A Tactic for Educating Parents
The School Administrator, January 1999, p.34.
by Diane Briars
Parents clearly play an important, influential role in mathematics reform. Our experiences in Pittsburgh (and those of other districts) dramatically illustrate the need to provide substantial information to parents as well as the consequences when they are not kept informed.
How can we enlist parents as allies rather than opponents to reform?
Here are four suggestions:
Research by the Public Agenda Foundation shows that parents do want their students to reason mathematically and develop problem-solving skills. But first they want to be assured that their children will learn the basics - the number facts and fundamental computation skills. Ironically, math reform programs also expect students to learn the basics. In fact, most programs expect more mental math capabilities than traditional programs.
The problem is one of public relations. In their zeal to extol the virtues
and importance of problem solving, reformers stopped mentioning the basics.
We assumed that parents knew they would still be there. This is a costly
mistake! The basics must be clearly visible to parents and the public.
Most parents, especially parents of elementary students, want to help their children learn math. Unfortunately, traditional ways of helping (e.g., showing them how to do specific procedures) are not applicable to standards-based programs.
Many reform programs are activity based. Students keep journals instead of using traditional textbooks. Thus parents do not have access to the regular, specific information about what is going on in class that they got from textbooks. Even if books do come home, their content often is so different from parents' experiences that most are at a loss about how to help their children.
Parents need specific direction about things they can do and ideas on
how to do it. Basic facts practice can certainly be a parental responsibility.
Even better, schools can offer a packet of games to reinforce basic facts
(and other concepts) in fun ways. Schools can provide glossaries of mathematics
terms, send notes to explain homework activities that might be unfamiliar
and conduct frequent parent meetings to facilitate two-way communication.
If we want parents and the public to accept and value standards-based assessments, we must inform them about the topic. Pittsburgh's director of public relations, Pat Crawford, created a successful way to provide such information.
During "Take the Test Night," parents answered sample questions from
our state and district tests, including the New Standards Reference Exam,
had dinner, then scored their own tests and discussed the results. Parents
were surprised at the level of questions on the NSRE and clearly recognized
it as a good test of their children's knowledge. The news media gave good
coverage to this event, so the public was also informed.
Parental concerns and complaints are often well-founded. With appropriate follow-up, they can provide valuable information about faulty implementation of programs. The most common complaint I hear about our elementary program is that students aren't learning their basic facts.
When I ask parents if they have seen games coming home or if their children mention playing games in school, and they say "no," the problem is clear. Games are the primary vehicle for basic fact practice in that program. By eliminating games, the teacher has eliminated the basic fact practice from the program! The problem is implementation, not the program and not the parents.
Many parents had terrible mathematics experiences when they were in school so they want a better experience for their children. Most parents are positive about standards-based reform once they understand it, see it works and recognize they have a productive role to play.
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Last Revision: 11/07/05