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Veronica Flores and her daughter Rosalina Flores try to connect to the free internet service at Reidy Creek Elementary School. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Some California school districts – not all – have rolled out splashy efforts to make sure all students get connected to the internet. They’ve also implemented big teacher training programs. Those efforts aren’t just splashy, they’re good.

If some students can’t get online and some teachers are really bad at online teaching, then the vast inequalities of the system will not only continue, they’ll get worse.

But let’s pretend for a minute school districts have the ability to provide perfect connectivity and perfect teacher quality. Would we be close to providing quality education at that point, or would parent involvement still be an irreplaceable third leg of the stool?

Two different parents provided two different perspectives to that question Thursday. Both of their stories suggested the answer is yes.

On a press call organized by an advocacy group called Advancement Project California, one Los Angeles parent praised the efforts of officials to get all students online and return to graded work. But – as someone with a full-time job – she also said the amount of work required by her to keep her children’s education moving was entirely unfeasible.

“I feel like I have my hands behind my back with me working full time,” she said. “By the time I get home to my children, it’s too late for me to sit there and help them with homework. In the morning, I have to get up early and take them to the sitter and do it all over again.”

The sitter, she noted, was having a difficult time helping children log on and complete any schoolwork.

On a separate call, organized by San Diego Unified School District, Mahogany Taylor, president of the PTA council, had a different story to tell. Taylor, unlike the L.A. parent, has had time to go back and forth with her child’s teachers online, which has led to better outcomes.

“Yesterday, our oldest son was having a lot of trouble focusing,” she said. “So we communicated to his teacher and said we’re not gonna get on your Zoom today. We’re just gonna work on exercises. The teachers were very responsive.”

Taylor’s story shows just how involved parents need to be to achieve good outcomes. They need to be monitoring the child in real time, have a back-up education plan that might involve worksheet exercises and then communicate with the teacher about what the child is doing.

Many single, working and just stressed-out families don’t have that kind of time.

On the call, San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten said that students will be given lots of flexibility. That means they don’t have to get on every single Zoom call. They will have a certain amount of work they are expected to accomplish over a certain amount of days.

To parents, that flexibility is both a blessing and an extra boatload of work.

Families will be able to see what’s expected of their children and then “build a schedule that works for your family,” Marten told me.

School board vice president Richard Barrera acknowledged that schedule-building will be a huge undertaking for many families, but he emphasized that teachers will be responsible for content and mastery.

“A lot of people have used the term homeschooling,” said Barrera. “We’re not expecting parents to know how to teach their kids math or science or whatever the lessons are. That’s where parents are feeling pressure. ‘How do I help my kids learn the material?’ What we’re trying to communicate is that we’re going to take that pressure off.”

Barrera said the district is asking parents to try to do three things: Make sure the child’s day is organized. Make sure they have a space to work. And be curious about their schoolwork and ask questions about what they’re learning.

Taking the burden of content mastery off the backs of parents is obviously worthwhile. And yet many parents, mothers especially, say their new child supervising duties make it impossible to do other things like hold down a full-time job.

Incidentally, our new reality exposes a touchstone Barrera and many others have long pointed to: So much of student outcomes depend on parent involvement.

For instance, Barrera has long noted that schools of choice, like magnet schools or charters, have a huge advantage over other schools. Parents at those schools are inherently engaged. They’re active participants, who went the distance to research schools and try to choose the best one for their child.

Successful principals I’ve interviewed at regular neighborhood schools, i.e. not magnets or charters, all talk about going to great lengths to get parents at least somewhat involved in their children’s education. When parents check in with students consistently, the children perform much better, they say.

The question of parent involvement has often been overshadowed by school quality – which is a storyline we should all continue to follow. But schooling in the era of coronavirus shows us parent involvement like we’ve never seen it before.

Parents will almost certainly be the biggest X-factor in the grades their children receive (especially for younger children). Many other things play a role and always have. Poverty. Teacher quality. Access to resources. Coronavirus may be showing us that parent involvement has always been as important as these.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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