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Don’t just get mad. Organize a group of like-minded people, focus on the problem, and put forward workable solutions.

By Sarah M. Stitzlein

Being engaged in education change is inherently a political process involving a struggle over the distribution of resources and power, which are at the heart of school improvement. Good parent political dissent requires skills and dispositions to disagree with a typical way of doing things in schools. These parents first look carefully at the practices of schools to determine whether they are meeting the needs of children. Then they bring their worrisome findings to light by sharing them with others. Good parent change agents don’t just stop at uncovering problems or telling others about them; they work to envision and implement solutions. Along the way, they often build a support network for their efforts at change.

The most effective parent change agents:

  • Raise consciousness. They begin by helping others become aware of problems by notifying parents and nonparents, and especially targeting groups or individuals who have the ability to sway related policy.
  • Build solidarity and coalitions. Parents are emboldened to act when they find they are not alone in their frustration with a school. Finding like-minded parents can provide the formal organizational structure and informal connections that enable action. Significantly, the most effective parent reform groups begin with parents and extend to work alongside teachers, administrators, and students. Working alone or in small parent-only groups may limit one’s understanding of an issue or one’s ability and motivation to access the power needed to ameliorate it.
  • Employ a broad, open platform. A broad platform is more likely to convey the openness that invites participation from a range of parents and community members.
  • Clearly articulate principles. The principles that guide change should be as clearly stated as possible, using language grounded in matters of justice and truth. Principles are a home base — a starting point for action but also a place where parents can regroup when actions become disoriented or ineffective and the guiding vision needs to be reasserted or updated.
  • Put forward a solution. Parents become complacent with simply complaining about their schools, failing to take the next step of using those complaints to raise awareness about problems or work to fix them. Effective parents put forward a vision for change that uses the language of possibility that inspires confidence, ignites action, and is couched in an optimistic outlook.
  • Employ a strategy consistent with their ends. When necessary, parents should engage in dissent in ways that reveal the targeted problems or demonstrate the desired improvements they seek. Such an approach demonstrates not only a need for change, but also the ways in which the favored improvement is a better approach.
  • Question the purposes of schools. Revealing problems with practices and policies can sometimes best be done by uncovering their underpinnings. Parent dissenters who show that practices or policies are not aligned with educational purposes held by parents or others offer a new starting point for the conversation about change, pushing participants to focus on the big picture of what really matters in schools and how that plays out in the minute and mundane aspects of daily life there.
  • Embody publicness. Parents who ignite and engage in discussions about the aims and practices of schools and who do so in broad and inclusive ways enact publicness — the very type of living and working together that is at the heart of public schools. These parents are modeling good citizenship as they work together to solve problems in the interest of the common good.These tips can help parents move from frustration to amelioration. Engaging in political dissent, while challenging and at times risky, may be one of the most important contributions parents can make to schools.

SARAH M. STITZLEIN (stitzlsh@usmail.uc.edu) is an associate professor of education at the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Originally published in December 2015/January 2016 Phi Delta Kappan 97 (4), 80.

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