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Helping Parents Get Engaged – A Mom Congress Meeting with the Department of Education

Department of Education

On Monday, several Mom Congress delegates and Parenting Magazine staff members met in Washington, D.C. with Massie Ritsch and Carrie Jasper from the Department of Education’s external outreach team.  The topic of the meeting was parent engagement and a major focus of the conversation was how to get parents the information they need to be better engaged in their children’s education.

Myrdin Thompson, the organizer of the meeting and the 2010 Mom Congress delegate from Kentucky, brought up the point that every parent is engaged in her child’s education.  They may not all be sitting in on Senate hearings, like Myrdin’s doing this week, but that doesn’t mean they’re not engaged. 

The delegates shared a common desire to give all parents the tools they need to support their children throughout their educations.

When talking about the giant document that is the Senate bill recently introduced to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Melissa Bilash of Pennsylvania said that we need to have a clear and concise explanation for parents of what the bill means for them and what their rights are.

Jerri-Ann Reason of Alabama agreed.  She said that if she, someone who’s well versed in education jargon, has a hard time understanding the language of the bill and if the teachers in her school have a hard time understanding the language of the bill, then it will be insurmountably difficult for the average parent to have a basic understanding of the law.

I think ignorance is often the barrier between parents and full engagement and, although we’re surrounded by information and tools, we don’t always know where to find them.  Often we don’t even know the tools exist and we don’t even know that we don’t know.  

Rachel Laiserin, a PTA president from New York, said that there’s money set aside for parents to improve their engagement but parents don’t know it’s there or what to do about it.  It’s not making its way down to the people who need it.

From the perspective of a Parenting staffer, Catherine McManus, Director of Brand Communications and Partnerships, said that we need clear, concise, simple communication.  The information about education can be so overwhelming and some parents barely have five minutes to read about it each month.  How do we boil down complex issues into something that is easy to digest and act on? 

Not all parents are going to read magazine articles about improving their engagement.  Not all parents will attend Department of Education town hall meetings or watch Senate hearings on C-SPAN.  So, once we formulate the information into concise suggestions and sound bites, how do we feed those bites to parents or at least make them aware that they exist and that they should care about them?

Windy Tuck, the 2011 Mom Congress delegate from South Carolina, said we need to get back to a place where education is important to everyone.  She talked about her grandma who only had a third grade education and how her kids graduated from high school and then their kids graduated from college.  They were able to do this because everyone cared about kids, education and the future of the country.

Felisa Hilbert, the 2011 Mom Congress delegate from Oklahoma, mentioned the importance of engaging minority communities with an emphasis on English language learners.  She said that people want to be engaged.  We need to make them feel comfortable and step up and say, “What can I do as a member of this community to make it easier for them?”

The message of the day was really one of inclusion, of bringing people along and making sure that no child, no group, no family is left behind.  This means better communication, better outreach, and greater mindfulness.  We need to constantly be asking ourselves who is missing from the conversation and do our best to bring them in.

Brenda Drummer Martin, our current Kentucky delegate, focused her remarks on inclusion, calling for as much focus on gifted education as special education.  She also had some great insights on assessments, saying that student assessments need to be more innovative and conducted on an ongoing basis to provide teachers with the data they need to help students achieve.  She also raised her voice in support of more effective teacher evaluations.

Massie Ritsch talked about the Department of Education’s role to ensure equity and opportunity across the country.  What the DOE doesn’t do is boss parents or try to assume the role of being the nation’s superintendent.  They’re looking for ways to help without being overbearing so they can partner with organizations like Parenting to create tools for parents but they can’t mandate their use. 

He suggested that parents might want to consider rallying around a couple of things right now.  The first is the ESEA reauthorization.  He said that in some ways, as it’s moving forward, it’s moving backward.  The bill, as it stands, contains limited accountability for teachers and schools and it only focuses on the bottom 5% of schools.  The new law also doesn’t focus as much on specialized populations of students as No Child Left Behind did.  Right now we have the opportunity to support those who are working on and strengthening the law.

The other policy area that could use our support and input is the president’s proposal to give relief to the states from the rigid requirements of No Child Left Behind.  He pointed out that while the waivers will give schools flexibility on how they can spend their money, the one area where there will be no flexibility is on title one money for parent engagement. 

The big questions I think everyone left with were – How do we communicate more effectively with parents to support them in their efforts for engagement?  How do we let every parent from every background know what her rights are and what resources are available to her?

What do you think?  How do we get this information out?

Kathryn Thompson is a mom to two school-aged kids, a toddler and a deceased betta fish. She can also be found at The Parenting Post, and occasionally the gym.