Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Terms of Parent (Dis-)Engagement (or Happy Back to School!)

 Parent engagement matters. Study after study has shown us that student achievement improves when parents play an active role in their children's education.  — Ontario Ministry of Education website

As I write this, it's late August, a time when Type-C parents like me eschew newspapers, avoid malls, shoe stores and business supply shops, and resort to holing themselves up in their bedrooms watching episodes of Breaking Bad, or reading books with titles like How to Live Well in a Cave in Greece (okay, I made that up)—all to escape the tsunami of back-to-school hype, and the accompanying trite advice. (How many times do I need to be told to set up a quiet spot for Joey to do his busywork?)

Then there are the Type-A and -B parents. These are the mothers and fathers who not only willingly take their progeny shopping for things they may or may not need, but who also spend time thinking about what a term like "parent engagement" might mean for them in the coming year. But, my aversion to shopping notwithstanding, I do have something in common with these conscientious parents: this year I, too, find myself thinking about parent engagement.

Or, more precisely, dis-engagement. Because, I confess, at the moment I feel more dis-engaged than engaged in my kids' school life. And I think I've figured out why. Part of it is the consequence of my daughters' having made the transition from elementary to middle school. At this stage, some levelling off of parent participation in schooling is both inevitable and sane for both parents and educators. Middle schools simply don't need as many parents hanging around as elementary schools. But I'm not really talking about physical presence in the school. In the educational research I've been reading (between episodes of Breaking Bad!), "engagement" is often distinguished from "involvement," with the latter tending to be used as a short-hand for volunteerism and participation in school events.*

To me, engagement involves an attitude of interest or concern, a sense of investment in schools and a belief in one's ability as a parent to make a difference in the educational spheres our kids inhabit.  My revelation into my feeling of disengagement was occasioned by this post, a link to which recently came through my Twitter feed. The piece, by Marilyn Mitchell-Price, a respected educational psychologist who blogs for Psychology Today, concerns the issue of parent involvement in the digital age, and contains much useful information, but what I zeroed in on was this statement : "family engagement is a mandate of U.S. education reform." By way of elaboration, Mitchell-Price links to an article summarizing the section of the No Child Left Behind Act dealing with Title I funding; it is this section of the Act which sets forth guidelines for the parental involvement initiatives it mandates.

Suddenly, my inchoate understanding of my parental disengagement became slightly more choate. Parent engagement could and perhaps should be politically neutral, but reading about the interconnections between parent involvement and NCLB drove home to me something that I hadn't seriously considered: both the concept and the implementation of "parent engagement" have been used to further the goals of the "educational reform" movement in the US, and to some extent in Canada. The two most salient features of "reform," as I understand it, are an increased reliance on standardized testing as a means to the chimerical end of "accountability," and a move towards parental "choice," which often denotes varying degrees of privatization within an ostensibly public system. On a practical level, in the context of educational reform, parent engagement becomes conflated with "involvement" of a very concrete nature (volunteerism, fund-raising, homework help, etc.), which relieves government of some of its fiscal responsibilities. On a theoretical level, parent engagement initiatives function as a low-key means for governments to enlist a powerful segment of the electorate—parents—as allies in their reformist agendas.

Evidence of how important parent engagement has become—as both a concept and set of practices—to departments and ministries of education is not hard to find. The US Department of Education website features a Parent Involvement page, rich with links to policies, research, guidelines and resources (including, not coincidentally, resources pertaining to "school choice"). In my home province of Ontario, the Liberal government requires (as of 2011) each board to establish a Parent Involvement Committee (PIC) to "to support, encourage and enhance meaningful parent involvement at the board level to improve student achievement and well-being." The government supplies funding to PICs both directly and through the allocation of what it calls Parents Reaching Out (PRO) grants. Such initiatives are perhaps well-intentioned but it is clear, from even a cursory glance at the pertinent government web pages, that they are not politically—or even educationally—neutral. The FAQ on PICs, for example, clearly states that the committees' purpose is to support the government's education vision:  
How do PICs help the education system?
The positive results of a genuine partnership between parents and schools include improved student achievement, reduced absenteeism, better behaviour and increased confidence among parents in their children’s schooling.
The unstated premise here is that such results are in fact positive; that, for instance, "better behaviour" and "improved student achievement"—measured in Ontario through EQAO testing—are worthy goals of an education system. They may be worthy goals in the reformist understanding of education (whose purpose is to produce workers for the "global economy"—a topic for another post), but where does that leave parents who don't support "reform" as the word has been defined by educrats both north and south of the border? Should they give up on the idea of parent engagement altogether? Or might there be a way to re-conceive the term and "engage" differently?

I hate to invoke Foucault (yet again!) on this blog, but when I reflect on parent engagement I can't help but think about discourses of power, and how in Foucauldian terms all such discourses are inherently contradictory. The contradictions inherent in the concept and practice of parent engagement are in fact readily discernible. Our "voices" as parents are being solicited on the assumption that we agree with the bigger picture of education being promoted in part through that solicitation, but the space opened up by the idea of engagement—the idea of a "genuine partnership between parents and schools"—is one that could conceivably be exploited to "voice" alternative visions of education.

As to how one goes about that, well that's the tricky part. True to Type-C parenting form, I'm more of an armchair parent activist, than . . . the other kind. But I have been wondering lately, what would happen if a bunch of parents on a given PIC decided that their mandate was to advocate for the abolition of EQAO? At the local level, what would be the result if one joined an established school council committee and tried to subvert its purpose from within? I may actually find out the answer to this, as I have recently volunteered to serve on the Safe and Caring School committee at my daughters' middle school. I've been told that this committee concerns itself mainly with traffic problems around the school and lockdown procedures. But to me, a "safe and caring school" could mean something different. I've decided that it might be worth my while to attempt to practice parent engagement in such a way as to make the committee—and engagement in general—meaningful to me.

*See Parent Engagement: Creating a Shared World, by Debbie Pushor. (Thanks to Sheila Stewart for sharing this and many other useful links. See also her blog for further resources and commentary on the issue of parent engagement.)