Mississippi's Grade-the-Parents Law Deserves an "Unsatisfactory"

This legislative atrocity blindly makes huge assumptions about how schools work and how families live. It will hurt, not help.

Mississippi is about to do something colossally asinine in the name of parent engagement.

Here’s the story: Mississippi State Representative Gregory Holloway (D-Hazlehurst) recently introduced the Parental Involvement and Accountability Act, which was intended to improve parent engagement in low-performing schools by having teachers grade parents on their involvement. Another Representative, Omeria Scott (D-Laurel) amended the bill with portions of her “Mississippi Save Our Children Act,” which, in its original version, called the children of African-American parents “out of control” and stated that, “many parents allow out of control behavior… because they do not know how to handle their own children.”

I know! And that was just the preamble. To get all those neglectful parents back in line, the amended bill lays out a series of policies intended to force parents to be more engaged with schools, most notably by having teachers grade parents on their involvement. It includes other requirements for teachers and students as well.

Now, I agree with Mississippi’s lawmakers that parental involvement affects student achievement and both schools and parents have some work to do in this area. We part ways when it comes to the work that must be done and how to do it.

As a helicopter mom and proponent of differentiated parental involvement, I know that parents of all backgrounds genuinely want to engage with schools. However, this engagement is regulated by two major factors: the parent’s ability/capacity and school’s ability/capacity. In most instances, both sides are deficient and even the Causeway can’t bridge this gap if a family can’t easily meet its needs and is forced to send children to a school that isn’t ready to adequately educate them (or that treats those kids as lost causes because it believes their parents are uninvolved).

This legislative atrocity blindly makes huge assumptions about how schools work and how families live. It will hurt, not help. So I’m angry, and if you don’t feel as angry as I do yet, keep reading:

1. It blames parents for poor school performance.

The bill’s basic assumption is that the problem with low-performing schools is unengaged parents. Their kids are “out of control,” remember? But what’s the evidence that poor performance is the result of unengaged parents as opposed to, say, a broken pre-K system, inadequate school funding, ineffective teaching, or racial and economic segregation? Is this truly Mississippi’s #1 school problem?

In addition, school districts with a performance rating of “B” or higher are exempt. Why? Don’t we all know parents of students at high-performing schools who are disconnected and uninvolved, too? According to the state’s website, only 18 of 151 Mississippi school districts ranked B or higher in 2014, and all 18 of those districts serve a student body that is more than 50 percent Caucasian. In the 18 lowest-performing schools, less than one percent of students identify as such. Is the main difference between the state’s whiter, wealthier schools and lower-performing schools really parent engagement?

2. Its grading scheme is half-baked and gives parents no say.

Teachers in districts with these “new” policies must provide information about attendance policies, student and parent expectations with respect to academics, parent-school communications and other issues. On students’ report cards, teachers then grade parents as satisfactory, needs improvement, or unsatisfactory in their involvement. Every single parent must also participate in one “supportive” service for the school district, such as monitoring the bus stop or chaperoning an event.

Let’s get this straight. So you are telling me that my child’s teachers can rate me on my interactions with them, but not vice versa? What if I’m trying to engage but the teacher’s not responding? What if the teacher just doesn’t like the questions I’m asking? Where’s my teacher rating affixed to their performance review? Even I have forgotten to sign homework and forms, and that should not detract from the fact that I knew what was going on. How would I be penalized?

How many parents in these underperforming schools have the ability to participate in regular events or attend every parent-teacher conference, no matter how much they’d like to? Many of them have minimum wage jobs that offer no flexibility. Often, they work multiple jobs or irregular hours. What if the choice is between attending a conference and making an extra $25 to buy food for the week?

And how will the grades actually be used? If my parent engagement score is bad, does that mean you’ll treat my child differently? Will my child’s future teachers see my past grades and make assumptions about me without knowing the whole story? Will anyone be checking teachers’ grades to see if they’re reasonable, or calibrating them against others? The bill doesn’t answer these crucial questions.

3. It micro-manages teachers and schools.

Apparently, teachers and principals of underperforming schools have yet to think about parental engagement, so the bill’s authors generously provide them with a random list of requirements that will distract them from less important matters, like focusing on curriculum and instruction. Schools must assign daily homework and reading and teach cursive and manuscript writing. Every child must also learn five weekly vocabulary words in each subject area and read and write a report on one book per subject per month.

Again, why? Shouldn’t these decisions be made by educators, not politicians? It already takes my child, on average, two hours to do homework every night. If the idea is to mimic what’s happening at high-performing schools, why not do that here as well? You can’t pay me to believe that “A” and “B” schools assign this much work or prescribe it in such a regimented way. I want receipts!

But wait, teachers, there’s more. Since you work in a struggling school, you clearly need to tighten things up. The bill’s authors say you need to dress more professionally (no jeans! Surely you know the research on denim and student learning!). No more early release for professional development (what happened here? Did TMZ get security footage featuring midday drinking sessions?). Instead, stay after school and continue to neglect your own life and all those things you normally do for students after the bell rings. Oh, and remember to have extra meetings for poorly performing students and have those syllabi ready with all the homework assignments and make sure that the parents SIGN THAT FORM (we get it – you want parents to sign paperwork to prove they are engaged).

I’m left with so many questions. What data has the state used to inform this policy? Who will provide accountability? Where is the money coming from to implement these policies and support families and schools along the way? Will the districts that are subject to these policies allow parental input? How can we ensure that schools are doing their part in meeting the needs of students and families?

This bill isn’t about helping students. It’s about blaming parents. Its supporters think it will result in better engaged families and better schools. Here’s a promise: It won’t. What it will do is alienate hard-working families, frustrate teachers, widen the divide between Mississippi’s highest- and lowest-performing schools, and crush kids. Mississippi’s parents and teachers should rate it Unsatisfactory and dare them to appeal.

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