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  • Writer's pictureChelsea DiMarzio

Lobbying for Change: How Parents Can Influence School Curriculums

Here are two things that I believe:

  1. As a nation, we are doing a terrible job at teaching our kids to read and write.

  2. Fed up parents are going to be the catalyst for this to change.

We know how to teach up to 95% of students how to read, yet only about 35% of our students are considered proficient readers.

Why, you ask?

Because our districts are using curriculums that do not appropriately serve the children that we know are most likely to struggle. There's a lot of information that could be shared here, but the focus of this blog is going to be on actionable steps that you can take as a parent to help begin to influence change within your school district.

So what can you do? These four things (usually in this order):

Get informed.

Learn about the science of reading and the systemic issues that are occurring within our schools. You can do this by reading our blogs, following us and others like Mindful Teacher Rachel or Campbell Creates Readers on social media, or listening to podcasts like Sold a Story and Science of Reading.

You can even watch a great documentary called The Right to Read, which features the host of Sold a Story, Emily Hanford, and Dr. Kareem Weaver. Dr. Weaver is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of FULCRUM and is one of the most important people involved in establishing national change for our children struggling to read. Right now, The Right to Read is showing across the country and is often followed by panel discussions. If you can attend one, you'll walk away incredibly informed (and most likely ready to fight). You can sign up for their mailing list here to see if one is coming to an area near you (or just view their upcoming screenings here).

I would recommend starting with Sold a Story. It's a podcast you can listen to while you go about your day. My warning is this though: prepare to be horrified. The things Emily Hanford shares are so important, but they are hard to hear. The reality is though that as many of us as possible need to hear them.

Start Asking Questions

Ask to meet with your student's teacher or school administration so that you can learn about their reading and writing curriculum. Almost every teacher I know wants to do right by their students, but they often have their hands tied when it comes to the curriculum their school provides. Let them know you've been learning about the Science of Reading and you'd like to know how you can support them. One teacher can't easily go up against a district, but if you can learn about their reading and writing curriculum, you can then spread the word amongst other parents if the program is lacking. This can quickly result in an influential little pod of parents.

But let's remember this: If this conversation is not approached delicately, it can be easy to have a teacher feel like their turf is being stepped on. If you have a teacher who responds in a way that tells us they may be feeling attacked, it could be because they're being confronted with a scary thought: What if what I've been doing to 'help' my students may not have actually been helping at all? This is why it's sometime easier to meet with administration. It feels easier to ask them tougher questions and less like a personal interrogation of a teacher.

Once you've learned about your child's specific curriculum, you can reach out directly to the school district. Let them know that there's a group of parents that would like to meet so that they can express their collective thoughts and concerns regarding your school's curriculum. If you arrive with a group of parents who are kind and respectful (but willing to be slightly noisy should the need occur), it's a good first step toward change.

What's important to remember is this: Teachers and school administration are following the district's orders. If we want to truly influence change, it has happen at the district level. (And this involves funding, which will be a future blog post because it can be complex.)

Get Involved

Participate in parent-teacher associations. As parents, especially when you're within a group, you have a very loud voice when it comes to shaping your child's education. When you're actively involved, but again kind and respectful, it can create a community that can truly support teachers making these large changes we're asking of them. It's not easy to overhaul and change curriculums, and it ultimately becomes the teachers doing the work and training, so they need to be lovingly supported.

Another way to get involved is to vote during school board elections. The voting should, of course, be done after you've learned about the candidates. Ask to speak with them so that you can learn about their position on school reading and writing curriculums (and funding which we will cover soon). Remember, you are voting them in and their job is to represent you. If you have your pod of parents all attend a meeting to learn about them, you can absolutely begin to shape change.

You also will want to follow along and keep your eye on any local policy or legislative changes that may be occurring. Attend meetings where this will be discussed and make your voice heard here, too. Keeping your eye on upcoming tax levies also matters deeply (more on this again soon!).

Support and Encourage (Demand Nicely??) Teacher Training

When it comes to the Science of Reading - and anything, really - we want our teachers to be well-trained and well-informed. This takes time and costs money. When we are asking our teachers to walk away from these harmful curriculums that have been used for far too long, it can feel like we're asking them to begin teaching a completely foreign subject. They must be offered training and, whenever possible, become certified in the program they will be providing.

This isn't their fault -- our education system also failed to provide them with this information. Districts are then perpetuating the harm when they continue to use curriculums that we know are dangerous.

Learn about ways that you can support your teachers while they go through all this extra work and training. And remember, even if we are demanding it of the districts, the teachers are the ones in the trenches.

As we wrap up, you may be wondering, "what questions am I even supposed to be asking?"

Excellent question. We'd recommend starting with these:

  1. Is the reading curriculum being used based upon the science of reading? We want the answer to be yes.

    1. Have your teachers been trained in this program?

    2. Is certification offered? If so, have you provided your teachers with the opportunity to become certified (or, better yet, required them to become certified)?

  2. When teaching reading, are teachers encouraged to use the three cueing system? We want the answer here to be a hard, fast no. This is when kids are encouraged to guess after either looking at the picture, looking at only the first and last letter, or guessing based on context.

  3. Do you use leveled readers? We also want this to be a hard, fast no. One of the most widely used is F&P. When you look across options at various "levels," these books ultimately don't follow the same rules, so how can we truly ever know what level a certain book - let alone student - is at? Some contain words like daughter, rain, or horse, while another may include dinner, dancing, or table. It varies way too much, and the words within the books are not controlled, meaning that students will not have even had explicit instruction on how to read all of them yet, leading to guessing, memorizing, or forming other bad reading habits.

  4. Does your curriculum have components of Whole Language or Balanced Literacy? We also want this to be an absolutely not. These approaches use three cueing, leveled readers, and lack the same level of explicit instruction. When we say 'explicit instruction,' what we mean is that students are taught rules directly: when you see the letter c, it will say /k/ when followed by a, o, and u. With Whole Language and Balanced Literacy kids are allowed to 'discover' concepts as they occur instead of receiving the same level of explicit instruction for each reading and spelling concept.

  5. Why have you continued to use programs that are not based upon the Science of Reading when we're aware of the efficacy and research?

  6. What percentage of our students are considered proficient readers based upon state testing? (Remember: We know how to teach 95% of children to read and our national average is 35%.)

Lobbying for change is not easy, and there's unfortunately a lot of red tape surrounding funding with bureaucracy sprinkled on top. We hope this blog at least helps you get started. Be on the lookout for our next blog that will dive deep into the funding and factors that are more complex, but nevertheless important, that influence our schools choice of curriculum.

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