Parent-Teacher Barbecues Help Build New Cooperation

By Edward Fiske
American News Service

SCIENCE HILL, Ky. -- It might have seemed like nothing out of the ordinary -- a barbecue dinner shared by about 50 parents and teachers one night recently at the Science Hill School.

Yet this was no occasion for mere socializing or planning for the school bake sale. These parents and teachers had come to take part in a statewide effort that some experts consider unprecedented in American public education.

"It's the first time any state has gone back to the drawing board and rebuilt its entire education system from scratch," said Frank Newman, president of the private, non-profit Education Commission of the States based in Denver.

And citizen involvement has been a key to putting this radical experiment into practice.

Here at the barbecue, the two sides debated topics ranging from what teachers expect from their students to what parents expect from teachers and how they could help strengthen the school's academics.

"The point was to get communication going between the two sets of adults - parents and teachers - who are most influential in children's lives," said Nancy Rogers, one of the organizers.

It was five years ago that Kentucky's Supreme Court catapulted this state into the forefront of national school improvement efforts. The court judged the quality of teaching in Kentucky schools so poor and so uneven that it ordered the legislature to scrap the whole education system and to create a new one.

The sheer magnitude of the task convinced political and civic as well as educational leaders that the reform could not simply be enacted "top down" by the legislature. Reform required a new state education department, new financial incentives to teachers, revised tests, and sanctions on poorly performing schools.

To succeed, they concluded, these changes would have to include a wide spectrum of regular citizens.

Such efforts have ranged from a survey that tapped the public's views in the design of statewide education goals to a new law requiring that parents be given a formal role in the management of local schools.

In its 1990 ruling, the state's high court had itself made clear that in designing a constitutionally sound system the General Assembly should pay special attention to increasing citizen involvement. In this regard, the court was simply acknowledging a trend already well underway.

As early as 1983 supporters of school reform had organized a privately funded organization, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, to encourage citizen involvement. The following year the committee drew 20,000 people together in 145 sites. In town meetings, they discussed their goals for Kentucky's schools.

Later, the governor's newly created Council on School Performance Standards held focus groups and conducted in-depth interviews to give a cross section of citizens another opportunity to determine what they wanted their children to know and be able to do after 12 years in school.

Citizens expected graduates to have not only the basic academic skills, the council found, but also "practical skills such as solving problems, getting along with people, keeping a job and managing household finances."

These findings were then built into new curriculum goals for state schools.

Backers of efforts to increase citizen involvement and build political support argue that both are critical to the success of school reform, but, they concede, they are still seeking the most effective means.

The court's ruling five years ago pushed Kentuckians to continue that search.

Responding to the court, the General Assembly adopted a sweeping set of reforms, known as KERA, the Kentucky Education Reform Act. KERA called for local governing school councils that include teachers and parents; an assessment program to measure student learning; and a system of rewards and sanctions for schools based on student performance.

To build popular support for these changes, the Prichard Committee organized Community Committees for Education of regular citizens throughout the state. "We realized that implementing changes of this magnitude is not something that schools can do by themselves," said Robert F. Sexton, Prichard's executive director. "They need help."

About 85 community committees are up and running so far, Sexton said, with about 1,000 core members. One of their major activities has been organizing Parents and Teachers Talking Together, or PT3, sessions to get these two groups communicating with each other. In the last year, about 50 such meetings have been held, and more are planned.

Nancy Rogers, a Prichard regional coordinator, explained that Science Hill's PT3 session was typical.

Parents and teachers at this combined elementary and middle school in south-central Kentucky first met in separate groups to discuss the question "What do we want for our children?" and wrote their answers on a big sheet of paper. Then they reconvened, put the two lists on the wall, discussed the differences and voted as a group on the four most important answers.

After dinner, they repeated the exercise but with a question that called for their own involvement: "What can we do to meet these needs?"

The Science Hill four-hour meeting ended with a list of common objectives for the school. "We saw that our goals were basically the same," said Karin Minton, the PTA president. "We have a better understanding of each other."

Rogers said that while parents and teachers often rank goals in different order, there is usually agreement on broad objectives. "Quality education is usually the top priority," she said. "Mutual respect and open communication are others."

Not surprisingly, Kentucky's sweeping reform package has been controversial.

The new statewide assessment program has been plagued with technical problems, and a new curricular emphasis on writing and other high-order thinking skills has drawn criticism. Opponents charge that it has caused teachers to slight instruction in spelling and other "basics."

Supporters of the process, however, say the criticism often reflects misunderstandings.

"Parents can easily get false impressions," said Sexton of the Prichard Committee, noting that parents hear teachers voice frustrations over the new demands on them and worry that teachers are being distracted from the basics. "But the fact is that the overwhelming majority of teachers are teaching the basics, and if you can get groups of teachers talking to groups of parents, the truth comes out."

Controversies have also arisen over whether the financial bonuses paid to schools for surpassing learning goals should go to teachers and administrators alone or whether they should be shared with non-professional staff or donated to the school.

Most observers believe that despite such problems, the school improvement program is moving ahead on schedule. A candidate who pledged to roll back the forms was defeated in last fall's gubernatorial election.

While sharing this cautious optimism, Sexton conceded that achieving effective communication between educational professionals and ordinary citizens is not an easy task, mainly because American schools lack traditions for such communication.

"Energizing citizens to implement reforms as complex as Kentucky's is a striking new reality for volunteers like us," he said. "We're still learning how to do it."

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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