By Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN
Should parents who are unhappy with their local school have the power to replace the entire staff, turn it into a charter school or shut it completely – even if just 51% of the school’s families agree?
It’s an enticing, polarizing proposal, the so-called “parent trigger.” It’s also now a law in four states and the subject of debate in scores of others. But is it a good idea? In the end, will parent trigger laws help parents more effectively ensure a high-quality public education for their children, or will they result in a reckless short-circuiting of the democratic process itself?
The answer, of course, is “it depends,” and what it depends on is the way parents and communities go about evaluating the quality of their neighborhood schools – and, when necessary, deciding on the most constructive path forward.
Here’s what we know: having more parents more directly engaged in the education of their children is a highly desirable goal. If teachers are the incremental x-factor to a student’s success in school, parents are the exponential p-factor to their child’s success both in school and in life. So I’m for anything that has the chance to help parents better understand what great teaching and learning really looks like – and requires.
We also know that for far too long, a family’s ZIP code has determined their child’s access to the American dream, and too many neighborhood schools have failed to inspire and elevate the passions and possibilities of the students they serve. So I’m also for anything that gives poor families better choices when it comes to where their child goes to school.
But here’s the rub: If people want to be effective as a group, they must agree on exactly what it is they want to do and how they want to go about it. And from what I can tell, the organization at the center of the storm over these laws, a California-based group called Parent Revolution, hasn’t paid sufficient attention to how the parents they work with will make thoughtful, informed decisions. That’s troubling, because absent a clear, deliberative process, ideas like a parent trigger law will be little more than recipes for discord and dissent, not pathways to better schools for the kids who deserve them.
What should we do instead? Why not equip every American citizen with two books: Robert’s Rules of Order – the guide that has been used since 1867 to help groups of people make sound decisions; and How People Learn, the National Research Council’s helpful summary of the latest research about learning and the brain. (We could even get an entity like the Gates Foundation to pay for them.) Then we could urge people across the country to start wrestling more actively with a small set of “best questions”: How do people learn best? What are the characteristics of an optimal learning environment? And how can we create an environment like that at [your neighborhood school]?
The advantage of arming every citizen this way would be twofold: Our conversations about schooling would become grounded in the latest research about learning, and our efforts to deliberate in diverse groups would become more equitable and efficient. After all, one of the paradoxes of democracy is that in order to exercise freedom responsibly, we must impose a certain level of regulation - simple structures lead to complex thinking.
Will a national book club of this sort make all our problems and disagreements over school reform go away? Of course not. But imagine if all this local energy and activism was informed by a deeper shared consideration of the art and science of teaching, learning and decision-making. Creating a healthy school is difficult to do, and quick actions taken by desperate families will never yield lasting recipes for success. Only when we have a clearer sense of how to evaluate the current state of our schools can we explore what needs to be done to make them better.
Anything less is little more than a nation of parents with itchy trigger fingers – and that’s never good for democracy.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sam Chaltain.