One way to improve schools: Treat parents as equals, UW professor says

Instead of telling parents what the school needs, bring them into the decision-making process, a UW professor argues in a newly released paper.

On the surface, volunteer opportunities in public schools seem like they’re open to any parent who has a few hours available to spend in a classroom or at a fundraiser. But those roles often favor certain families — English-speaking, upper-income, two-parent households with reliable transportation.

As a result, teachers too often assume the parents of the other students aren’t, or don’t want to be, involved in their child’s education. And that’s a problem, says Ann Ishimaru, a University of Washington assistant professor of education.

It’s not true, Ishimaru said, and it can have grave consequences for students.


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“There are lots of troubling racial disparities,” she said. “With the interactions between parents and teachers, how are they either exacerbating or addressing those racial disparities?”

In most schools, Ishimaru has found, the interactions contributed to inequities.

One solution: Involve parents in nontraditional ways, and treat them as equals. That’s one of the proposals in a new paper co-written by Ishimaru and Sola Takahashi of the nonprofit WestEd, which was published this month in the Peabody Journal Education. Instead of telling parents what the school needs, Ishimaru and Takahashi say, educators should ask parents to help make decisions about how they want to be involved.

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In the paper, the researchers mention a project in two Seattle-area schools in the 2014-15 school year. Over the course of that year, a group of academic researchers met with leaders, parents and teachers as they created a curriculum for parents to learn more about the public-school system. Rather than having educators create a curriculum for the parents, the two groups worked together as partners.

Typically, such curricula include lessons on how to ensure students do their homework. But the codesigned lessons focused on broader issues that parents said they were concerned about, like how to address…

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