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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Parent Trigger Laws: Why It's Better to Embrace Collaboration

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis in the film Won't Back Down about parent trigger laws.

Parent trigger laws have been attracting a lot of attention of lately. At least 18 states (some say 20) have considered legislation including parent trigger language over the past two years, with seven states enacting some version of a parent trigger. And a major motion picture set to release on September 28 chronicles a fictional account of a parent and teacher "pulling the trigger" to improve an elementary school.

But for all the talk on parent trigger laws, there is little consensus around them. There is even disagreement over the definition of the term. Some consider "true" parent trigger legislation to be laws that give parents the power to petition to privatize a school (typically by conversion to a charter school) with little or no input from others. Others consider a parent trigger law to be one that gives parents the ability to petition to intervene in a low-performing school in a number of ways, including but not limited to privatization, and/or includes voices other than parents.

Advocates of these laws claim that traditional means of turning around low-performing schools are too slow and too political, and they believe that such laws give parents an active role in how their child's school is managed. But others question the need for these laws, pointing to existing ways that parents can get involved in the operation of their child's school. They also worry that these laws are part of a larger effort to privatize public education in ways that benefit the business community at the expense of children.

In addition, they argue that the debate over parent trigger laws distracts us from what should be our primary concern: Ensuring that each child can receive a high-quality public education. When policymakers are debating these types of laws, they are not (for example) talking about how they can provide students and teachers with the tools and resources they need to succeed. They may also view these laws as silver bullets in fixing what ails our education system, using them to abdicate themselves from further responsibility in education. But to date, no community has successfully turned around a school using one of these laws.

Also concerning: These laws can pit educators and parents against each other. Yet educators and parents are on the same team -- we are all responsible for student success. And by working together in meaningful ways, educators and parents can build trust and impact students -- and eliminate the need for a parent trigger law altogether.

Community Conversations

There are stories of schools and districts from all across the country that are working with families in productive ways. One successful strategy: community conversations. By inviting conversation with parents and community members, schools gain a pulse on the issues of interest to those outside -- and open doors to building the capacity of all parties to serve students.

For example, at Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma City (a diverse school where 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch), community conversations lead to an outreach program to Hispanic families. The school learned that parents did not feel welcome at the school and that they needed information in Spanish about how the school works. Parents initially asked the school to hire more bilingual staff members, which it has done. In addition, descriptions of courses and college entrance requirements are now available in both Spanish and English.

Parents also requested improvements to the school's English Language Learner (ELL) program (the school has since offered professional development targeted at this population and added specific classes in core subjects for ELL students). The school now holds Hispanic Family Nights quarterly, each dedicated to a specific topic. Many are focused on increasing graduation and college attendance rates, but others have discussed legal rights of immigrants, challenges of raising teens and more. As a result of these efforts, the graduation rate among Hispanic students at the school rose nearly 70 percent. Test scores among this population are up as well.

Learn more about Putnam City West High School and other family-school-community partnerships that have advanced student learning in Family-School-Community Partnerships 2.0: Collaborative Strategies to Advance Student Learning, a publication of the National Education Association's Priority Schools Campaign.

District-Wide Engagement

While schools can certainly develop family engagement strategies on their own, district-level initiatives can ensure that it is a priority and a core education reform strategy for all their schools.

Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, which serves a student population that is 73 percent African American and 19 percent Hispanic, with about half of students receiving free or reduced price lunch, is one example of a district that is creating "demand parents" who can navigate the system and insist on the best from their schools. For over a decade, the district has housed a Department of Family and Community Outreach (DFCO) that monitors family outreach activities, tracking participation at district-wide events and studying the relationship between Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) and family participation. The district also supervises and provides training and technical assistance to school-level parent liaisons and professional development to principals and teachers. (Unfortunately, some of these efforts, including a number of parent liaison positions, were eliminated during the recession.)

The district partners with community organizations on "Parent Academies" that provide parent education on a variety of topics. They also engage in a variety of outreach efforts including phone calls, visiting community gathering places, radio and blogs to ensure that communications reach most families. For their efforts, they have been rewarded with much higher family participation in district events. In addition, they are seeing results academically - schools with higher family participation have shown greater gains in AYP.

The National PTA and Harvard Family Research Project included Prince George's County as one of several profiles in Seeing is Believing: Promising Practices for How School Districts Promote Family Engagement.

The Bottom Line

Passionate and active parents are a critical component of a successful education system. And while parent trigger laws can provide an avenue for parents to engage, their energy might be better directed at collaborating with educators to meet the needs of their children. They are a number of ways that such collaboration can occur -- and as educators, we need to prioritize and embrace it.

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