ATF: Participating as a Parent

It can be time consuming to participate in education policy decision-making task forces, boards, or committees at the state or local level, but parents need to be heard. It is worthwhile to attend meetings, speak during public comment, write or call decision-makers, or write letters to the editors or guest opinions for the local paper. However, as I noted in an earlier post, there is something particularly rewarding–and empowering–about participating from a seat (with a vote!) at the table.

I don’t expect to have another opportunity to serve at the statewide or local level (not for lack of trying), so I encourage all parents to volunteer and take advantage of the opportunity to serve on committees working on education issues of great interest to you, if it is offered.

Parent voices, in my experience, are more often merely tolerated, rather than welcomed.* And a non-educator in a room full of educators is inescapably an outsider in some sense.** It isn’t necessarily easy to walk into–and speak up in–a group as an outsider, even less so, if you become aware there may be unresolvable differences of opinion.

Here are some things I found helpful to remember or to do:

Many education policy decisions are a matter of values, preferences, and priorities.

In the case of the assessment task force, we weren’t being asked to write accountability assessments, just evaluate and make recommendations about accountability assessments written by assessment professionals. If you are invited to serve as a parent representative, you are there to offer a non-educator parent perspective. If a group member, hypothetically, were to observe at the outset that all of the educators are also parents (implying, perhaps, that your presence and participation is superfluous) speak up anyway and without prefacing your comments with “I’m just a parent . . .” or “I’m not an expert, but . . .” These statements, in my opinion, signal that your opinions, comments, or questions don’t count as much as other group members’ opinions, comments, or questions.

Not needing to be an expert is different that not needing to be informed.

While it is important to review the agenda and read any materials distributed for discussion at meetings, this won’t be enough to inform your participation. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to inform yourself. For the assessment task force, I found Twitter, education blogs, and subscriptions to both local papers and Education Week to be great sources of information. This takes time but makes active and productive participation possible.

Talk about the work of your group with non-group members.

As the internet can function as an echo chamber, so can a closed group. I found it helpful to talk to other parents and other educators, both to inform myself on issues and to get a sense of opinions held by non-group members about our task force work. As it became clear that I would be in a distinct minority on the task force with regard to Smarter Balanced assessments, it helped to know that I was not alone in my viewpoint in my larger community. If my view had been in line with the task force’s recommendation, it would have been equally reassuring to know that others in my larger community supported that too.

In short, my unsolicited advice to parents who have the opportunity to serve is this: do your homework and speak up without apology.

And for those of us parents not invited to the table? We have options for participating anyway: paying attention, showing up to meetings, speaking up during public comment, and writing about education issues–whether it be blogposts, letters to decision-makers, letters to the editor, or guest opinions.

*I have found some Iowa educators to be welcoming of parents on Twitter and blogs. In fact, EdCampIowa has specifically invited parents to participate. As of now, tickets are still available at all five locations (Cedar Falls, Iowa City, Cherokee, Council Bluffs, and Ankeny)  for January 31, 2015.

**I should note here that though I remained an outsider throughout our work, I enjoyed working with the other task force members; if I was unwelcome, they hid it well.