When Dolores Shaw first got involved with the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project (EPOP) eight years ago, she had two children entering school and a lot of frustrations. “The students [in our school] weren’t reading very well,” she recalls. “But parents were having a hard time trying to get a fix on just how well their kids were reading. There was no assessment we could read and understand, and there was no way for us to help our children if we didn’t know what their needs were.”
With the help of EPOP, parents in her school organized and put in place a system that gave parents more useful information. But Shaw soon discovered that this fight was only a symptom of a district-wide communications failure. “As students moved through the system, the same problems were not being addressed in other places,” she says.
EPOP is a faith-based and parent-based organizing group that has been working on local school issues, from security to literacy, for ten years. About two years ago, members and staff began talking about broadening their education work to address changes throughout the school system. A failure to communicate rose to the top as a unifying theme in those early discussions among parent leaders.
There were many complaints. Parents and teachers working different schedules often had no way to get each other on the phone. Teachers often never received phone or written messages. Parents would receive notices of meetings the day before – or sometimes the day after. Failure notices would come at the end of a marking period – or even a few weeks before the end of the year – leaving no time for a parent to help the struggling student change course. And, as Shaw found when she first got involved, assessments and test score reports were often opaque, inconsistent and unhelpful.
“We live in a fairly technological world, but we haven’t caught up with it,” sighs Shaw. “Any big corporation understood this a long time ago. You can’t fix something in a large dispersed system if people can’t communicate.” There were some hopeful and corroborating stories, too. Schools that had better communication between teachers and parents were generally doing better overall. “It occurs in pockets,” says Shaw. “Now we need a systemic change where there would be equity.”
The Right to Know
Fortunately, EPOP had laid the groundwork for change. In 2000, the organization joined with Temple University to create Research for Democracy (RFD) to help community leaders use research to influence public policy. RFD is an independent organization specifically designed to shift the unequal balance of power usually found in university-community research partnerships. The Right to Know campaign was one of the projects that emerged from RFD.
“It’s unique as a campaign,” says Steve Honeyman, EPOP’s lead organizer. “It’s really a campaign so people can listen to each other. It comes out of our organizing model.”
And indeed, from the beginning, there was an unusual degree of listening going on – specifically between teachers and parents, two groups that often become adversaries in the school reform process. “Teachers play an integral role in improving our schools, but they feel like they don’t have much input,” says Honeyman. “And the power dynamic, especially in low-income neighborhoods, is challenging. It involves race, class and education.” Shaw agrees. “There’s been some tension,” she says. “Across the district they’ve gotten the message that parents don’t care.”
But the assumption of wide differences in priorities between teachers and parents is just that – an assumption. Gordon Whitman, director of RFD, says there’s very little data in the academic world that compares what teachers and parents think. EPOP decided to include both parent and teacher perspectives in the process. They held focus groups for both constituencies (separately), and parent and teacher members were involved in crafting the survey, for which 65 percent of the questions were the same for parents and teachers. The survey was conducted by Solutions for Progress, an independent nonprofit company.
“Teachers were glad to be finally included,” says Shaw. “I think they were glad to have someone listen to what they had to say.” All of it wasn’t very nice to parents, but Shaw says the parents took it in stride as part of the listening and learning process. And in the end, the results – from 1024 parents and 345 teachers – showed “a lot more common ground between parents and teachers than public debate usually assumes,” says Whitman, and reaffirmed many of the priorities of the focus groups.
In the summer of 2002, RFD issued “A Right to Know,” a report that pulled together national best practices information, the survey results, analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act and a set of recommendations.
“A Right to Know” came out just as the Philadelphia school system was going through a massive state takeover and internal reorganization. Paul Vallas, the new school district CEO, had recently arrived from Chicago. EPOP used the report in a series of meetings with district officials and picked a short list of initial demands that appeared workable: providing all teachers with a personal voice mail box and e-mail address at school, with this information given to parents; requesting that all teachers return parent contact within 12 to 24 hours, and requiring them to do so within 48 hours; sending risk-of-failure notices at the mid-point of each grading period; and providing up-to-date and easily understood information about children’s reading and math levels.
The public opinion survey added credibility to EPOP’s first break into district-wide campaigning. “We know by now that Vallas is very firm about not doing something that doesn’t have a body of research somewhere,” says Shaw. “There is national data backing up what we were saying, but Philly [was] a new set of challenges and being able to present him with [local] data was instrumental.”
Vallas had read “A Right to Know” before he attended a September 2002 meeting with over 500 EPOP members at Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church. At that meeting he committed to all of the preliminary demands, along with regular meetings with EPOP to look into other changes, saying, “This is all very reasonable and will be incorporated by the end of the first semester.”
Unfortunately, being reasonable isn’t always enough. So far some improvements have been made, but progress has lagged. The goal of changing assessments has been subsumed by a new system-wide curriculum that has its own assessments. Although the district has secured donated hardware for a voice mail system, it has not yet been able to muster the staff time and commitment to set it up and create protocols for its use.
“[Right to Know] isn’t the same as pushing for a new reading program, or a new library,” says Honeyman. “This is a little less clear, and systems react less well to less clear. That’s a challenge.” Still, he says, all of the major issues in school reform across the country, from teacher quality to funding to literacy, touch on communication between teachers and parents, making it a worthwhile goal to work on. As Philadelphia’s school system continues to go through reorganization, EPOP has successfully found a place in the discussion and will continue to push both the Right to Know recommendations and other goals that have grown out of that research.
Meanwhile, the innovative parent-teacher collaborative research effort has helped lift EPOP parent members and teachers out of some of their internal school politics and reminded them of their common ground, says Whitman. From local to district to local again, the listening is continuing.