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Perspective | Coping with frayed parent-school connections

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The parent-school relationship has entered a dicey period.

“Ask a teacher or principal in any type of school district you can think of, and they will likely tell you that, during their entire time in education, the last few years have been the worst in dealing with parents,” writes Ryan Hooper, a Philadelphia middle school teacher, in an essay published by The Fordham Institute.

Is a reset and revived partnership possible?

In K-12 public education across North Carolina, state and local school authorities are scrambling to implement the “Parents’ Bill of Rights’’ by the Jan. 1, 2024 effective date. School boards and administrators are also fashioning policies to cope with challenges to books in classrooms and libraries and with raucous public comment during open meetings.

North Carolina illustrates the Republican-Democratic cleavage on education, which the Pew Research Center has neatly summarized in eight charts. “Today, the public is sharply divided along partisan lines on topics ranging from what should be taught in schools to how much influence parents should have over the curriculum,” Pew reports.

The 11-page state parents’ rights legislation is a product of that partisan division. Republican lawmakers designed it as a central element of their agenda.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, saying, “Parents are the most essential educators for their children and their involvement must be encouraged, but this bill will scare teachers into silence by injecting fear and uncertainty into classrooms.” With their super-majority, Republicans voted to override the veto.

As North Carolina adjusts, it is instructive to read expressions of concern over frayed parent-school relations from national scholars and analysts along different points of the education policy spectrum. Let’s consider specifically recent publications by The Thomas B. Fordham Institute on the center-right and the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution on the center-left.

The Fordham Institute has unveiled a call to action of its Building Bridges Initiative. Institute President Michael Petrilli wrote that “something about education reform changed significantly in the mid-2010s, and not for the better. Political polarization put serious strain on the bipartisan movement, and culture wars are stressing what is left.”

For Fordham, the core of education reform consists of “ambitious standards’’ and “high-quality charter schools.” For its Building Bridges Initiative, Fordham convened education advocates from across the ideological spectrum. They agreed to a “belief in public education as a critical player in preparing citizens’’ and “deep respect for the role that educators and parents play in supporting student success.”

A “more responsive” system, says the call to action, would be “firmly centered around students.’’ It would “give parents and families true information, power, and agency to understand, support, choose, and advocate for their children’s education in a real and actionable way.’’

In his essay published by Fordham under the headline, “Parents and schools need a reset,’’ Hooper, the Philadelphia teacher, proposes several tactics to strengthen parent-teacher relationship. He suggests British-inspired “codes of conduct’’ for parents in using social media and attendance at school meetings. In turn, he writes, “school leaders and staff have to accept warranted criticism from parents and be willing to address justifiable parent concerns.” Schools, says Hooper, “must be transparent’’ about curriculum and classroom operations.

“Partnerships with parents are key to solving heightened political polarization in schools,” says the headline on a recent essay published by Brookings. Its authors are Ashley Woo and Melissa Kay Diliberti, both of the RAND Corporation, an international think-tank. Their essay calls for “clear protocols’’ for educators in responding to families and for “greater transparency’’ in explaining the professionalism and research behind instructional practices.

“Educators don’t need to hide from controversial topics,” they write. “They can (and should) bring families into respectful conversations to build a foundation of trust and shared goals with families before conflict arises.”

Of course, conflicts have already arisen — often stirred up by a small segment of people — and are likely to persist for a while. Laws like the parents’ rights measure beget irritation more than promote healing. Still, it’s in the best interests of their students for North Carolina educators to work toward reviving the spirit of partnerships.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.