If we proceed from the basic American idea of government “by the people” and “for the people,” then the question begs asking: why are so many schools in Alabama not serving our children up to our expectations? Public education is one of the most basic functions of modern government. What would any of us say if we moved to a new town and that area had no public schools? We expect public schools to exist. One aspect of the post-Civil Rights public education today, entitled by IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act), is that all children should received a “Free and Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE) in the “Lest Restrictive Environment” (LRE). So, in Alabama, why don’t we expect public schools to perform and to serve the public good?
My best answers are that too often we feel helpless or that we seek our own fate elsewhere. One significant factor is: Because dropout rates are higher than national averages in Alabama, many parents who dropped out of school themselves may have long-standing issues with schools and the educational process. Another significant factor is the mostly white “academy system,” where parents with means organize and establish a local private school for their own children, effectively abandoning the local public school.
Fixing public education is a massive problem, and differing groups provide different solutions to the problems. Some people say that paying teachers more will drive educated professionals into teaching, whereas now K-12 teaching salaries are often not competitive with private sector jobs that require similar education levels. Other people say that better funding will help the school, but when the uses are not specified, it drives public opinion against the proposal. Some groups propose eliminating all public schools and all the associated taxes, to move to a pay-as-you-go system of only independent private schools. Others still propose more testing, standardization, and “accountability” measures.
I am a teacher, and I can say with great assuredness that one thing could change public schools in Alabama for the better: increased and improved parent involvement, especially through more active PTAs (Parent Teacher Association). Parent involvement is the ultimate “accountability” measure. When parents and the schools are on the same team, not fighting against each other, the child wins every time.
The way to achieve the goal of better public schools is through parents joining and being active in their school’s and county’s PTA. The PTA’s organizational strength is in their knowledge of how school systems work, and they use that knowledge for the benefit of parents and their children. In Alabama, where many adults are dissatisfied with public education and may also be at odds with the local school system that they dropped out of as young people and still don’t like or understand, the PTA can be that bridge to positive action.
Parents as a whole must demand results from public schools, and when they take a hard look at what that means, they will realize that class sizes must decrease and technology must be updated. The only money worth spending on schools at this point involves hiring more teachers to decrease class sizes to manageable levels and increasing access to technology for students who don’t have it at home. More teachers with fewer students and more available technology will yield results better than school uniforms or improved security measures. Students who will have to use technology in the workplace as adults need to learn with technology now.
When parents and their PTAs demand better public schools, politicians will listen. Instead of individual parents going to the school one at a time about their own unrelated complaints, the PTA offers a unified front to advocate for good schools. Responding to individual parent complaints yields a patchwork of quick solutions to unrelated problems, and those solutions are often hard to reconcile under the heading of a policy. The PTA offers a mechanism with a strong organizational structure in place to lobby on all levels for better schools, something all parents should want.
Too often, politicians and upper-level administrators seek solutions in “greater accountability.” They say to the public, “We’ve got to hold teachers responsible for what they do in the classroom.” As though we are all sitting around playing Tetris while kids fail. The truth is: most teachers are working hard. When a teacher has thirty students or more in five or six classes a day, with one hour-long planning period, what can that teacher reasonably be expected to do if half of them are failing? He or she cannot be expected to call and have a conference with all 75 parents to have 75 meaningful, individualized discussions? Even if each conference lasted 15 minutes, it would take almost 19 hours total to complete them all. Doing those conferences before and after school at the rate of five conferences every day, it would take three weeks! The answer is not “accountability” measures against teachers. The answer is giving the teachers a reasonable number of students that will allow them to give individualized attention.
Furthermore, parents have to be involved in “accountability.” Every teacher can tell a story of a child who receives a report card full of bad grades, only to hear nothing from home. And the bad grades continue the next grading period. A report card or progress report is an official school communication, and all parents should look for them on a regular basis. If they don’t make it home, the parents need to be asking the child why. I can assure anyone reading this that no school has ever forgotten to send out report cards.
Parents need to get more involved and use the PTA to declare en masse that they want better schools for their children. Those better schools will need smaller class sizes, which will require funding for more teachers. It will require PTA representatives going to school board meetings and saying No to staff cuts, instead of individual citizen-voters saying No to increased-funding measures. It will also require caring parents with financial means not to abandon the public schools in favor of their local “academy.” Public education is good for everyone in Alabama, and the PTA is a means to achieving it.
Find your local PTA group by clicking here. If there isn’t one where you live, considering starting one. (Please note that some schools call theirs a PTSA, which includes an S for students.)