Walter McKenzie

We Want and Need Parents at the Table

Imagine you have all the education stakeholders at the table: the students, teachers, administrators, unions, lawmakers, state and federal education agencies, professional education associations, teacher preparation programs, education technology experts, and visionary gurus... Even the deep-pocketed philanthropists who want their say. Let's throw a few more tables together... it's getting crowded... and more chairs... we need elbow room...

But wait, there's still something or someone missing. You would think with this many interests represented at the table that we'd have it covered. Let's see... we have everyone with a self-interest in seeing education move forward... no, wait.. No, we don't. There are no parents at the table.

What do you mean parents have no place at the table? What do you mean they are glad just to have childcare covered all day? What do you mean they have abrogated most of their child-rearing responsibilities and left you to pick them up piecemeal behind them? In an age of shifting paradigms, why haven't we accepted the changing role of parents both in their children's lives and in education?

The major issue? Parents as passive stakeholders. Regardless of how mothers and fathers choose to provide an education for their children, having their children prepared for life is a reality of parenting. Why does it seem like once their children are involved in public education, parents become disengaged? Is it really parental instinct to push their children out of the proverbial nest and not look back? What is the true dynamic that shifts parents from being their child's primary educator to being a passive participant in their education in public schools? Somewhere, somehow the shift is made... parents receive the message that education is now the primary role of their child's school.

But what if parents didn't shift in their role and insisted on being a major player in their child's education? What does that mean? Providing structured homework time in the evenings? Attending PTA meetings? Being the homeroom parent for their child's class? These are the ways parents are encouraged to be involved... but are these the roles of true stakeholders?

In an age of education transformation, assuming that parents simply want quality home-school communication and good seats at the annual school musical program is not only presumptuous, but also limits their importance in educating their children, confining them to Industrial Age role stereotypes and insulting them as education stakeholders. If we truly believe it is time to open the schoolhouse windows and doors to let the fresh air of change blow in, we need to allow everyone to enjoy the cool breeze on their skin that refreshes their perspective and awakens them to the possibilities for a new day in education. Does that mean these reawakened stakeholders will add to the shifts in power and control over how public education is run? Absolutely. But if they haven't been engaged to do so already, what's so public about public education? If the only thing that makes "public education" public today is the fact that it's run by public agencies using public monies, then perhaps that is the crux of the problem and the reason why public education is in crisis. Stakeholders, by birthright, have been disenfranchised while keepers of the public law, public policy, and public money have built-in incentive not to hand back public education to the constituents for which it is named.

If we really want to transform public education and not let it be co-opted by politicians and private interests, bring in a whole lot of extra chairs. Have a few of the other special-interest groups push back away from the table to make room, and have parents pull up their seats and take an active role, knowing up front that they're not going to fit into the traditional role that has marginalized them. So the real question is, are educators ready for a new role for parents, defined by today's mothers and fathers and the times in which we live? Give them a seat at the table and enough elbow room to provide them some leverage, and they can be great allies in public education transformation.

Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. A director of Constituent Services for ASCD, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at

Comments (2)

Margaret Sorensen

September 27, 2011

Friere talks about the futility of one social group setting the learning agenda for another. And yet, as urban districts struggle to educate children and loudly decry the home conditions of their students (pointing out correctly their powerlessness to alter this situation), the last thing on anyone’s mind is to think seriously about building meaningful bridges of communication and relationship between the teachers and families.

Your question is, I think, the right question to ask, whether we are confronted with suburban professional working moms (and dads), or harried and overwrought families who daily confront the issues of crime and poverty along with low-wage employment—or no employment. We seem to face two barriers of the mind. One is a belief that parent involvement looks like something that we think we remember from long ago. We think that parent involvement looks like showing up for two conferences a year, joining the PTA and participating in fundraising and perhaps providing some volunteer classroom assistance. In this we are wedded to a form rather than an essence. We have forgotten that those two conferences were supposed to provide an opportunity for communication—and in doing so we overlook how many more opportunities that we have for communication. Instead we keep trying different ways to bully parents into a mechanism that is outmoded, and assume because the mechanism doesn’t fit that parents no longer care.

But, our second barrier lies in not seeing parents as capable of making a meaningful contribution to the process of education. Not only do we tend to limit our scope of expectations to things like putting up bulletin boards when we may have access to parents who can write grants, network with CEOs, analyze processes, formulate employee evaluation systems, understand computer systems and a whole slew of other higher level skills, but in terms of urban and low-income parents, we assume that they are not “ready” for any meaningful participation. We totally miss out on the reality that in any chaotic classroom, there are probably three or four parents who already know how to walk in and command immediate attention. Further, these parents are endlessly frustrated with teachers who lack this skill and allow the chaos to continue. These parents expect, want, and know how to bring about an orderly environment. But their voices are not heard.

Likewise, the research shows that most low-income families and students actually have HIGHER long-term expectations than do their teachers, even though the families may not have the knowledge of how to get there.

I think that the key must be a willingness to accept every parent at face value and begin from day one to evaluate what it is that they bring to the table that has value. And listen.

Walter McKenzie

September 28, 2011

Margaret you have summarized the situation quite explicitly! From an administrator’s perspective, the issue becomes one of willingness to give up some control in order to enlist and engage parents. Once I have parents helping out in varied facets of the school’s work as you have described, I have to be comfortable in coordinating and facilitating their efforts differently than I do with staff. Could that be a major dynamic in determining how successfully schools bring parents in as involved stakeholders?

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