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We are the parents. Is anyone listening?

No Child Left Behind aims at a dialogue with parents. But reaching them has not been easy.

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 2004


A decade has slipped by since a fiery group of mothers in the South Bronx set out to make their voices heard in their children's schools.

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Lucretia Jones, whose two children are now grown, says that parents in her neighborhood had previously been viewed as outsiders, only as valuable as the cookies they brought to bake sales. Today, Ms. Jones says, at least she and her peers are "sitting at the table" with the school administrators who once locked them out.

From her vantage point - as a lifelong Bronx resident and founding member of Mothers on the Move (MOM) - parents have made genuine strides toward opening educators' ears and school doors.

But she offers no credit to the provisions in the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that call for a deeper dialogue between schools and families, particularly in low-income communities.

In fact, says the seasoned community activist, "I really didn't realize parental participation was part of [NCLB]."

It's been a problem for the implementors of the new education law. Some of its key provisions prompt states, districts, and schools to notify parents about everything from their children's progress to their options for transferring out of low-performing schools.

But a study to be released this week, based on conversations with 26 grass-roots organizations, suggests that as of yet many parents - even those involved in their children's schools, remain unaware of these options, or bewildered as to how to exercise them.

Yet at the same time there is evidence that some districts and schools are making conscious - and promising - efforts to reach out to families as a direct result of NCLB.

If nothing else, NCLB has codified the crucial role that parent involvement plays in academic achievement, a role researchers have been promoting for some time.

Yet while a multitude of information, detailing everything from reading scores to graduation rates may be available, parents and organizers say few families know where to look, or how to parse the vast quantities of data once they do find it.

One problem may be with the way all this information is disseminated.

Many districts rely on websites. Yet to view a website, points out Lauren E. Allen, senior program director for accountability at the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a national network based in Chicago, a parent must have access to a computer - and know how to navigate the Internet.

Even the old-fashioned, paper letters can be confusing. Without a forum to "engage in face-to-face question and answering," says Ms. Allen, parents often feel lost.

"Testing, accountability, teacher quality - these are not bread-and-butter issues," she adds. "They're complex."

At this point, she says that communication between schools and families is best described as a one-way exchange rather than a meaningful dialogue.

In an effort to more clearly convey state test results to parents, Pennsylvania unveiled a new format last week for reporting scores. To be released in August, these "prettier" reports will also include suggested reading lists and activities that parents can undertake with their children.

The change wasn't "exactly spurred" by NCLB, says Brian Christopher, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, but he adds that the increased testing and reporting required by the law affirmed the need for a clearer way to communicate results with parents.

Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a colleague, have found that districts and schools across the country are making similar efforts to connect with families as a result of NCLB.