Letters to the Editors 24.2

“Teachable Moments” Short on Data?

Imagine my surprise when a colleague passed on a copy of your publication (“Teachable Moments” Summer 2009) and I found myself reading an article that uses my sons’ school, the Haley Elementary School in Boston, as an example of how entitled white parents just can’t talk about race and exclusion. As the author, Susan Naimark, says, we’re supposed to talk about these issues and not cover them up, right? Naimark writes that white parents enrolled their children “en masse” although admission is by lottery, and goes on to detail how middle-class white parents have hijacked parent involvement to the point of alienating minority families.

Interesting—I don’t know Susan Naimark. She is not a parent at the Haley Elementary School. She seems to have been provided a lot of one-sided information by someone about the school, the families, and the fundraisers that is not accurate, but which she has used as a research sample of one to draw conclusions about why minority parents participate at far lower levels in school events.

Perhaps your articles on these important issues should draw on actual data and research, rather than the hearsay passed on over a cup of coffee. I was a planner of one of the aforementioned fundraising events. One of my frustrations is people’s willingness to speculate on why certain parents do not participate without surveying and finding out the answers. As mentioned in the article, there were lots of theories put forward regarding the lack of parent participation in fundraisers. Feedback was solicited to find ways to make a future fundraising event more inclusive: children were included, admission prices were lowered, activities were varied. And guess what? The exact same demographic showed up to support the school: mostly white parents, some minority parents, but the same ones who had been to previous fundraisers.

It’s hard to find out why people don’t participate in their kids’ schools when they don’t show up and don’t respond. In the meantime, all our children need to be educated and the schools need the funds. So perhaps your magazine can get out there and do some actual research on this issue to help us understand this, instead of printing articles with no viable data.

—Kathy Cahill, Haley School parent, Roslindale (Boston), Mass.

Susan Naimark Responds:

Kathy Cahill is correct that I am not a parent at the Haley Elementary School. I became familiar with that school’s fundraising efforts when several parents and staff approached me for advice, after having read my earlier writing about my experiences with race and privilege in the Boston Public Schools. This experience included sending three children to the Boston Public Schools, serving on the board of the Citywide Parents Council, taking part in establishing the Boston Parent Organizing Network, and serving two four-year terms on the Boston School Committee. I was also active with the now-defunct National Coalition of Education Activists, where I had the opportunity to compare notes with hundreds of parents and teachers from across the country.

Last year, when I shared my writing about school parent dynamics, a number of parents approached me to talk further. This was a decade after the experiences I had written about—and very little had changed.

My article does not purport to be a research piece. It is based on two decades of personal experience, hearing the perspectives of hundreds of other parents and school staff of every background. My “speculations” on why parents do not participate are based on hearing the same themes, over and over again, from parents of color—including Haley parents.

I applaud the Haley parents who redesigned their fundraising events to reduce barriers to participation. (This was not reflected in my article because I wrote it before then.) The fact that more parents of color did not attend is probably not exclusively a reaction to the actions of their white, middle-class peers, but to a long history of exclusion. I encourage Cahill and the Haley parents to continue to reach out for support in this important work.

—Susan Naimark, board chair, Boston Parent Organizing Network, Boston, Mass.

Freire’s Legacy

As regular readers of your magazine, we greatly appreciate the spotlight that you shined on the compelling democratic educational projects developed by the Workers’ Party and Paulo Freire, and implemented when he was secretary of education in São Paulo, Brazil (“Big City Superintendents: Dictatorship or Democracy?” Fall 2009). The fact that your article featured our book was an added bonus!

  Your review questioned the Freire administration’s response to standardized testing. This was not a reality in Brazil’s public education system in the early 1990s. Brazil had then, and continues to have now, a rigorous and comprehensive exit exam for high school (the vestibular). However, Freire was secretary of education for the municipal 1st-8th grade school system only; the state of São Paulo operated the high schools. As a result, standardized testing in general and the vestibular in particular were not a focus.

Freire’s administration instead sought to counteract the alarmingly high elementary and middle school dropout and grade-level retention rates. Freire’s administration changed the grading practices from an annual assessment related to promotion or retention of students to a three-year cycle (ciclo) that included annual grade-level attainment assessments but only made promotion and retention decisions at the end of each three-year cycle. This practice was viewed as a more developmentally appropriate way to ensure that students who started at an academic disadvantage could catch up to their peers and hence avoid the stigma and push-out effect of retention.

While there is much to learn from Freire’s tenure as the head of a large bureaucracy, we think the more instructive story actually takes place in cities like Porto Alegre, where the second generation of Freire’s reforms operated for multiple years and ultimately refocused municipal governance processes towards marginalized communities (for example, city budget and resource allocation decisions made by neighborhood councils). In these cities, a dynamic relationship developed between Freirean educational reforms in public schools and active social movements—both aimed at a central Freirean question: in whose interests do we work (teach) and against whose interests do we work (teach)?

—Pilar O’Cadiz, University of California-Irvine and Pia L. Wong, Sacramento State University, Calif.

Palm Beach Resists Top-Down Leadership

Thank you for the article on big city superintendents. It was very interesting, to say the least.

I live in Palm Beach County, Fla., and we have the fourth largest urban district in the nation. We have been having major problems here this year and it all comes down to the No Child Left Behind Act that they are trying to rewrite in Washington. What a mess was made of our district this school year! Our superintendent implemented a whole new curriculum and wrecked havoc on the teachers, students, and parents. Yes, our school board just let him run with it . . . and run he did!

We rallied about 6,000 people, including parents, teachers, and students. Then 1,000 of us showed up at a board meeting, and over 100 people spoke. They said it was the longest board meeting they ever had.

We are not stopping there. We know that it all starts in Washington and continues on down to the state level, and here in Florida that means the Sunshine State Standards. They are absolutely ridiculous. They think it’s “one size fits all” and we know it isn’t!

For more information, check our website at www.parents4teachers.org.

—Stacy Gutner, Boynton Beach, Fla. 

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Contact Jody Sokolower, policy and production editor: jody@rethinkingschools.org