High expectation vs. low expectation parent organizing

This is likely a crude distinction, but I think there’s a real difference between high expectations and low expectations parent organizing.

Low expectations parent organizing occurs when you simply meet parents where they are at, without having much urgency about tackling systems level issues.

For example, organizes might work for parents for a few years on issues like lunch quality, bus routes, and extracurricular activities.

If organizers and parents work hard and a few year later the lunches are a little better, what’s the point if the vast majority of the kids can’t read or do math on grade level, or if the school culture fails to build students with strong values?

This feels like low expectations: working too long on these issues is implicitly saying that parents are not smart enough to tackle the most pressing issues facing their children.

High expectations parent organizing starts with the premise that families can grasp systems level issues, and that the quicker they are engaged on important issues like teacher and school quality, the better.

I’ve had the opportunity to discuss really hard educational issues with families living in deep poverty. And while it’s surely true that they start from a deficit of policy knowledge, they tend to come up to speed quickly and, most importantly, can merry policy arguments with the brutal facts that they see day in and day out when the are forced to send their children to struggling schools.

Based on my experience (and I still have a lot to learn in this area), I’d say the following are the key components of great high expectations parent organizing:

  1. Organizers begin with the mindset that families can grasp and advocate for systems level policy solutions.
  2. Organizers provide unbiased (as much as feasible) educational classes and experiences to families so that families can grapple with systems level policy issues.
  3. Organizers both possess and cultivate a sense of urgency – so that educational experiences start leading to powerful systems level actions.
  4. Family leaders fairly quickly take the reigns in terms of determining the future policy and advocacy agenda.
  5. Family leaders increase their operational chops so that the actions and campaigns they are less reliant on external organizers.

Ultimately, this is a two step high expectations game: first, you need to believe that families can understand systems level issues, and second, you need to believe that they can lead the charge.

I’m still trying to get smarter in this area, so I hope that the organizers who read this blog  will correct errors in the comment section.

5 thoughts on “High expectation vs. low expectation parent organizing

  1. Mike G

    Generally agree.

    However, to push you a bit:

    Where has “high expectations organizing” reversed a majority of kids who couldn’t read or do math on grade level, or get strong values from the schools?

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  2. nkingsl Post author

    Great to hear from you. I think Innovate has worked with families to bring in (politically demand) new great operators to communities -> these operators opened up schools and increased academic performance.

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  3. Matt

    You are on point: the expectations of the organizers matter immensely. At the same time, it seems that your aim is to “kick-start” parents into starting/leading a movement. This is the “enlightened self-interest” model… that, by working for the group, it helps the individual too. I would argue that this is unlikely to occur and offer a critique that this approach is backward. In my experience, parents first learn to advocate for their individual child on short-term, “meat and potatoes” issues. This advocacy is the fuel. Only when a critical mass of parents begins moving in a common direction — organically, not at someone’s direction — will there be enough momentum to ignite a movement that tackles policy. In every social movement throughout history, people were first advocating for their own self-interest. The communal benefits were secondary and policy change came later. I’d love to hear your thoughts…
    Keep up the fight brother. I’m an ally… and look forward to your response.

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    1. nkingsl Post author

      Gerat to hear from you Matt. I guess I would place “wanting a better school for my kid” within circle of self-interest, and that advocating for new schools / transformation of failing schools is a systems level issue… so agree w/ you that you need to start w/ self interest, but wonder if that self-interest can be about bigger issues than school lunches…

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      1. Matt

        We need to grab a beer (or a case) and hash this out. In the meantime, here’s my reply…

        Sorry, I should have been clearer. When I say “self-interest” I mean that every parent wants their child to succeed MORE than they want their school to be “better”. (And I’ve never met a family that was animated to action because of school lunches… not sure what you’re referring to.)

        I am challenging the commonly-held view that parents should be pressed into working to improve their school. This is, of course, a choice for them. But I argue that 1) the parental efforts required to make “a better school” is not sufficient to motivate most parents to act and 2) the parental efforts could be better spent in other, more practical and better leveraged ways.

        And let’s be honest — as two people fighting for a worthy, common goal must be — a parent’s investment in making their “school better” will likely do little for their own child’s success.

        Q: How many hours would a parent need to invest in making their “school better” in order to substantively improve their child’s reading level? A: Pick any unreasonably large number (then square it).

        Lot’s more thoughts on this (what is a “better school”; is school choice good or bad; why are “good schools” concentrated in wealthy communities; is race or economics the real driver; etc, etc) but can only share it over a couple of beers (squared).

        Keep thinking… keep fighting… I’ll do the same.

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