Eric Stinton: We Should Collaborate On A Plan For Public Education In Hawaii

Parents want to be more involved with the education system. That should be good news – in my experience, it’s difficult to get parents involved with their own kids’ homework, let alone participate in the macro-level planning of the Department of Education machine. But something about Civil Beat’s recent story gave me an uneasy feeling.

It’s a good overview that covers several angles of legitimate frustration. Schools feel overburdened and understaffed, under increasing pressure from all sides to do more work with less time. Parents are upset that communication from the DOE and Board of Education is inconsistent, needlessly difficult and unintelligibly hole-punched with acronyms. They feel left out of important decisions that directly impact their children, during one of the most precarious moments in modern American life. It’s easy to sympathize with them.

But a few things felt off. Although several parents and education groups were interviewed in it, not a single person communicated anything specific they wanted to change, just that parents “want more of a voice” in the creation of a statewide education plan. But what does that mean exactly?

Does “more of a voice” mean greater influence in how funds are appropriated by the Legislature, or how they’re spent at the state, district or school levels? Does it mean greater control over what’s taught and how it’s taught? Are they talking about changing break or bell schedules, how to address vaping, cyber-bullying or chronic absenteeism, which interventions are most effective for students performing below grade level standards?

You might say the answer to all of those questions is “yes.” Some would have more to say about one topic than another, but in general parents should be involved in all of those decisions. The problem is, frankly, that a lot of parents are completely unfamiliar with on-the-ground realities at schools, and thus lack the expertise to meaningfully weigh in on these matters.

Although the comment section on Civil Beat is genuinely more thoughtful than most websites I’ve contributed to, it’s easy to sift through the comments on virtually any education article and find people proposing bad ideas that have been thoroughly debunked by research as simple, quick-fix solutions.

A commenter on the article earlier this month responded to the report of low test scores by saying “Start holding back students. It shouldn’t be an option anymore.” This idea resonates with a lot of people, but in reality, holding a student back drastically increases the likelihood of them dropping out of school altogether. It’s been observed over and over and over.

DOE Department of Education building.
Parents say they want more of a voice in the public education system. But what specifically does that mean? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

On a recent column I wrote about some of the innovative things happening in public schools across the state, many of the responses echoed a similar sentiment: it sounds fun that teachers are making lessons more engaging, but why not just focus on the traditional “three Rs” of education: reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic?

What they don’t understand – and, in fairness, what I failed to adequately communicate – is studies show that weaving those skills into engaging lessons improves learning outcomes, because students are interacting with ideas on a deeper level than they do during drill-and-kill exercises.

Most parents know little about current research on education policy or best practices in the classroom. And why would they? They have families to take care of, jobs to go to (often more than one), and other responsibilities to take care of. They don’t have the time or the reason to look into teaching via the jigsaw method, or Socratic seminars, or reciprocal teaching, or any number of proven methods they never experienced personally.

Worse yet, much of the movement for “parent’s rights,” both locally and nationally, is a hotbed of bizarre conspiracies repeated from hyper-partisan cable news, an entertainment product (as opposed to an educational service) designed to get viewers riled up.

I follow some of these local “parent’s rights advocacy groups,” and for the most part they believe schools are indoctrinating kids with a “woke” agenda instead of teaching them the basics, all because the school library offers books with gay characters in them or promotes Black authors during Black History Month.

These groups regularly call teachers groomers and child abusers as a default truth that teachers have to somehow disprove. They’re disinterested in working with schools to address real problems, opting instead to focus on imaginary ones where the only solution is a complete pivot away from public education.

It’s brain worm stuff that is completely discordant with reality; they’d know this if they spent half the time they usually waste watching TV and trawling Facebook by reading books with their kids, helping them with their homework or volunteering at their local school. They don’t want “more of a voice;” they simply want to bark orders and get their way without doing any of the hard, messy work of learning and collaborating.

Parents need to approach their involvement with humility to understand the limits of their perspectives, willingness to accept new information, and commitment to actively reinforce learning at home.

What troubles me most is that all of this stemmed from low test scores, which means not only are we still acting shocked that a global pandemic had some negative impacts on learning (or at least learning that can be easily measured by standardized tests), we are also still blaming schools for broader social problems beyond their control.

This is a fundamental error of analysis that prevents us from being able to talk about education reform accurately, and if we don’t even know how to talk about improving schools, we won’t be effective at actually improving them.

BOE member Makana McClellan rightly noted the performance gap on standardized tests and low rates of college attendance for Native Hawaiians as big problems. The questions to ask, then, are what are the causes of these problems, and does an education plan address those causes?

If you place demographic data for poverty, homelessness and standardized test scores side-by-side, you’ll see a lot of similarities between them. Which do you think impacts a student more: lack of a strategic education plan, or prolonged periods of hunger and not having a safe, reliable place to sleep?

Instead of looking at the confluence of large-scale forces that affect kids in and out of school, we’re only looking at the effects visible during the school day and attributing them to the school because that’s where we see them. It’s a facile interaction with reality.

Standardized tests are useful for identifying where problems exist, but they are not useful for identifying why those problems exist. We should collaborate on a plan for public education, but if we’re expecting it to solve things like poverty and homelessness and trauma, then it doesn’t matter how much of a voice parents have in its creation. The solution does not address the causes.

None of this is to say parents should be left in the dark. Far from it: we need to create a space for parents and school staff to meet regularly, to listen to each other and work together, to go over data and interpret it into something actionable. The community should be involved with school policies, as well as decisions about how to spend school funds.

The DOE, BOE and individual schools need to have clear, consistent communication about what’s being done, and honest reflections on its results. We need to respect parental input and welcome it as an integral part of the education landscape, because that’s what it is.

Parents need to approach their involvement with humility to understand the limits of their perspectives, willingness to accept new information, and commitment to actively reinforce learning at home.

Communication, honesty, respect, humility – notice how critical and necessary these things are, and how none of them can be measured in standardized tests?

Parents should have more of a voice in education. But if they truly want to make their voice count, what they really need is more of a presence.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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