Helping Parents Use Data to Improve Schools
An Interview with Anne Foster, Executive Director, Parents for Public Schools
by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.
Editor’s Note: As seen in IDRA’s Quality Schools Action FrameworkTM (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010), a key element to working with schools to bring about positive change is having access to disaggregated data in ways that are meaningful and actionable. In this interview, Anne Foster, executive director of Parents for Public Schools, describes how PPS is training parents to interpret data and to better understand how schools and school boards function. She gives several examples of transformations that have occurred as a result, like improving science achievement and dramatically improving graduation rates. The full interview is available through the IDRA Classnotes Podcast (via iTunes or http://www.idra.org/Podcasts/).
Ms. Foster on Why Parents for Public Schools Exists: PPS exists to engage parents and others in the community to support public education at a very high level because education is essential to our communities, to our nation and to our democracy. We encourage parents to understand that they truly own the public education system and that they are the ones to make sure it works. PPS started in
, in 1989 to encourage all parents in the community to work together for quality public education for all kids. It was a really noble experiment at that time in the deep South. Others noticed the movement, and it grew to other communities. We became national in 1991. Today we have 17 chapters in 12 states with other interested groups coming forward. Our chapters are very, very local. They tailor their activities and their work to the local issues.
Ms. Foster on the Role Actionable Knowledge Plays: We encourage our chapters in various ways to use data. Right now some are looking at data to see how their middle schools are performing. There is no way we can really understand how the school is serving children unless we can read and interpret data. One of the tools we have for training parents is our parent leadership institute, a product of the
of the Pritchard Committee in
, which has been instrumental in raising the quality of education in
over the last decade. We use the institute in a
statewide program, “State House to School House.” It shows parents to read and interpret data. At the end of the institute, parents can see, for example, that in their school, third grade African American boys are not reading at an acceptable level. They connect to a school project to generate improvement that will go for years after the institute. The project must link to data, link to student achievement and involve other parents.
Ms. Foster on the Kinds of Data Discovered by Parents that Helps them Plan to Improve the School: They have learned, first of all, that data is broken down into subgroups and demographic subpopulations, and they can sort out whether the school is serving some students acceptably or maybe even exemplarily but not others, especially those students who are not where they need to be on a required test. This is the first real clue to parents about how to use the data. From there, they can compare economically disadvantaged students with other categories. They can look at the entire school district and make sure that the district is working equitably with all of its schools. Parents can also refer to the data to see how their school and their district are doing in comparison to others in the state and the nation. We also are looking at gifted and talented education at the secondary level, college prep courses and similar data to see if graduation rates are going in the right direction.
Ms. Foster on Some Successes that Parents Groups Have Had: A parent in
, studied the data from her children’s elementary school and found that science scores had dropped significantly. She and other parents raised funds and created a science lab in their school to support the science curriculum. A parent in the Mississippi Delta (one of the most challenged regions of the nation) studied the dropout data and created a project to assist counselors. She worked one-on-one with the students who were not in a position to graduate. I think after the end of that project most of those students crossed that stage. So these are real life actions that come about when parents study and understand data.
Ms. Foster on Challenges: There are many challenges in parent engagement. Many disenfranchised parents are not well connected with their children’s schools and are intimidated by school and educators. One challenge is to find and bring those parents to the table. We know that parents exist along a spectrum: at one end are parents who were going to make sure that schools serve their kids. They’ll create their options because they are going to make sure their children will get a good education. At the opposite end there are parents who are completely disenfranchised. And there are others that exist somewhere in between those two extremes. We are always trying to move parents along that spectrum to a higher place. Some of the parents we work with actually get to a point that they run for their local school board.
Another challenge today is to connect with parents who actually might want to start and sustain a PPS chapter in their community. We know that parents are busy, trying to survive, looking for work or working multiple jobs. To create an organization and sustain it is a challenge, but we identify parents who want to do this work.
Robledo Montecel, M., & C. Goodman (eds). Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework™ (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).
Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services and director of the IDRA Texas Parent Information and Resource Center. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at
[©2011, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2011 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]