Are black parents ready for the “parent trigger”?

29 Sep

As thought leaders, administrators and educators explore a myriad of solutions for what we all agree is a looming state of crisis in American education, the subject of parental engagement has made the short list of proposed strategies.

In a NY Times editorial last week, author Peg Tyre elevated this dialogue to another level when she raised then option of the “parent trigger”–a concept that is being proposed in more than 20 states to recognize and increase the impact of engaged parents and, I would argue, possibly bring another layer of complication.

According to Tyre, California was the first to adopt this trigger. Here’s how it works there: “parents whose children attend a failing school can band together. If 51 percent of them sign a petition, they can demand, and the district must provide, a new set of administrators to run the school. Alternately, the disgruntled parents can ask that a charter school operator be brought in to take over.”

On the subject of parental engagement in a child’s education, the research is clear: parents matter…a lot! Research consistently shows that parent involvement—in the home and at the school—has a significant influence on student achievement. Literature shows that students whose parents are involved in their children’s schooling have increased academic performance and overall cognitive development. For most people, that’s somewhat of a no brainer.

And while the notion of institutionalizing and operationalizing parental engagement has some appeal, how would it work in communities and districts where parents are systemically disengaged, uninformed and, themselves, undereducated?

Several research studies highlight the differences in the parental involvement of African American and Hispanic parents as compared to their white and Asian peers. This topic has also been reflected in discourse among educators and administrators. This phenomenon was reinforced for me recently when I encountered African-American parent who had no clue that her child had been truant for three weeks.

There are several reasons and barriers that inform this reality, but in many school districts, it is a reality nonetheless. If parental engagement is to elevate as the next big “it strategy” for reforming public schools, then attention must be paid to this racial/ethnic gap in parental engagement, and to getting more black parents up to speed to ensure this does not become yet another area where glaring disparity is perpetuated. If ever there was a case of “be careful what you ask for,” this is it.

I don’t propose to have a silver bullet either. In all honesty, it is a phenomenon that has left me at times dispirited in my work with African-American students over the past decade. But, I do think it has to start with this conversation. With juggling the various barriers and limitations in everyday life, many parents simply don’t have time or know how to support their child’s academic success…simply don’t know where to start.

We are trying to help with our parent-student contract that enables parents and children to talk about expectations for success in school and the behaviors that lead to it, and to hold themselves and their children more accountable to communicating and staying actively engaged during the school year. It’s a good start at helping parents express their commitment to their children, incorporate incentives along with consequences, and to set specific milestones for monitoring their child’s progress.

If you are a parent who is not fully engaged, or if you know one, let the discussion and the move to change start with you. How can you commit to ensure that, as parental engagement becomes a part of our public policy to reform education, minority parents are not left behind?


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