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'Parent trigger' approach to school reform isn't just stuff of Hollywood

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 2012 - Is letting parents and teachers run a school the same as turning over an airplane to the passengers?

That’s the analogy one side makes in the new film “Won’t Back Down,” Hollywood’s oversimplified version -- “inspired by actual events” – of a growing education reform idea known as a parent trigger.

The trigger is pulled when a majority of parents in an underperforming school signs a petition to require the school to be drastically changed in one of a number of ways. In some cases, as the movie portrays, teachers are part of the petition process as well.

With high-powered actresses like Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal teaming up to make over a failing Pittsburgh elementary school, there’s no doubt where the sentiments of the filmmakers lie. And if you needed more proof, the movie is backed by the same team that brought you the award-winning documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

But just because the film’s deck is stacked in favor of parents and teachers desperate to improve their school doesn’t mean the issue is a slam-dunk in the real world as opposed to the reel world. While parent trigger laws have been passed in a number of states, efforts to put them into practice have mostly stalled.

A proposal for the parent trigger in Missouri died in this year’s session of the General Assembly, but its sponsor, state Rep. Tim Jones – the newly elected speaker of the Missouri House – expects it to be back again in 2013. And StudentsFirst, the education reform group led by Michelle Rhee, who figured prominently in “Superman,” stands ready to help get it passed. The group sponsored a screening of “Won’t Back Down” last week at the Hi-Pointe theater in advance of its nationwide commercial release on Friday.

“We simply see the parent trigger as one way to change a school that has demonstrated it is failing kids,” says Lea Crusey, who heads up StudentsFirst in Missouri.

“It needs to be accompanied by supporting the teaching profession as the elite profession that it needs to be, with good evaluations for teachers and principals that give them meaningful feedback. All of these steps have to happen together.”

That outlook doesn’t sit well with teachers’ unions, who are cast as the bad guys in the film. To Todd Fuller of the Missouri State Teachers Association, parents need to be more active from the first signs of problems in a school and work with the elected board to get them fixed.

“Sadly,” he said, “parents don’t act until things get too bad. Make sure you know what is going on. If a school has gotten so bad that they are just now responding, that is a real problem.”

No shades of gray

Problems are all that are visible at Adams Elementary School as “Won’t Back Down” opens. Kids are playing video games or asleep at their desks, but the teacher doesn’t notice; she’s too busy shopping for boots online or checking her cell phone. Left on their own are students like Malia, who is dyslexic and struggles to read the simplest sentence.

Her mother, Jamie Fitzpatrick, played by Gyllenhaal, is a single mother working two jobs and trying to find the best education for her daughter. She distills the problem when she complains about the school and moans: “You’re acting like I have a choice here.”

Once she realizes that the area’s trigger law would give her that choice, if she can persuade enough parents and teachers to sign a petition, she begins nagging teacher Nona Alberts, played by Davis – not Malia’s teacher – to join her crusade. At first reluctant, Davis, who has her own problems with the education system, is won over and begins working on her colleagues.

Here, the anti-union sentiment becomes strong. Teachers say they won’t want to lose their jobs or the protections the union gives them, and a top official with the union utters a line attributed to Albert Shanker, long-time powerful head of the American Federation of Teachers, though there is a question about whether he ever actually said it:

“When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.”

With that kind of sentiment, the battle lines are clearly drawn. What comes next are rallies and confrontations, triumphs and setbacks, leading up to the final decision by the school board. If you don’t know what happens then, you need to get to the cineplex more often.

But while the movie is manipulative, it is also effective. The quality of the cast, which includes Holly Hunter, makes the dialogue and the scenario more moving and convincing than they might otherwise be. It will no doubt bring to the public’s attention one aspect of the movement for school choice and school change that might otherwise have drawn little notice.

Whether it will result in action in the nation’s real classrooms remains to be seen.

Only the worst schools

Crusey, at StudentsFirst, wants to make clear a few things about parent triggers.

First, they are meant only for the worst performing schools, extreme situations where students are clearly not achieving as they should. It’s not designed as a way for demanding parents in an elite school to overrun the administration and take measures into their own hands.

Second, it is not necessarily the best or the first step in efforts to stop a school’s downward cycle. She said StudentsFirst has dozens of strategies that can be used to improve student performance.

But if triggers are the method of choice, the organization says they should be used in one of the four ways prescribed by the federal Race to the Top program:

  • Turnaround, where a school changes a large percentage of its existing staff, perhaps including the principal;
  • Restart, where the traditional public school is closed, then reopened as a charter school;
  • Transformation, where a school drastically changes its approach to teaching and learning, including possibly a longer school day, increased flexibility for staff and maybe new leadership;
  • Closure, where a building is shut down and students transfer to another     school where results have been better.

“In an extreme situation,” Crusey said, “where a school has demonstrated a failure to educate kids, the trigger provides an effective and democratic tool to bring change. It empowers parents to know that it exists, and it helps elevate the accountability of the school. That is the true spirit of the measure.”
Added Calvin Harris, also with StudentsFirst:

“Low-income parents have few options. The trigger is the first time parents have had this kind of leverage and this kind of power. The more power that parents have to exercise over their kids’ education, the more likely schools will be a system that puts parents first and holds teachers and bureaucrats accountable.”

Jones, the House speaker, said that accountability is needed in Missouri and would have increased with the bill he introduced last year.

“The parent trigger is probably something that is more of a last resort,” he said, “but we’ve got some issues here in Missouri that are just about at the last resort stage. Two of the largest districts in the state are unaccredited or were provisionally accredited for years, and they’re showing little or no improvement. Anyone out there in the establishment who says tings are getting better, I say show me where.

“If you can get 50 percent plus one to agree on anything, you’ve got good support. Where you see this most happening, you’re going to get much greater than 50 percent.”

Hollywood ending

For Fuller of the teachers union, a trigger bill is precisely the wrong remedy for failing schools because it shows that parents who are unhappy with how their children are learning have been sitting on the sidelines for too long before demanding change.

In the end, he added, what appears to be a democratic solution to a problem school really undermines democracy.

“One of our biggest concerns would be that we have always been proponents of local control,” he said, “but at some point you have to have some faith in the local governing body of the district.

“If you have trusted that board to hire an administration and put it in place, then you’re not happy about the direction that board and that administration have gone, you need to be proactive, not reactive. That is what triggers are, reactive, and that is disappointing.”

Fuller hadn’t seen “Won’t Back Down,” but he knew from the buzz surrounding it what its solution to a bad school would be.

“Sadly,” he said, “parents don’t act until things get too bad. They need to make sure they knew what is going on. If a school has gotten so bad that they are just now responding, that is a real problem.

“It sounds nice. It sounds like it would be a kind of Hollywood ending. But there are a lot of ramifications after the fact that I don’t think people have thought about because it never has gotten that far.”

Activist hijackers?

To Kathleen Sullivan Brown, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the cinematic version of school reform is not necessarily good long-term education policy. While a triumph for parental demands for change may sound good, she said more practical mechanisms can make bad schools better.

“Everyone in education wants to see parental involvement,” she said. “That’s a given right now. Research shows that getting parents actively involved does improve student achievement and satisfaction with the school. But it’s a much more long-term project.

“It sounds like it’s very democratic if a majority of parents can take matters into their own hands and, if they are frustrated, get something done. But it can become sort of undemocratic if a relatively small group of activists decides to hijack a school in their community and gets enough signatures to really be destructive, to get teachers fired and principals fired. It can have a really negative effect and alienate families who are there and ready to help and suddenly you have all this commotion and chaos in the school.”

Instead of an untested approach like the parent trigger, Brown says there are proven ways that parents can work together to improve education.

“We certainly want to see parents get involved and stay involved and not just do this on a whim or when they get upset with one teacher and decide to take on the whole school. What educators would like to see is long-term, committed parents who want to stay with their school, be there on a day-in and day-out basis, knowing what is going on, getting good information and acting responsibly.

“A community school is not like getting mad at your local dry cleaner and taking action because they ruined some of your clothing. It’s not just a one-day project. It’s very much a long-term commitment and involvement and engagement on the part of parents for the benefit of their kids and the benefit of all of the kids in their neighborhood.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.