Ten Questions for Educators to Chew On

Hidy all, I’m back. I hope you had a wonderful August, and enjoyed our guest bloggers as much as I did. While I was away, I wrote a bit about how major newspapers covered last spring’s teacher strikes, why Arne Duncan’s new book suggests he took the wrong lessons from his time in D.C., and how the push to boost college completion is inviting some of the same problems that have dogged K-12 accountability. I hope to get around to addressing some of that here, but we’ll see. Meanwhile, though, I also penned a different kind of piece over at Forbes a few weeks back, and think it’s worth revisiting here.

In the Forbes column, I suggested ten questions that parents should ask if they want to get a real sense of what’s happening in their child’s school this year. Parents tell me time and again that their seemingly sensible queries about reading programs, math instruction, and grading policies too often yield buzzword-laden responses that don’t clarify anything. So I offered some questions that don’t wade into the particulars of curriculum and instruction—but that offer a straightforward way to get a read on school culture, values, and mindset. The ten questions are:

1. What’s the best thing my child is going to read this year?
2. What one value is at the heart of our school’s culture, and how does that show up on a daily basis?
3. On a typical day, how much time will be spent on morning announcements, attendance-taking, and standing in lines?
4. How will you know if my child is bored to tears and, if that happens, what’s your usual response?
5. What’s the one paper, project, or unit that I should really expect my student to come home excited about?
6. In the typical month, how many hours will be devoted to tests and test preparation?
7. What was the most serious disciplinary issue at school last year, and how was it addressed?
8. How frequently should I expect to hear updates about how my child is doing?
9. If I email with a question or concern, how quickly should I expect to hear back?
10. What’s the most important thing I can do to help my child be academically successful this year?

In my experience, parents are hungry to understand what happens at school behind closed doors. These queries can help. As I observed, “These questions shed light on school routines, how teachers and principals think about engaging young minds, and whether the school is serious about partnering with parents.”

But perhaps equally important is that these questions can also help spark useful conversations among educators. After all, over the years, I’ve found that only a tiny percentage of teachers or school leaders know off-hand how much time in their schools is lost to attendance routines or to testing and test preparation. Most don’t even know whether their schools have expectations on how often parents should receive updates or how rapidly parental questions should be addressed; in truth, many schools don’t have explicit expectations on such matters.

And, when I work with teachers, I’m consistently struck by how many tell me they have far too little time in today’s data-driven schools to really dig into the ways in which they seek to make learning joyous and enthralling. That means, especially for younger teachers, they may not have a lot of clarity when it comes to thinking about things like boredom, what makes for exciting units, or how their classroom practices reflect core values.

To my mind, every teacher and administrator should have a clear, coherent answer to each of these questions. It’s a problem that not enough do. But this is also a vast opportunity to think deeply about what’s important and how educators want their schools to work. These questions can be a tool in doing just that.

— Rick Hess

Rick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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