Category Archives: Families

Families in Washington D.C. are conflicted between what works and what they want to work

How do you figure out what parents want? 

There are two primary ways to figure out what families want from schools:

  1. Ask them what they want;
  2. Or observe what decisions they make.

The Washington D.C. Auditor’s office just released a public opinion report using the former method (asking families). Washington D.C. has a unified enrollment system where you can track what decisions parents are actually making. I wish this report would have used this data as well (like this report did in New Orleans). But despite this flaw, the opinion research is telling.

Families in D.C. are conflicted between what works and what they want to work 

D.C. families had the following preferences:

  1. School preference: Families say they value educator and academic quality much more than a school being close to home.
  2. School type preference: Families prefer charter schools over their local neighborhood school.
  3. Policy preference: Families want to invest more in neighborhood schools rather than giving more parents chance to opt into a charter or out of boundary traditional school.

Putting this together: families want public schools with great educators and challenging academics; they think charters schools are more likely to provide this; but they want more money put into neighborhood schools.

Of course, this on average. No doubt there is immense diversity in opinion across families.

Why do many families want to fix what’s not working rather than expand what is working? 

I can think of a couple reasons:

Empathy and bad strategy: Families feel bad for the kids who are stuck in the worse schools, and the most intuitive answer to “what should we do with more resources?” is “fix what’s not working.” In the private sector, fortunes have been lost on this fallacy. In the public sector, fortunes are spent on efforts that have failed for decades.

Virtue signaling: Families want to express that they are good people and not selfish, and in our society saying you want to invest more in neighborhood schools is a way to signal that you’re a good person.

They want their neighborhood schools to improve, they just don’t want their kids to suffer in the meantime: Perhaps families would rather send their own kids to the local neighborhood school, so they do want these schools to get better, but they’re just not willing to send their children there while they wait for this to happen.

I imagine all these factors are at play.

How do you respond?

I think this issue will continue to play out in high choice cities that are providing families with a lot of great public school options.

When it comes to their own children, families will, on average, send their children to the best public schools.

But when it comes to public opinion, families will say we should invest more in the schools that aren’t working.

This puts public charter school supporters in a very tricky position.

How can we try to create more great public schools under this dynamic?

I think charter supporters need to be very cautious in engaging in major, public citywide or statewide fights.

We can win an individual families’ hearts and minds when it comes to their own child, but the policy battles are tougher.

In other words: just keep on opening amazing new public charter schools. The system will become the best version of itself through educators opening up great public schools and families finding the best fit for their own children.

But it is also worth considering pacing: too much growth too quickly can shift an individual school opening debate into a citywide policy debate – a type of debate that is easily lost, as it was in Massachusetts.

Lastly, gradually opening up new great public schools will ultimately give families both what they want for their own children and what they want for the city: if every public school is great, than by default every school in every neighborhood will be great too.

Data from the report

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What can we learn from the most driven and knowledgeable public school parents?

This is the second blog post in a row about learning from experience and observation rather than research.

I sometimes anchor a bit too much on research and am trying to balance this mindset with a stronger observational approach.

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One common critique of charter schools is that they draw the most driven knowledgeable families away from the traditional public school system.

According to this argument, we should be a bit suspicious of charter school test score gains, and we should be very worried that the remaining students left in the traditional system will include very high concentrations of at-risk students.

I think there is some merit to the first critique of inflated test score effects, but there’s enough positive results from randomized controlled experiments of high-performing charter schools that I’m not too worried about it.

I do worry a lot about concentrating the hardest to reach students in a smaller and smaller number of traditional schools. This definitely occurred in New Orleans, where the last 20% of charter students were much harder to serve than the first 20%.

My hope is that this issue can be somewhat ameliorated by cities directly replacing their most underperforming schools and using unified enrollment systems to make finding a better school easier for all families.

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But there is something odd about critiquing charter schools based on the fact that they attract the most driven and knowledgeable parents.

Charter detractors are basically admitting that the more parents know the more likely they are to want to attend a charter school.

This is a strong argument for charter schools.

It would be useful to better understand why the most driven and knowledgeable parents are so drawn to charter schools. Is it because of increased test scores? A hope for better peers effects? Are they simply running away from something that is not working for their kid?

I’m not sure. The emerging research coming out of unified enrollment systems is helpful on this front, but it’s all correlational, so we should be cautious.

But the fact that the most driven and knowledgeable parents are seeking out charter schools increases my belief that charter schools are a positive force for families.

Sometimes simply watching what people do is a great way to learn.

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.

We are Tired of Waiting

SRC

The title of this post is taken from the words of four public schools parents in Philadelphia.

They recently wrote these words in an op-ed.

Additional excerpts from their op-ed are below. The piece is so powerful I had trouble cutting out any parts:

As parents, nothing is more important to us than great schools for our kids…

Yet year after year, tens of thousands of Philadelphia families are forced to send their kids to schools that are, by any measure, failing students.

And year after year, families in our communities are told to just wait for the next “fix” that will – no kidding, this time for real – make these schools great. Wait until we have funding. Wait until we fix this law or that law. Wait until we have a new plan.

We are tired of waiting.

We demand better educational opportunities in Philadelphia – now.

And that’s why we lent our voices to a campaign called “No More Waiting” (nomorewaiting.org).

The evidence shows that right now, good charter schools are the best answer. Why? Charter schools are working for kids in Philadelphia. Just ask the families of the 65,000 students who have chosen to enroll in charters, or the 22,000 more students who are on waiting lists…

According to a recent study by experts from Stanford University, African American students in poverty who attended charters are more likely to get ahead in reading and math. In other words, better results today – no waiting.

These are the facts. Charters represent the best opportunity for tens of thousands of African American and Hispanic kids to get a great education right now. Yet most rhetoric about charter schools in the city ignores these facts.

Instead, critics profess concern about our families while telling us that charters – the best way to get results today – are a luxury we just can’t afford. What they’re really saying hasn’t changed much for decades. To tens of thousands of families all over Philadelphia, the critics of charters are saying: Hold up. Wait until we develop another plan to fix public schools.

Two months ago, the School Reform Commission had an opportunity to provide immediate help for thousands of children and families in underperforming schools. The SRC reviewed 40 applications for new charters, many of which were submitted by operators who are already running some of the best schools in the city. Yet the SRC rejected the vast majority of them – telling tens of thousands of families to keep playing the waiting game.

We cannot wait any longer. Our children need better schools right now.

We agree that public schools need more funding, and that they deserve a plan that resolves the funding crisis that batters our schools year after year. But we refuse to accept the status quo while politicians haggle over how much funding is enough and who gets to spend it. Those are priorities for adults.

Our priorities are our children and their future. Kids in schools that continue to struggle don’t have any more time to waste. Each year they fall further and further behind.

While politicians fight over a funding solution, let’s spend on schools that are working, schools that are getting results for our children.

Right now.

To restate a common theme of this blog:

1) Right now, across the country, there are great schools that want to serve more students.

2) Right now, across the country, there are families living in poverty that want to attend these schools.

3) Right now, local governments across the country, which are entrusted with providing educational opportunities to children, make it illegal for these schools to serve these families.