this group says it’s parents, not the unions, not the CEOs, and not even many of the academics, who have the right idea of how to improve public schools.

“There’s a complete disconnect between what we’re being told by the politicians and the businesspeople about what we should want schools to do, and what parents want schools to do,” the executive director of the Chicago-based Parents United for Responsible Education, Julie Woestehoff, said. “But frankly what parents want schools to do is better for their children. They know best.”

In hope of narrowing the gap, Ms. Woestehoff’s group is issuing a several-page manifesto outlining its ideas for how to improve schools. Among the top suggestions of the document, titled “Common Sense Educational Reforms,” are easing overcrowding; lowering class sizes; offering a more well-rounded curriculum, and increasing parental involvement.

The letter is co-authored by the executive director of the New York City-based advocacy group Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson, and has 75 signatures.

The prescriptions sharply contradict ideas recommended by two major groups this summer that were themselves at odds.

One of those groups, led by Chancellor Joel Klein, recommended tough accountability standards that would lead to the firing of bad teachers and the closing of failing schools; the other, called the Broader, Bolder Agenda, argued that accountability alone cannot dissolve the achievement gap — that additional investments in improving health care and after-school programs are required to do so.

The parents criticize both groups. They dismiss Mr. Klein’s as offering only a beefed-up version of President Bush’s unpopular No Child Left Behind law. Mr. Klein’s prescriptions are “NCLB on steroids,” the parents’ letter says.

They also reject charter schools, which are embraced by Mr. Klein and his supporters as a means of giving opportunities to poor children. The Common Sense group says charter schools actually further exacerbate income disparities by admitting only children who can do well at their schools and leaving the rest to flounder.

Admission at charter schools is regulated by strict lotteries in New York, but the parents argue that only the savvy students apply to them, and they say that the schools encourage more troubled students to leave.

The parents’ statement also criticizes the Broader, Bolder Agenda’s argument that schools alone cannot end the achievement gap.

“We cannot and we should not give up on schools being able to make a really transformational difference in kids’ lives,” Ms. Haimson said.

In addition to parent organizers from New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, some teachers and academics signed the petition.

The director of a teacher training program for elementary schools at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Celia Oyler, said she signed the petition because its concerns with standardized testing resonate with her experience.

“In New York City elementary schools, the pressure to raise children’s standardized test scores has systematically stripped many of resources,” Ms. Oyler said. “In too many classrooms, ‘test prep’ has become the curriculum.”

The New York Sun

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