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West Virginia Teacher Praises the Virtues of Engaged Parents, a Virtue Overlooked by “Reformers”

October 22, 2017

Pocahontas County (WV) teacher Erica Marks’ op ed column in the Charleston Gazette Mail describes a step by step method public school parents can follow to make their child’s school “…as good as a private school“. Drawing her prior experience as a private school teacher, Ms. Marks notes the similarities between the schools and flags on major difference: the presence of the “High-Expectation Parent”.

The teachers here are just as skilled and caring as the ones at the fancy schools. The students have similar aptitudes and similar capacities for being goofballs. Class sizes are comparable. The buildings aren’t remarkably different either, believe it or not.

The main difference I found at a private school is the pervasiveness of the High-Expectation Parent. The High-Expectation Parent is a force like no other. He or she feels entitled to know what is going on with his or her child socially, emotionally and academically while at school. The HEP probably has the teachers, principal and superintendent on speed-dial. The HEP expects to be welcomed into the school.

The HEP expects frequent, prompt and detailed communication between the school and the family. He or she expects that his or her child will be known and educated as a unique and special individual. Beyond getting good test scores, the HEP expects children to be prepared to compete with students from around the globe.

Ms. Marks notes that from a teacher’s perspective, these HEPs can be intimidating. But she also notes that without these HEPs a school will wither. She also came to the realization when she became a parent that the HEPs are advocating for their children, and that advocacy makes a huge difference in the life of the child. And she imagines what it would be like to have the same kind of parent engagement in public schools that she experienced in private schools:

Imagine the advantage that children who go to these expensive schools get with advocates like that! Our kids — all kids — deserve the very same kind of advocacy, the very same respect, the very same level of involvement. A good K-12 education is our best shot at prosperity.

Fellow parents, the Pocahontas County school system is our private school. And all our kids got full scholarships to attend. We get to be HEPs without footing a hefty tuition bill! We can have a real impact on the culture of the school, on the way our children are learning, and on how much they can achieve.

Let me be clear. There are some amazingly involved public school parents. There are some deadbeat private school parents. I admit that I am making this unfair generalization to illustrate a point — which is, I think, that when parents pay for education (beyond their taxes), many get an amped-up sense of entitlement to an opinion about that education.

But I want us all to feel the pervasive sense of ownership of our schools that I witnessed as a private school employee. Our public schools are ours. We are entitled to help create them to be the schools of our dreams. (Do other people dream about schools or is it just me?)

No Ms. Marks, you are not the only one who dreams about schools. Many of us who worked in public education long for the kind of engagement you talk about and many of us share your ambivalence about the generalization you made regarding the extent to which parent engagement makes a difference. Complaining about parent apathy can sound a lot like whining or making excuses… but parent apathy and taxpayers’ unwillingness to raise funds for their schools often go hand in hand. And here’s the real issue from a policy perspective: when parents are given a choice about which schools to attend, those parents who take the time to do so are necessarily HEPs and the schools they choose are like the public schools Ms. Marks dreams about. Engaging parents is an important and overlooked issue in public education. Instead of expending energy trying to figure out how to make public schools operate in a “marketplace” policy-makers and politicians should spend more of their time and energy figuring out how to engage apathetic parents. If they did so they might find that decent paying jobs, predictable housing, and affordable healthy food might make a difference. As a generalization HEPs seldom worry about these issues. “Apathetic” parents’ time is consumed with worries about them.


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