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A New We: The Essential Intersection of Freire, Ed Tech and Parent Involvement

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If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. – Aboriginal Woman

We Need a New We

One of the greatest tragedies of education reform is how little it involves parents.  Proposed initiatives with the intent to engage parents rarely move beyond rhetoric.  Those that move beyond rhetoric stumble in follow-through, start engagement late, or wait until there is an issue.  I have not spoken with a single administrator that has not acknowledged the importance of parent/community engagement in real school transformation, but I have also not spoken with a single one that has not acknowledged the associated challenges.

In ed reform there is tinkering and then there is transformation.  Right now we do not have time for tinkering.  With the pace of change in the world and the pace of change in education, tinkering is not enough, working at the margins is insufficient.  If we only work at the margins, our most struggling schools will be left in the dust and thus also, our most vulnerable students.  We owe them more.  Transformation requires a fundamentally different starting place.  One that is not pushed down from on high, but collaborative that fully engages stakeholders.  One that recognizes the value that is “on the ground”, the assets that already exist in communities and the fundamental need for complete and authentic participation particularly of parents.  It is also one that recognizes that “we” (ed reform community) may actually (dare I say it) not have all the answers and that “we” certainly do not control the entirety of the solution.  The starting place must be one that harkens back to the quote above, that our liberation is a collective process.  In essence, “we” need a new “we”.

Success Where Others Failed

Over the last 8 years, Rocket Learning has been successful in a space where other organizations with much greater brand recognition and capital have failed.  We have managed to tutor over 200,000 low-income students in more than 20 states, hundreds of districts and thousands of schools.  We have managed to maintain quality of instruction, high engagement among students and consistent, measurable achievement results.  We have watched our more major competitors attempt to do similar work only to pull out after just a couple of years, realizing that working in under-resourced schools is different than working in highly-resourced schools.

There are many reasons why our unique success was possible, an engaging, culturally relevant curriculum, solid management infrastructure, balanced investment and expertise in operations and instruction and an unwavering orientation of inclusion towards parents.  From the day we opened our doors, we viewed parents as an essential element of the improvement process.  Our outreach was geared toward engagement and participation.  We sought ways to leverage at-home learning even building at-home projects into our curriculum.  We maintained frequent communication with parents, provided regular guidance on supporting their children at home and listened to their needs and challenges.  We always knew that we were the experts in instruction but they were experts on their children.  The result was real partnership from the same side of the table and the results showed.

Parent Involvement and Ed Tech

The role of the parent is heightened in ed tech.  One of the greatest potential benefits of ed tech is that learning opportunities and learning time can be expanded.  This holds with Flipped Classrooms, One-to-One device initiatives, Blended Learning and numerous other types of ed tech models.  When ed tech initiatives are implemented effectively, a student should have an opportunity to learn virtually anywhere.  By definition this requires very active participation from parents considering a child is only in school 20-25% of his or her time.  How do we expect for these types of models to be optimized and transformational without full engagement of the parent?

Why the Disconnect

It just seems to make sense that parent engagement would be highly prioritized in education reform so why then are there so few good examples.  I see four possible explanations: 1) Undervaluing the role of the parent.  2) Not knowing how to engage parents.  3) Actually viewing parents as part of the problem.  4) Lack of school-based capacity to handle one more thing.  I view none of these reasons as good rationale but one must understand why something is not happening to authentically change the paradigm and therefore the outcome.

Ed Tech: Banking or Knowledge Creation

Ed tech has the potential to either perpetuate the “banking” model of education as Paolo Freire described in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” which remains the orientation of many of our struggling schools or it has the potential to ignite a real transformative learning experience with roots in liberation and co-creation of knowledge.  I have already seen many models of the former.  These are just extensions of the existing learning structures, e-readers instead of paper-based books, Promethean boards instead of chalkboards, drill and skill on a computer instead of in a workbook.  This may be a first step, but this should not be viewed as an end.  In these cases, the child remains the empty vessel in which knowledge is deposited and later regurgitated.  This no longer qualifies as success for the 21st century learner.

Models of the latter are fewer but are emerging.  In these models technology is used to increase opportunities for the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.  For these opportunities to be fully optimized, we must view the parent as a co-facilitator of learning.  At a bare minimum, parents must understand how to create and support the space for continued learning to occur at home.  Our responsibility is to empower the parents in the best ways that we can.  This moves us beyond the lame, under-publicized, poorly attended PTA meeting, into a new world of parent engagement.  This is what Freire meant in his vision for a new education system, one in which the parts work in conjunction with one another for the collective raising of the whole.

What Now

We need a new we.  This is not rhetoric.  If your ed tech initiative doesn’t involve parents in a meaningful, well-thought out way, I encourage you to reconsider.  I understand that parent engagement is not a singular topic.  I met with a school this summer that cited overly involved parents as its issue even to the point of disrupting class.  Many schools, especially struggling schools face the opposite issue of a seeming lack of parental presence.  The effects, requirements and strategies of parent involvement vary greatly between communities, socio-economic groups, cultures and student ages but two things hold true, all parents want the best for their children and all parents play an incredibly significant role in the education of their child.

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