Engaging parents to advance higher expectations

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By Cheryl A. Redfield

Recent events in the long pursuit of common ground with policymakers around support for Common Core has left me scratching my head and searching for answers.

The reality is that too many state legislatures have disregarded over four years of impressive teaching and learning in our nation's schools.

As an educator, I find the new standards to be sound, vertically aligned from one grade level to the next, and setting a much higher bar for what my students should know and be able to do. I appreciate that my eighth graders are expected to meet the same high expectations as other students their age across the state and nation. And the curriculum I use can be tailored to meet the specific needs of my students and their communities.

My intense, daily work with the new standards originally led me to believe that legislators protested against them because they did not understand the benefits—nor did they possess the classroom experience of early adopters who saw their own practice and students’ learning transform for the better.

But I don’t believe this anymore.

Now I know that legislators do understand the benefits of Common Core. Many of them have heard the collective wisdom and expertise of hundreds of teachers who stood before them, in senate and house education committee hearings, to testify on behalf of the new standards. Hundreds of educators have also written letters to governors and state boards of education, composed op-eds, and shared their stories via blogs and social media.

The fact that over 75 percent of educators (teachers, administrators, and superintendents) support the Common Core leaves me perplexed by the rash of bills opposing the new standards circulating through some state legislatures.

A few months back, as I pondered how to deal with this disregard for our professional expertise, I decided to shift my focus. My advocacy in support of the standards will continue—but I will share my message directly with the most crucial and influential stakeholders: parents.

When my children were in school, my husband and I were highly involved in their learning. Even though I was not an educator at the time, we did not hesitate for a moment to support our children’s teachers, even when the schoolwork proved to be academically, intellectually, and personally challenging.

We knew the high expectations their teachers demanded were what our children needed to be successful in college and their future careers.

Most teachers have encountered parents who feel confused, concerned, or outright angry about the new standards. But I believe these feelings come from parents comparing their past academic experiences with their children's current struggles. Parents are responding to new concepts and methodologies, not the actual standards. Perhaps the position some parents have taken in opposition to the standards speaks more about their discomfort with new approaches to teaching than a full-out disregard for what professional educators know and do.

I have found too often that parents’ concern with school policies stems from limited or insufficient communication between teachers, schools, and districts about how these policies will impact their children’s classroom experience.

However, when teachers engage parents as partners in the process, they provide critical insight that we would not otherwise receive.

Four years ago, as educators grappled with implementing the standards, there was little if any communication with parents. At the same time, a flurry of bills opposing the Common Core appeared in state legislatures. It’s no surprise that teachers encountered significant parental pushback as a result.

But teachers know all too well that parents are key advocates in supporting teachers and children’s learning. A 2013 report from the Council of the Great City Schools advised teachers to “think of parents and community members not only as consumers of district communications but as communicators as well...so be aggressive in ensuring the public knows about what the district is doing with these new standards.”

To say that this wisdom went unheeded is an understatement. But it’s not too late.

Our strongest evidence in support of the new standards is the learning happening in our classrooms, resulting from the higher expectations embedded in lessons we design for our students.

Parents also need to be made aware of the facts—in order to dispel the many myths and misconceptions they have been fed over the past few years. Parents should know that Common Core State Standards are: 

  • High academic expectations for students in English language arts and mathematics; 
  • Internationally benchmarked expectations, similar to those in high-performing countries; 
  • Designed by teachers and other learning experts across the country; 
  • Informed by the most advanced and current thinking on what students should know and be able to do at each grade level;
  • The result of a multi-state effort to prepare all children to succeed, especially students who by necessity move from one state to the next; 
  • Not curriculum or assessment. They are a clear set of learning expectations that local teachers and districts use to provide customized instruction that meets the needs of their students; 
  • Aligned with the development of 21st-century skills, which are necessary for success in college and the workplace.
The good news is that teachers don't need to stand on a soapbox or draft a Magna Carta in order to inform parents. Most school systems already have mechanisms in place that we can use to reach parents, including parent-teacher conferences, PTA/PTRO meetings, back-to-school events, new student orientations, school/district newsletters, email, and class websites. Directing parents to online resources can also help them think through their reservations and research answers on their own. Some great resources include: 
  • Common Core: State Standards Initiative - Includes parent information and resources on how the standards came about. 
  • Common Core Works - Offers parent roadmaps for supporting their children at milestone grade-levels. 
  • Explaining the Common Core - A parent-friendly illustrated poster about the standards and a graphic organizer for teachers to share examples of what the standards look like in practice.

Parents are our best and most powerful allies. Providing them with resources, facts, and authentic stories of our classroom successes can foster a new wave of support for the Common Core—beyond school communities to impact decisions at the state and national level.

It’s not too late to engage parents as agents of change—the co-advocates we need to support the continuance of the good work we began over four years ago with Common Core.

Cheryl A. Redfield (@caredfield) is an eighth-grade English language arts teacher and a Center for Teaching Quality teacherpreneur from Gilbert, Arizona. A National Board Certified Teacher, she is also a member of NCTE, NEA/AEA, and the Arizona TeacherSolutions Team.