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Commentary: The time is now for parents to ask tough questions of education leaders

Evelyn Alemán | February 13, 2019

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While the recent release of information about California’s lowest-performing schools, including more than 100 campuses in L.A. Unified that require intervention, is alarming, what we really need to ask is how committed school officials, educators, administrators and their unions are to improving student academic outcomes, starting now.

Now is the time for parents and community-based organizations to summon the courage to ask tough questions of our education leaders such as, “What are you doing to ensure quality instruction is taking place in each and every classroom?” and “In situations where quality instruction is missing, how are you supplementing and ensuring that children are immediately supported so they don’t lose another day of learning?”

About a year ago, my family and I came before the school board to ask that its members, superintendent, district employees, labor leaders and community partners work with parents and students to create a committee to look at quality instruction in the classroom. The committee, we hoped, would develop a Quality Instruction Framework comprised of multiple measures to assess the quality and rigor students receive, create a shared understanding of quality instruction among parents, and identify ways to support teachers in their continuous improvement.

More importantly, we hoped to bring attention to the urgent need for additional resources such as coaches or extra enrichment to compensate students for critical learning time lost. The Quality Instruction committee would also validate the concerns of parents by collecting data, documenting data and creating a process whereby concerns would be addressed by the school within a five-day period or redirected to the local district for further action where needed.

During the board meeting, we shared personal stories and concerns over the lack of quality instruction for key coursework at each of our daughters’ schools. We talked about how our then-eighth-grader sat in an Honors English Language Arts class where she held a “B” grade, but had hardly any work to support the score. The same concern was expressed over our high school senior’s “A” grade for an Honors Statistics class – a course she knew very little about. In both cases the rigor, depth and complexity, lecturing, assessments and teaching were missing. Our anxiety over the lack of instruction was compounded by the fact that we had a child about to enter high school and another about to enter college.

At both our daughters’ schools, students themselves shared with administrators concerns over the quality of instruction in the classroom. We also knew we weren’t alone when other parents expressed similar concerns with little to no resolution. For many, a “good” outcome amounted to a change of classroom environment for their children. But we often asked ourselves: what about the other children left behind? In each case, we decided our daughters would stay in the classroom and that we would advocate for all children to receive support.

At our collective insistence, the local district provided coaches to aid the instructors. I don’t know that our children actually received the additional enrichment required to make up for the learning time lost, but they were the lucky ones because their parents were engaged and informed.

Our efforts to bring this issue before the school board a year ago, to call for a change in policies and ask for collaboration in the hopes of helping all students succeed in school, were followed by a series of meetings with three board members and school officials at headquarters and the local district. Everyone listened and seemed concerned, but in the end, our efforts yielded only extra attention to two classrooms because we pushed. There was no discussion about the need for systemic change or the need to involve parents in conversations around quality instruction at either school.

For the last six years, information about school quality was not readily available to parents. Now, the California Department of Education has finally released the list of the bottom 5 percent of schools throughout the state — 780 of them — requiring comprehensive improvement or targeted assistance. One of our daughter’s schools is on the list.

More than 44,000 students attend L.A. Unified schools identified by the California Department of Education as requiring assistance. Some communities are especially impacted: a fall 2018 report by Innovative Public Schools showed that out of 89 district and independent charter schools in the southeast cities, serving 91 percent low-income students, only nine are above the state average for English and math.

What the California Dashboard tells us is that there are too many children in classrooms that simply aren’t receiving the academic support they need, and that parents, for a variety of reasons, aren’t asking – demanding – that our leadership deliver on a promised high-quality public education. This must change. The parent voice is critical to improvements in public education.

Although not much came out of our speech before the school board, we continue to hold hope that our calls for collaboration and a Quality Instruction Framework with a focus on quality instruction in the classroom will permeate the cacophony of voices that currently are anything but music to our ears.

Evelyn Alemán is a parent and student education advocate and mother of a freshman attending a local L.A. Unified high school.

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