I had a chance to facilitate/participate in a fascinating 90-minute conversation with about 15 parents in the Dobbs Ferry, NY school district yesterday that has left me feeling a bit more optimistic about what’s ahead than I have been in a while. Last month, I blogged about Dobbs Ferry Superintendent Lisa Brady (who is also a good friend), and I spent the day in her district talking to administrators and teachers. But the highlight was the chance to hear the hopes, fears, and frustrations of the parents, many of whom took part in the book study I wrote about before and who are a part of the district’s PTSA group.
A couple of frames before I get into the details. First, these are highly motivated parents who in all honesty did not represent the entire demographic of the district. To their credit, however, they acknowledged and, at times, struggled with the lack of diversity at the table. And second, the day was specifically set up to give me a chance to pick their brains about the change process. I was really interested to hear what their pressing concerns and questions were and what we could learn from the experience that other schools might take from.
The short overview: this is a really hard conversation for parents, specifically because it requires them to rethink much of what they see as important in schools. Right now, test scores are seen as a hugely important factor in maintaining property values and in tracking student achievement. But these parents are struggling mightily with the test, and they are passionate in their opposition to the direction the testing conversation has taken. And it’s affecting their kids. It’s not just that their children are worried about the scores they might get on the test. Now, their kids are worrying that their teachers will be hurt if they don’t score well on the test. My sense is that most of these parents are quickly tiring of the frequency and impact of the tests, and they are ready to act on that fatigue in whatever ways they feel can best effect change
Because of the ongoing conversations that Lisa has been leading in the district, almost all of the parents I met with were on board with moving the school away from the traditional thinking about teaching and learning. But they wondered if teachers would be on board. And they wondered what that new vision of teaching and learning looked like. A few times, they asked for a road map or a plan to follow. Their frustration with the pace of change was palpable. But I was also impressed by their deep desire to grow these conversations to other parents and community members, and to start meeting with teachers and students to discuss a long term vision for change.
I could go on, but let me just bullet out a few other key observations:
- One of the things the parents articulated most strongly was the fact that Lisa approached these conversations in a truly collaborative way. Basically, it’s been “we have to ask these questions, but more importantly, we have to find the answers together.” And as I said in the previous post, the key to sustaining the conversation in Lisa’s eyes is to make sure parents own it and continue it regardless of any leadership changes in the district down the road.
- One crucial piece that is becoming the focus is how to make sure teachers know that parents will support their efforts around change. When asked “would you be willing to sacrifice some points on the test during the change from a traditional classroom to a more student centered, authentic, inquiry based classroom?” most parents said yes.
- That said, most parents also are on board with the idea that test scores and more authentic student learning and teaching are not mutually exclusive. There may be a short implementation dip, but in the long run, the scores will take care of themselves.
I plan on tracking this conversation in Dobbs Ferry as it progresses, but safe to say it was great to hear parents understand the need for change, be willing to participate deeply in conversations around what that change may look like, and push forward despite the many difficult, unlearning pieces that come along with it. If you have any questions about the process, let me know.