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Reformers, please listen to what parents want for schools

By Helen Gym, Special to CNN
  • Helen Gym: School reformers act as if schools can be measured numerically
  • She says the real way to look at schools is seeing if they inspire students
  • She says parents aren't looking for formulas but results
  • Politicians need to listen to what parents want for their children

Editor's note: Helen Gym is a Philadelphia public school parent and writer and founder of Parents United for Public Education, which seeks classroom-centered investments in education budgets. She is a board member of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, where she contributes online commentary. She helped found the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School in Philadelphia Chinatown and was named the Philadelphia Inquirer Citizen of the Year for 2007 for education activism.

Philadelphia (CNN) -- Many of those who are driving education policy today are fixed on a certain set of numbers and measurements that we're told are the way to gauge a quality school. But as a parent, that's not really what matters to me about my daughter's education.

I can't tell you the number of her standardized test score from last year. I can't tell you the name of the curriculum program her school uses for math and reading. I don't know the pay scale of each of her teachers and whether that contributes to their malaise or enthusiasm in the classroom.

But here's what I can tell you about my daughter's education.

I can tell you the name of the history teacher who inspired her this year, the book that she loved and couldn't stop talking about and the topic of the reflective essay she labored to write and rewrite.

I can tell you which teachers gave homework assignments that made some of our family evenings perfectly miserable and the community service projects that had our whole family out cleaning the streets or readying a garden.

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I can't tell you ... her standardized test score ... I can tell you the name of the history teacher who inspired her.
--Helen Gym

I can tell you what it felt like when the principal of a school shrugged her shoulders after I complained my daughter had been pushed down the stairs (we left that school) and what it felt like when the new principal stood outside greeting children by name as they entered every morning.

I can tell you that my mother cried when my youngest daughter's school choir sang "Arirang," a traditional Korean song, and that I loved every squeak and clank of the school orchestra.

I can tell you all of these things because as a parent, the true meaning of a quality school lies in a strong child- and family-centered educational mission that recognizes education as a "process of living" and school life as "real and vital" to our children and families, as American philosopher John Dewey wrote more than half a century ago.

This is what matters to me, but it's apparently not a priority when it comes to national debates about education reform. For many parents, the elements of what makes a quality school seem completely at odds with the national buzz about education reform:

-- While parents talk about programs rich in the arts, sciences and history, politicians talk about covering the basics through a one-size-fits-all curricula.

-- While we talk about building critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers for a complicated and dynamic world, they talk about hiring billion-dollar testing companies that infiltrate every aspect of teaching and learning, drilling the notion of knowledge down to a single test score.

-- While we talk about smaller class sizes to help students and teachers build nurturing relationships with one another, they talk about maximizing capacity and "creating efficiencies."

-- While we talk about building an experienced, stable and professional teaching force where teachers are prepared with a depth of knowledge in their subject areas and are committed to the profession, others talk about relying on a temporary teaching force or focusing on education managers.

-- While we talk about sustainable change based upon policies that have been proved to work, politicians and the private sector demand dramatic and disruptive changes that do little to significantly improve children's educational experiences.

And in this lies the critical difference between what many parents see as their hopes for a quality school system and the politicians and billionaire venture philanthropists dominating the education reform landscape. The latter have become so enamored with the structure and management of education that they've forgotten about the substance and practice of it.

So if this is what's meaningful to parents and families, how can policymakers help to support those goals?

They can start by listening to what parents around the country are saying we need our elected officials to do. Parents Across America, a national organization of parents, recently released its own blueprint for school reform.

Among the suggestions: Address the dramatic inequity in resources within and among school districts so we can maintain smaller class sizes and early childhood programs. Create strong, effective support for teachers, provide a rich well-rounded curriculum, and create multiple ways to evaluate teaching and learning. Make parental involvement meaningful and include roles for governance.

In her book "The Next American Revolution," Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs decries a system of education that views children as passive receptacles of information that routinely passes as knowledge. Instead, she challenges us to give our children the kind of education that creates tomorrow's leaders by unleashing their creative energy "to heal the Earth and build durable economies and communities," "create a vibrant society" and a "democratic citizenry."

This is the direction our nation should be moving in, with elected leaders working alongside parents and community members to truly transform our schools.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Helen Gym.

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