Competition for tax dollars is exerting pressure on public education funding, while the level of education required for the Information Age is raising expectations. Now, more than ever, parents find they must advocate to ensure that their children are challenged and provided with appropriate programs.
Social equity versus individual achievement
Canadian public education systems traditionally serve both the needs of the state and of the individual. Many educators view social equity as the goal of public education, while individual achievement is seen as counter to the aims of an egalitarian system. This corollary assumes that shifting resources and opportunity from advantaged to disadvantaged students will significantly increase social equity. Children who have parent advocates are generally considered to be advantaged in some way. As a result, parental advocacy is often viewed as an anathema to the goal of equity. Parents advocating for their children often face hostility born of these beliefs.
PERCEPTIONS and PARADIGMS
The rhetoric surrounding supposedly contradictory goals of equity and individual achievement has contributed to friction between many parents and educators. It has also set parent against parent. Parents of both ‘typical’ and ‘special needs’ children have found themselves vying for resources. Educators have allowed the perception that one group gains at the expense of another to flourish with little attempt to mitigate the damage that this belief imparts. That any parent should have a greater or lesser right to advocate for their child is patently absurd. This does, however, raise a critical question, “If not the parent, then who?”
Frictions involving parents shift focus away from the inability of the education system to achieve equity. Funding is another popular scapegoat. “Social equity would be achieved if only the education system were properly funded,” is a familiar refrain. Rational public examination of a third culprit – the education system itself – is met with the same vigorous generic opposition greeting any suggestion for systemic reform. How our Canadian education systems are organized and held accountable for the results is extremely politicized. Given our resistance to measuring positive effects, it is not surprising that accountability around the possible negative effects of education policies is scant.
Most school jurisdictions have adopted some form of parental involvement policies, citing the strong, documented link with student learning outcomes. In reality, these ‘Parents as Partners’ initiatives usually embrace and encourage administrative support activities (representation on advisory committees, volunteer opportunities, etc.), while the system continues to label parental advocacy as trouble making.
Recent history has seen teachers struggle to gain professional respect and status. Their organized employee representation has ensured that “employee advocacy” is an accepted practice within the public education system. As a hallmark of professionalism, advocacy for individual clients should strengthen as the professional responsibilities of teachers evolve.
BARRIERS TO ADVOCACY
BCCPAC Advocacy Final Report (1995) summarizes the following barriers to advocacy identified by parents: communication; lack of time; lack of information; policy and process; fear of retribution; lack of support from other parents; perception of bias; issue confusion; undefined resolution; powerful intimidating individuals; and blocking from those responsible for resolving issues in the system.
Who ensures that the needs of the individual child are being met? How do we build support for reforms that allow greater equality of opportunity for the disadvantaged without negatively impacting the advantaged child?
Some parents do effectively advocate for their children, sharing information informally about how to deal with a classroom, school or district. This interaction generally occurs within more ‘advantaged’groups, leaving other parents to trust that the system will make choices that are in the best interest of their child.
Our education systems should be open to change where the situation warrants it. Parents should not be expected to simply conform to the expectations of the system. This is particularly true for minority cultures, special needs students and low socio-economic groups. Schools can facilitate these parental groups as they identify and work towards defending the interests of their children.
A clear process for parental advocacy has the potential to enhance and strengthen public education, but only if it occurs in an atmosphere where both the school and the parent have respect for the goals and knowledge of the other. This suggests policy that goes beyond advocacy and into shared decision making.
It is important to fully explore what schools/districts can do for groups of children whose parents are unable to advocate for them. There is a responsibility to remove barriers to advocacy, but there is an additional responsibility to undertake advocacy on behalf of those who cannot. It follows that all educators must receive training and professional development around this issue. System advocacy and support for children from disadvantaged groups are both key to the successful marriage of equity and excellence.
PROMISING POLICY DIRECTIONS
♦ Information and support for advocates. Parents/families are provided with opportunity and training
♦ Skills training for educators in family/parent involvement issues and community/culture specific knowledge.
♦ Advocacy for children who do not have natural advocates.
♦ Clear roles and responsibilities arrived at mutually; written policies with explicit detail for all participants about what they are empowered to do.
♦ Increased educational options for parents and students
♦ Respectful atmosphere and meaningful partnership; site-specific strategies to involve parents in deciding what is the most effective and fair way to improve learning.
♦ Initiation and fostering of open and non-defensive community debate about the role of the education system and local schools.
♦ Maintenance of a transparent system, providing information in a manner that can be easily understood by non-professionals, without underestimating the intelligence, interest and fair-mindedness of parents.
Equity and individual excellence are not mutually exclusive goals. Analysis of current research concludes that only through policies fostering equity AND excellence can the larger goals of public education be realized. In the modern world, the greatest contribution of public schooling to sustainable social equity is advancing individual educational achievement. All children should have the right to strong advocates on their behalf in all decisions affecting their education.