Are Parent Trigger Laws a Good Idea?

It’s hard not to feel excited for the group of parents who successfully took over their California community’s school, and who now are dreaming of bigger things. “Our children will now get the education they deserve,” said Doreen Diaz, whose daughter attends Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto. “We are on the way to making a quality school for them, and there’s no way we will back down.”

It’s equally hard to feel confident that this story will have the ending Ms. Diaz and others envision. For starters, any proposed changes at the school won’t take place until 2013. What happens when the majority of parents who spearheaded the campaign move onto the local middle school? Will a majority of the parents who opposed the trigger seek to switch the school’s focus a second time? And with something as complex as creating a healthy school in an environment beset by poverty — 100% of the school’s students are eligible for the free lunch program — how can the members of this community become fluent around issues of teaching and learning to make thoughtful choices about the future direction of their school?

A few months back, I suggested that this debate could provide an opportunity for the nation to step up its game in two areas — making effective group decisions and understanding how people learn — via a massive national book club (hello, Oprah?).

Clearly, this will never happen. But here’s something that must: a series of well-facilitated community conversations and meetings that help all residents of the Desert Trails attendance zone imagine their ideal school, and then work backwards to make that ideal real.

A great starting point would be to ask everyone in Adelanto to share the story of the most powerful learning experience of their lives — and then to stitch those stories together in order to build a school that is designed to create those types of experiences for all kids. I’ve been gathering people’s learning stories for years now, and they all point to a small set of core conditions that any good school must possess.

In fact, I can guarantee that the sort of place the parents of Desert Trails seek will need to be challenging, engaging and supportive, and that what kids learn will need to feel relevant to their lives and be as hands-on as possible. That means any proposal disproportionately concerned with raising kids’ test scores should be rejected outright, as should any proposal that doesn’t offer kids a balanced curriculum that includes physical education, the arts, and an approach to learning that gets kids outside of the classroom and into their communities. It means throwing out any proposal that isn’t clear about how it will equally foster a child’s intellectual, social and emotional growth. It means ignoring any proposal that doesn’t directly address how it will provide wraparound services for the children and families of Adelanto, whose needs extend far beyond the schoolhouse door. And it means tossing any plan that isn’t explicit about how it will provide all of these resources in a community where school funding is still determined by local property taxes.

In other words, anything is possible — and this thing in particular is really, really hard.

Categories: Equity, Learning, Organizational Change, Parenting

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