The Kind of School Reform That Parents Actually Want

School debates today feature what seems to be a paradox: Americans report exhaustion with school reform of pretty much every stripe, even as huge numbers of parents voice an appetite for novel options such as private school choice, home schooling, and “learning pods.”

What’s going on? How can parents simultaneously be exhausted by reform and hungry for options?

Let’s start with why Americans may be exhausted with reform. It’s fair to say that most parents and communities have had less-than-great experiences with “school reform” and the reformers who pursue it. From the train wreck of the Common Core State Standards to the renaissance of post-Katrina New Orleans, school reform has often felt like something that the comfortable denizens of Silicon Valley or Washington visit upon local parents and educators—whether they want it or not.

 

In fact, from a parent’s perspective, Big “R” Reform—in which reformers pursue ambitious reforms in pursuit of sweeping slogans (“closing achievement gaps” or “college for all”)—usually feels far removed from the things that will directly impact their child. Big R Reform can leave parents wondering how this addresses their pressing concerns about student safety, cruddy technology, or too-easy reading assignments. But instead of offering practical answers to practical concerns, reformers wind up encouraging parents to send emails to state legislators or wear brightly colored T-shirts to the state capitol—in the hope that it’ll eventually help lead to the enactment of some four-point plan.

For low-income families in particular, school reform has frequently taken the shape of yet another out-of-town funder pursuing yet another ambitious reform agenda cooked up by a mix of self-assured researchers, crusading twenty-somethings, and foundation executives. In a story that’s been told time and again, these families wind up feeling tuned out and ill-used for the sake of an outsider’s vision of “reform.” While each new wave of reform is led by reformers who pledge that “this time will be different,” it rarely works out that way.

Meanwhile, suburban middle-class families have gotten the message that school reform isn’t for them or their kids at all. For three decades, school choice reforms have been designed and marketed as tools for serving low-income children in the urban core. When suburban parents worried about No Child Left Behind-inspired cutbacks in arts, world languages, and gifted classes, they were told to worry less about their own kids and more about what “those other kids” needed.

So it’s hard to blame any parent, especially after the past year and a half, for not wanting more “reform-minded” disruption. It’s easy to see why parents who’ve got the resources and know-how would rather call a principal to get their child reassigned from teacher A to teacher B or ask a school board member to help get their kid into a program.

This understandable inclination to focus on solving specific problems rather than wading into the miasma of system change helps explain the expanded appetite for more and better school options. For millions of families, “school choice” has morphed from abstraction to potential solution.

This applies to parents frustrated that local public schools tended to stay closed last year while many private schools opened safely. To parents who found themselves tasked with home schooling when school districts closed and now want to retain some of the benefits via “hybrid-home schooling.” To the one-third of parents who are in a learning pod or say they’re interested in joining one—including more than half of Black parents and 45 percent of Latino parents. And to the parents who have doubled the nation’s home schooling population to 1 in 10 students. These parents aren’t seeking to reform their schools; they’re just looking for options that suit.

So the seeming paradox isn’t so paradoxical after all. Parents are skeptical of reform because they’re skeptical it’ll help their kids; new options appeal because parents believe that these actually will benefit their children. A useful reality check for educators, policymakers, and would-be reformers alike.

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