Listen to Parents About Education Priorities

Listen to Parents About Education Priorities
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As it begins to chart a course on education policy, the Biden administration would do well to heed the voice of parent leaders around the country. The debate at the moment concerns whether to open schools, but the larger issue is the persistent achievement gaps that affect families and the future paths available to their children.

Not all students start at the same place. Limited access to quality teaching, decent facilities, and rigorous curriculum often lead to achievement gaps. Children in low-income, minority families often suffer from these disadvantages.

Massachusetts parent activist Keri Rodrigues, co-founder and head of the National Parents Union, stressed inequity during a recent interview with me and my Bush Institute colleague Anne Wicks. “We are here to fight for equity in education and making sure the quality of education that a child living in an inner-city receives is the same as the child living in an upper-middle-class district,” she said. “That’s not too much to ask.”

Yes, students need access to equitable resources – but teachers, parents, and taxpayers also need the facts before their schools can improve. “As a community,” Rodrigues said, “we cannot do that based on feeling.”

We can’t get students the good teachers they deserve, the training that struggling teachers require, and the leadership that underperforming campuses need without a clear set of facts. And you can’t get honest data without high-quality, objective exams. 

Testing students with exams that honestly compare achievement levels across a state can lead to substantial improvements. 

Parent activists like Rodrigues understand this, and they share a passion for eliminating injustices in our education system. Another parent activist, Chris Stewart, the CEO of brightbeam, a network of nonprofit education activists, told us in his interview for our Beyond the Scantron series, “We only know that there’s a difference between White students and Black students and other students of color because we have the data. We only know about that because we have assessments.”

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some states to rethink how and whether they administer state tests before the end of this school year. Massachusetts joined the list when state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced in January that “we remain committed to administering the assessment this spring, while recognizing the need for adjustments and flexibility.”

Some adjustments make sense, given that some students are learning online and some in person, while others are doing a hybrid of both. But the information that Massachusetts is seeking is particularly crucial during the pandemic. Rodrigues, who fought for keeping MCAS exams, summed up the importance of state data: “Much like how parents would not take a child to a doctor who didn’t use a thermometer to determine how sick a child might be, we are also not willing to rely solely on the ‘best guesses’ of educators to determine what our kids will need to recover academically.”

We already know that learning deficits have appeared during the pandemic. A McKinsey & Company study shows that declines in math have been steep. According to the report, “students, on average, started school about three months behind where we would expect them to be in mathematics.” What’s more, “Students of color were about three to five months behind in learning; white students were about one to three months behind.”

That is evidence enough that achievement gaps are a serious issue. Parent activists are eager to draw attention to the problem. Political leaders should listen.

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