How well do parents know how learning happens in your school?
By Kylie Bice
Parents often ask schools, "What are you doing to cater for my child?".
Then in an effort to get something visible happening for their child, they may start to put pressure on schools to implement a 'program'... a gifted program, a literacy program, a support program. Or they shop with their feet and move their child to another school where they can see programs in place. This question and approach is understandable and parents of course should be able to clearly see how their child's learning needs are being met.
In response to this, schools often ask me "What sort of gifted/literacy/support program should we put in place?" My immediate questions back to these schools are:
What are you already doing in classrooms that you know is meeting the needs of these students?
What practices would you like to see happening in all classrooms to meet the needs of these students?
How are you explaining these day-to-day practices to your parent community?
There is nothing wrong with a formal 'program', and the majority of 'programs' I see in schools have been implemented with the best of intentions. It is, however, a myth that a 'program' will meet the needs of students simply because it has a catchy name, and is easily marketable to parents.
Here are the reasons I often hear from schools about why they have chosen to run a stand-alone (often a pull-out) 'program' for a certain group of students:
We have a tight budget so can't afford to do anything more.
Our teachers are already under pressure, so we can't ask them to do any more in the classroom.
Our parents have been asking for a gifted program, so we felt we needed to do something 'extra'.
Students are leaving to go to other schools who have a 'program' so we needed something tangible to be competitive in the market.
I will not for a moment dispute that schools have tight budgets, that teachers are under pressure, or that parents are shopping for a tangible education response to the needs of their child. My reaction to these comments, however, is a sense of disappointment that schools are neither valuing nor communicating to parents the wonderful work that teachers are already doing in classrooms. (Or in some cases acknowledging that teachers are not teaching effectively in classrooms and working to remedy this.) Improving and articulating teaching practices in classrooms is cheaper than an extra staff member for a pull-out program, meets the students and parents, and is a way to market your school while valuing your teachers, educating your parents and ultimately seeing all students succeed.
Time and again I have been in classrooms where teachers are differentiating the curriculum for diverse learners, they are personalising learning and have multiple strategies on the go for ensuring that each student is challenged at their own level. And often these are the same schools whose parents are asking for a 'program' of some sort. Parents tell me that they ask for this because they can't see what is being done for their child. Yes, sometimes a separate program is necessary and appropriate, but my challenge to schools is to examine the great things that are already happening in classrooms and find a way to articulate this to parents. Good teaching practices such as differentiation are complex and therefore difficult to neatly package for the purposes of PR, but I am convinced that schools must find a way to get better at this. Parents ask for something tangible because they cannot see anything tangible happening for their child. What are the tangibles in your school? How are you articulating these to your parent community? This is challenge for schools...let's find a way to explain differentiation, tiered tasks, personalised learning and the myriad of teaching strategies we use in classrooms every day.
When we as schools, buy into the belief that we need to do more, add more, invent something new, work harder...then we are perpetuating our society's de-valuing of education and the work of teachers. Let's get better at what we already do - teaching! Let's get better at articulating and educating our community about what we do - teaching! Let us also get better at being honest when good teaching isn't happening and working to improve it! Let's strive to create schools in which every teacher is confident and supported to cater for diverse student needs, and can communicate what they do to parents.
If you want to read more about this topic, try these links:
Educating Parents About Education http://www.edutopia.org/blog/educating-parents-about-education-tom-whitby
What Every Parent Should Know About Differentiated Instruction https://tip.duke.edu/node/910