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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: With school starting at home, parents will get new view on kids’ educations

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Unless you are a teacher, were a teacher or live with a teacher, you don’t really know what teachers do all day. Nor do you really understand how much teachers do outside of the classroom.

Traditional home-schooling parents already know. This year, every parent gets to find out. And every teacher has to let them.

The best predictor of academic success has always been parental involvement, regardless of parental education level.

It’s why students graduating from structured home-school or charter school programs perform at a higher level than the broad population of public school students, regardless of household income.

It’s why Dr. Ben Carson could become a neurosurgeon and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development even though his illiterate mother had only a third-grade education. A single parent, Sonya made sure her two sons knew the importance of their effort in school. Parental engagement matters.

Teachers know this. Every teacher has stories about parents who think it’s the school’s job to raise their kids. Passionate teachers try, but they can’t fully heal the holes created by a chaotic, dysfunctional or even dangerous home or homeless environment. School matters to these students in ways far beyond basic literacy as engaged teachers try to compensate for absent parenting.

Once students arrive at school, teacher quality matters most in student achievement. Not just for unparented students, but for all students. In 1966, a groundbreaking study of equality of educational opportunity by James S. Coleman measured teacher effectiveness by looking at student outcomes, and found a connection.

A 2016 article in the journal Education Next by Dr. Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington commented on the 50th anniversary of the Coleman report, writing the “conclusions about the importance of teacher quality, in particular, have stood the test of time, which is noteworthy, given that today’s studies of the impacts of teachers use more-sophisticated statistical methods and employ far better data. … The finding that teacher quality is one of the few school characteristics that significantly affects student performance is quite consistent with more-recent research.“

Evaluating teacher quality has always been a subjective endeavor. Parents would share comments about this or that teacher’s reputation for invigorating academics or ability to handle disruption, but they didn’t really know. An observer in the room changes the dynamics, leaving a typical day a mystery. What happened in the classroom, stayed in the classroom.

And now the classroom walls are transparent.

Parents, administrators and school boards can watch teachers at work. When lectures are recorded and class meetings are virtual, the few who are marking time to retirement will be easy to spot. Teachers who have worked hard over the summer to master new platforms and adapt content will set the standard. Then there will be the passionate ones, the ones who create “aha!” moments for single students or an entire class.

Social media is full of statements from school districts asking parents not to peek, and screen shots of progressive teachers wondering how to handle conservative parents listening in.

None of the memes crossing my newsfeed was attributed to districts in the Inland Northwest, but the new transparency will change the policy dynamics of salary negotiations. Dry data on effectiveness will now have video to back it up. Why should a miracle worker make less than a clock watcher just because of time served? A prediction: Merit pay vs. seniority will be back on the table at the next union bargaining sessions.

But the transparency works both ways. There are scary memes about snooping teachers, like the one who spotted a BB gun in a child’s bedroom during an online session and overreacted by calling police instead of the parents. That’s a plausible scenario, but likely an outlier. Teachers’ biggest concern will be what they don’t see. Or rather, who they don’t see.

The high percentage of students who dropped out of sight when school went online last spring has worried educators across the state. No one knows what this fall will look like yet.

Parent engagement can no longer be measured by attendance at parent-teacher conferences or braving the squeaky clarinets to show up at the beginning band concert. Parent engagement is essential to student success this year. Whether that engagement takes the form of guiding participation in school district online learning or engaging directly with a home school curriculum, it’s on the parents to push. It won’t be easy, but maybe we can learn to value parents as full partners in their children’s education as much as we should value excellence in teachers.

This tough year isn’t done shaking things up.

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