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April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

An Open Letter from a Parent / So You Want to Implement Reform

Every school system seems to climb aboard a reform bandwagon. But don't forget the most important partners in your reform efforts: parents and their children.

I am your worst nightmare. I am the parent who will make phone calls, write letters, and give speeches at school board meetings if I think that your great new educational idea is nothing more than the reform du jour. You and I see change from different perspectives.
I have a very narrow set of interests. I do not care about the latest advances in brain research. I won't get excited about claims of potential big performance gains. If you tell me about self-esteem one more time, I will become ill. Although I want what is best for all students, I am much more interested in how your proposal will affect my child. It is not that I am uncaring but that I have a special responsibility for her. I will not let you forget her needs so that you can help someone else. If you want my support, talk to me specifically about your reform's impact on her. After you address her needs, I can think about the potential benefits to others.

A Different Perspective

Seven years ago, in conjunction with a new inclusion program, administrators in my school district decided to replace the gifted pullout program with gifted-talented clusters in regular classrooms. The program that I had been counting on to serve my child was gone, and, as far as I could tell, nothing significant was being done to address her needs.
The special-needs and the gifted students would attend the same classrooms. Before the change was implemented, teachers would receive some training in working with special-needs students. They were not, however, to be trained to differentiate the curriculum for advanced students. Administrators expected teachers to acquire those skills during the year with the help of a gifted-talented staff person who would be at each school building—but not each class—one half-day a week. Given the challenges that the teachers were facing, I doubted that they would have the energy to find ways to meet the needs of high-ability students.
The administrators who favored inclusion arranged for a little girl in a wheelchair to attend a crucial school board meeting. They used impassioned speeches to foster the impression that those who questioned the program were bigoted brutes who wanted to keep students like her out of the classroom and away from their children. The characterization was false—the opponents were voicing concerns about the ability of classroom teachers to address the needs of all students in the class—but the strategy won votes. It also poisoned future relations between the demonized parents and the school.
You can decide whether you prefer to play politics or to forge relationships. Acting politically may benefit your reform in the short run, but it could create opposition for the long term.

A Period of Adjustment

Some suggest that it is unreasonable for parents to expect a new program of that scale to be implemented without a year or two of adjustment. The problem is that their children have only one chance. They bear the brunt of the transition but gain no benefit from any eventual success. I do not wish to sacrifice my child on the altar of the future. Talk to me about today. If there is going to be a difficult period of transition, speak frankly about it so that we can work together to find ways to mitigate the problems.
Often during times of change, parents are asked to be flexible. That flexibility goes both ways. In my daughter's case, instead of putting her in a gifted 4th grade class, the gifted-talented counselor and I agreed that an inclusive 5th grade class would meet her needs. Her standardized test scores supported the advanced placement. The school principal gave his written approval. The week before the start of school, however, a senior administrator decided that such accommodations were inappropriate and he disallowed the placement. My daughter spent that year in a Catholic elementary school where administrators were happy to place her in whatever grade I thought best. The next fall she entered the public middle school program, but my confidence in the compassion of the educational bureaucracy has been near zero ever since.

A Dubious Victory

By any objective measure, those favoring the reform won the inclusion debate. But I suggest that how they played the game was just as important as winning or losing. You may succeed at forcing reform, but if you want to develop a strong working relationship with the parents and the community, you need to do more than implement reform. You need to build support for it.
Parents who have concerns need to be heard, even if you see the problem as nothing more than a misperception. Parents want their questions answered in a concrete fashion. Be prepared to talk about what will happen to their children in the coming year. Finally, work with parents individually to find solutions that can ease the transition for their children.
Remember that you are asking these parents to entrust you with the well-being of their children. Let all your actions show that you take that responsibility seriously. If you show parents that you honestly care about their children, they will be more inclined to put faith in your ideas.

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