Kevin: According to a survey of public school parents conducted by Stride Incorporated, nearly half of parents across the nation would prefer to send their children to a private school, and 54% expressed some concern about the quality of education their children receive in public school. What should define school quality? Test scores, graduation rates? What about parent satisfaction? How does parental involvement affect the education system as a whole? In what ways can it help improve schools and learning outcomes? When is it counterproductive? And what rights should parents have when it comes to public education? This is what I want to know. And today, I'm joined by Dr. Jay Greene to find out.
Kevin: As a senior research fellow in the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, Dr. Jay Greene studies and advises on the key issues facing education today, including how parents define school quality and how parents' assessment of schools can yield useful insight. He is one of the country's leading experts on education policy, conducting influential research on a broad range of topics, and is with us today to discuss the value of parental opinions in evaluating school quality. Jay, really it’s good to have you on the show. We've known each other a long time, and I'm —
Jay: Is that a way of saying we're old?
Kevin: Yeah. Well, I was going to say, speaking of old, how come I have more gray in my beard than you? I don't understand it.
Jay: I don't know. Maybe it's just that this TV camera is very flattering.
Kevin: So, you've been one of the foremost researchers on the efficacy and value of parental choice and school choice programs, but I don't know, Jay, I didn't know how you got into this movement. What drew you as an academician to this issue of education and educational choice?
Jay: I actually did not start out studying education policy or school choice. I got my Ph.D. in political science, and at the time, I was very interested in education policy, but we didn't believe that we were supposed to study policy. We were supposed to study political science theories. So, my dissertation was on executive-legislative relations. Now it just so happened that my advisor was Paul Peterson, and he was doing school policy, education policy, and then we had our first kid. I have to say that having a child and becoming a parent suddenly made me realize that all of these abstract theories that I had been studying as a graduate student didn't feel nearly as important as studying how we could best design school systems to help parents raise and educate their children.
Kevin: When you think about the impact of school choice programs, charter schools, scholarships, tax credit programs and the like, it's still controversial, but what does the research show in terms of before and after?
Jay: Initially, we found pretty consistent positive test score effects from school choice programs, but over time we found that some school choice programs were not producing positive test score effects, and that the design of those programs seemed to have something to do with how much those programs affected test scores. But at the same time that we were doing that, we began to realize that there were a lot of other outcomes from education that we cared about other than test scores. So, when we started looking at other outcomes like graduation rates, like avoiding prison, like avoiding having children out of wedlock, we actually saw positive effects of school choice programs on those outcomes even when we didn't see positive outcomes on test scores. So, this made us realize that we needed to broaden our understanding of the set of relevant outcomes when evaluating educational interventions like school choice.
Because, again, schooling is just really an extension of parenting. That is, it's an extension of the set of activities that we do to raise our children to be productive and decent adults. And a lot of things go into our children becoming productive and decent adults. Some of it is learning academic skills that are captured by standardized tests, but some of it also has to do with the development of their character, their values. And these are also reflected in some important life choices that they're likely to make as adults: choices that include doing things that keep them out of prison, that make them responsible parents themselves, that make them have a strong work ethic. All of these qualities can exist separately from the skills that are captured on a standardized test.
Kevin: There are studies that show that many parents are not satisfied with the public school that they've been assigned with. And I want to be very, very clear; there are a great number of amazing traditional public schools. But one of the things that parents are challenged by, those who are looking for alternatives, is this notion of a one size fits all. That doesn't meet many kids, particularly today's kids with so many challenges, different needs, different responses to various learning modalities; it doesn't fit all kids. So, where do you think it's heading in terms of parents' voice in registering the need for something other than that traditional, you take algebra in the ninth grade, geometry in the 10th? Even though little Johnny or Jane — they maybe take algebra in the seventh grade and geometry in eighth. I mean, it's hard to adjust things in the traditional system, and yet we're seeing more and more parents speak to that.
Jay: Right. As you say, traditional public schools work well for a lot of people, but not everyone. There are also a lot of people for whom those schools don't work well. And in fact, quite commonly within the same family, the local traditional public school may work well for some children in the family, but not well for other children in the family. So, even within the same family, you need different approaches for different kids. Parents are in a good position to try to find the right kind of education for the different kids they have even within their own household. Sometimes that's going to be a traditional public school; sometimes it's going to be something else. Sometimes their child, as you say, needs accelerated learning. Sometimes their child needs to work on a skill for a longer period of time. Sometimes they need to learn in a particular way more through experiential learning. Sometimes they benefit from more abstract learning.
All of these really remarkably diverse needs that children have can only be addressed well if we have two things. One, we need parents who are best positioned to make these choices about the different needs their children have, and we need those different choices available to those parents so that they can access them for their children. Any really high-quality education system is going to recognize the central role of parents in determining the different needs of their different children, as well as making available a great variety of options.
Kevin: You have often distinguished this point, which I also found interesting,: the fact that there's a tendency for some to expect systems to define what's best for children as opposed to parents. And it's unmistakable, isn't it, that the way some of our educational systems and public schools are set up, it's almost like, trust us, we know what's best, and get out of the way.
Jay: Right. Look, I've written on this numerous times, that teachers and other educational professionals do possess expertise, but the expertise is in their particular skill that they are conveying, and it's not in what is in the best interest of children. Teachers are not the parents. Teachers are people that parents enlist to help them. I think it's important for the people who work in educational settings to remember the thing that they do bring, they do bring this expertise, but they also have to remember their role as helpers of parents and not as replacers of parents. They're not there to rescue children from their parents. They're there to help the parents in educating those children.
Kevin: So, I'm going to tease that out a little bit because, you know the counter argument, because it's out there, and people have been saying, for instance, I remember watching one program where some folks were saying that because working class families, particularly in the inner city, are struggling to make ends meet, they've got all of these challenges, that it puts too much on them to be focused on schools. That's why they should trust the system. So, there is that tension. How do you respond to those arguments?
Jay: Well, I mean, I think they're fundamentally wrong, and they're also clearly, deeply unpopular. Just ask the voters of the state of Virginia what they think about Terry McAuliffe's claim that parents have no role in schools. They really don't like that, and they're right not to like that. Children have been raised in a variety of different ways across time and place, so across human history, we've experimented with a great variety of ways of trying to raise children. We've tried various kinds of collective child-rearing or expert child-rearing. And it's not an accident that in almost every culture across very long stretches of time, the dominant way for raising children is within the family. So, if families are best positioned to raise their own children, then they're also best positioned to control the education of their children.
Kevin: There are now, in school board meetings, parents who are asserting themselves around critical race theory, around sex education. And some would say that while the parental involvement is important, that some parents are being pulled into these political battles that may or may not really be important in the classroom. So, how do you see this landscape with this resurgence of parental involvement, parents having a voice, but at the same time, as we've seen in some of these school board meetings, should parents then subpoena the email records of every superintendent or every principal and go through this painstaking process of making a point that may feel political and less practical for the kids' needs?
Jay: This has been a problem that's been going on for a while, as schools increasingly saw themselves as displacing parents as opposed to helping parents. And as that happened, parents began to recognize it. I think during the pandemic, the extent to which they had been displaced by experts doing things that the parents found objectionable — that was revealed to families in a way that they couldn't avoid. They could see it being zoomed into their home, their children being taught things that they found objectionable, being taught in a quality that they found unacceptable, and they opposed it in large numbers.
Now it's also a problem that public schooling is common schooling. You have to bring together a great variety of families who live in an area, and they have to agree on how they're going to educate, teach, raise their children. And anytime you get together a group of people who may have a variety of perspectives about how best to raise their children, you're going to have some disagreements. That's hard to sort out, too, in a democratic process.
So, some of the things that have helped avoid this erosion of trust in the past, again, is if schools consistently communicate to families that they're there to help them and not displace them. I think that helps. I also think it's helpful when people can sort themselves into the kind of schooling that best reflects their priorities. They could do that by choosing a school that reflects their priorities or they can also do it by sorting themselves into communities where those schools will reflect their priorities.
Kevin: Yeah. Earlier, you talked about values, and this is, as you just alluded to, this is a tough one because of values-based education. You see that a lot in religious schools or private schools, where parents pay for their kids to be surrounded by their values, beliefs, religious beliefs, what have you, that are important to them. But when it comes to public schools, it does vary from community to community. Jason Riley was on, and he talked about this. His view is, and I tend to think he's onto something, that our schools should really be focused on the basics of reading, writing, and teaching kids to count and how to compete. And that the more our public schools dive into the values discussion, the more challenging it should be.
Jay: Look, I don't think there is such a thing as a value-neutral education. All education is value-laden to some degree or another in one way or another. I think the argument you're making that I do agree with is that in communities where there are disagreements about certain things, one of the ways that the school system can maintain the support of a diverse community is to avoid certain controversial issues that would provoke fights. Now even doing that is a value choice. So that's not a value-neutral education, but it is a sensible deference to the legitimate diversity of perspectives of the families in that community. So, rather than saying that the teacher's in charge and they get to say whatever they like, either avoid the word Islam or say that they love Joe Biden, they need to see themselves as serving that community. And if the community has a diverse set of perspectives on an issue, then they have to be careful to avoid provoking fights on that dimension. And they can do that.
I think, ultimately, the parents decide, and what you ideally would want are parents sorting themselves into schools that will have a common denominator of values that they find acceptable. Now parents won't get everything they want. I mean, as soon as you get two families together in a school, you're going to have to compromise on things. I think a lot of families that exercise school choice are sometimes surprised that just because they choose a school doesn't mean it does everything that they want, because that school has to serve other kids too. So, there have to be compromises with other families, and the school has to find a common denominator of values that work for the community they're serving.
Kevin: So look, this is what I really want to know. With what you know about parental involvement, what should schools be doing to better engage parents to make them feel like they have a voice in their kids' education?
Jay: Well, I mean, the first thing they can do is let them choose them, to the extent that that's possible for the school to do. Nothing makes people feel bought into an education like having chosen it. We're much happier with things we choose than things that are imposed on us. But in traditional public settings, I think probably seeking this common denominator, that is, thinking about what the diversity of their community is and how to avoid inflaming disagreements, is very sensible educational practice. It's not just good politics; it's good educational practice because it allows the community to cohere so that people can come together and educate their children together. And that is what school is. Even in a traditional public setting, it is a community coming together and educating their children. They're just doing it through a democratic process instead of through a market process.
Kevin: Jay Greene, this has been great having you on the show. Thank you for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Jay: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education, and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using hashtag #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
As a senior research fellow in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, Dr. Jay Greene studies and advises on the key issues facing education today—including how parents define school quality and how parents' assessment of schools can yield useful insight.
He is one of the country's leading experts on education policy, conducting influential research on a broad range of topics—and he is with us today to discuss the value of parental opinions in evaluating school quality.
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In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.