The loudest voices don’t always represent the majority. It’s essential for school leaders to listen to everyone, including those who aren’t so easily heard.
In today’s political climate, extremism often seems like the norm. On cable news, ideologues shout their talking points. On social media, enraged citizens (and bots) issue a steady stream of snarky put-downs and alternative facts. And on days when Democrats and Republicans hold their primary elections, only the most partisan of voters tend to show up at their polling places. Most people stay home, allowing their least reasonable neighbors to cast the majority of the ballots.
That’s often how things work in school systems, too. When they have to make important decisions, most superintendents — at least, the ones I know — try to bracket off their personal beliefs and preferences in order to weigh the issues fairly and make the best choices they can. But they have to do so in the face of intense pressure from their most aggressive and opinionated constituents. Let’s just say that it’s rarely the more thoughtful and fair-minded parents and community members who launch Twitter storms, light up the phones, and march into the district office to make demands on the superintendent.
My least favorite example is the time when parents in Montgomery County, Md., organized to try to get me and the board of education to change school schedules so that high school would start later in the morning. I stated publicly many times that I understood the need for adolescents to get more sleep and that I fully supported the idea — in theory. (For survey results on parents’ current attitudes about school start times, see this year PDK poll, p. 20.) But I also commissioned a comprehensive study of the issue, to better understand the full implications of changing the schedule. As it turned out, the projected costs (mostly involving transportation) were prohibitive. For several years, the county had provided the bare minimum increase in our budget, even as we were raising our academic standards and trying to serve a growing population of impoverished and/or immigrant students. Weighed against those urgent and pressing needs, an expensive change to the high school schedule made little sense.
System and school leaders can’t stop partisans from organizing and advocating.
Nonetheless, vocal advocates for later start times began showing up at public hearings and testifying at school board meetings — as was their right. But their goal wasn’t to engage me and the board in a careful discussion of the issues — in fact, few of them bothered to read the comprehensive report we published on the district website. Rather, many, if not most, of the parents who went to the microphone seemed to reject my position out of hand, insisting that the schedule should be changed and that was that. Some of them — purporting to be high-powered professionals — chose to lecture me, explaining that if I were their client, they would tell me to think outside the box or use design thinking to come up with an innovative way to meet their demand. (Their disdain for public educators, and their ignorance of the complexity of public school systems, made me want to stand up and yell, “Look, I run a $2.4-billion operation with 157,000 kids, 235 facilities, and 22,000 employees. Your experience working with a few clients is completely irrelevant!” Of course, I did no such thing. I have a lousy poker face, though, so people could probably tell what I was thinking.)
Most offensive was the ringleader of the group, a child psychologist no less, who relentlessly insisted that later start times would solve the achievement gap once and for all. After one of our middle school students died by suicide, she came to a board meeting and told us that if we had only changed our school start times, this tragedy could have been avoided. That was the only time I’ve ever spoken harshly to a parent in public. Thankfully, one of my board members then stepped in and upbraided her in an appropriate manner.
Listening to quieter voices
Where I’ve worked — diverse suburban school systems on the East Coast — the loudest and least reasonable voices at school board meetings have tended to belong to upper-middle-class, liberal white parents (my own peer group). That’s why I wasn’t entirely surprised, in 2013, to hear then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remark that the main source of resistance to the Common Core State Standards was “white suburban moms” who resented being told that their kids weren’t meeting high standards. It was a tone-deaf comment for a public official to make, and Duncan soon issued an apology. But I understood where he was coming from. In places like Montgomery County, Md., and Stamford, Conn., where I’ve been superintendent, that was, in fact, the demographic that dominated local debates about public schooling. They were the ones with the most time on their hands and the greatest resources at their disposal. They were the ones who posted most frequently on neighborhood email lists, controlled their local PTAs, and ran for school board on single-issue platforms. And they were the most aggressive in trying to secure the greatest benefits and privileges for their own kids.
I assume that every community has its own version of the parents who lectured me at board meetings. In many places, for example, district leaders have to contend with religious conservatives intent on banning books or making life difficult for LGBTQ students. In many others, PTAs and school boards are dominated by anti-tax extremists (even though, as our annual PDK poll shows, most parents would support a tax increase that goes directly to the public schools).
Whatever the demographics and political makeup of the loudest people in the room, the question is, How do we ensure that the quieter voices get heard, too? Most parents are reasonable — silent, but reasonable. They want a quality education for their sons and daughters. They have hopes for and concerns about their schools. They want problems to be resolved in expeditious and practical ways. But they rarely testify at board meetings, email the superintendent, or buttonhole their elected officials at the supermarket.
When I was working in Stamford, my colleagues and I began to implement a plan to de-track the school system, which had a long history of sorting and racially segregating kids by “ability” as measured by a single test score. Soon, a group of wealthy, white parents organized to stop us. They did their own research, created their own spreadsheets and data analyses, organized politically, and testified at meetings. They declared that they had nothing but warm feelings for “those kids” who needed extra help. They had moved to this community for its diversity, they said. They shared stories about their own experiences helping the underprivileged, or about the time they coached a kid of color on their baseball team. But, they argued, all kids would be better off if the tracking continued.
When we surveyed local parents on their perceptions of the district, we found a hopeful trend: On the whole, they were becoming increasingly likely to recommend their child’s school to other parents. Further, we found strong support for our de-tracking efforts among teachers, principals, and Black and Latino parents and community leaders — and some upper-middle-class White parents vocally supported us as well. Still, though, the small group of pro-tracking parents succeeded in moving their candidates onto the school board so they could push their agenda forward, while the majority of parents ignored the election.
System and school leaders can’t stop partisans from organizing and advocating, nor can they stop rabid bloggers or shut down toxic email chains. But they can certainly do more to reach out to a wider and more diverse set of parents and community members, rather than sitting back and waiting to see who shows up at board meetings and gets in line for the microphone. For example, they can make it a priority to meet their constituents where they are, offering to hold meetings in living rooms, libraries, and faith-based institutions; they can conduct brief surveys outside sporting events and grocery stores; they can convene focus groups and webinars, and on and on.
Early on in my tenure in Stamford, a veteran board member told me, in closed session, that teachers were unhappy that I was in the habit of dropping by their classrooms unannounced. Where was he getting his information? Had he been talking to a handful of teachers at the school where his wife had worked for more than 30 years, I asked him, or was he in touch with the 1,200 other teachers in the system? He fell silent and never raised the issue again.
To be sure, school system leaders need to listen to those people who choose to speak up. But those can’t be the only voices that matter. The majority of parents may be silent much of the time, but they have just as much of a right to be heard, and their kids are just as deserving of an excellent education. We must find ways to hear what they have to say, rather than listening only to those who push and shove their way into our offices and board meetings.
Citation: Starr, J.S. (2018). The silent, reasonable majority must be heard. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (1) 38-39.