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Taking Over Lousy Schools

A step-by-step guide for parents from the straight-shooting Dr. Steve Perry.

By 12.2.11

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Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve -- Even If It Means Picking a Fight
By Dr. Steve Perry
(Crown, 272 Pages, $25)

It would be an understatement to say that American families are dissatisfied with the nation's traditional public school systems. Forty-eight percent of parents and other taxpayers rated their local districts C or lower, according to the 2011 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll. They have good reason. Thirty-three percent of the nation's fourth-graders read Below Basic levels of literacy, according to this year's edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal exam of student achievement.

It's not just families in such epicenters of school failure such as Detroit that are up in arms. Twenty-eight percent of fourth-graders in suburban districts are functionally illiterate, as are one in every five 12th-grade young white men from college-educated households. As the George W. Bush Institute noted in its comparison of America's public schools against those in the rest of the world, only 30 percent of kids attending the tony schools in suburban Fairfax County, Va., outside of D.C., would score higher in math than counterparts in Singapore.

Meanwhile parents, regardless of wealth or where they live, find that they are often treated like afterthoughts and worse in the very schools their kids attend (and they subsidize for a pretty penny). Parents at Leesburg Elementary School in Virginia's Loudoun County, for example, found themselves in a fracas with the school's principal after he refused to provide them better accounting of the funds they helped raise and tell them what the school was doing to improve student achievement.

With 13 states launching or expanding school voucher programs, and 509 new charter schools opening this year, more parents can take advantage of the school choice options that have been a cornerstone of the nation's school reform movement. Still, just one out of every five families has such options available. Nor can parents find out whether the teachers in their children's schools are worthy of their near-lifetime jobs and costly compensation packages. So other parents are doing it for themselves. In four states, parents have formed parents unions to challenge their school districts and the influence of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. So far, they have managed to pass parent trigger laws in California, Connecticut, and Texas that allow a majority of families to petition for the overhaul of a school, have not been appreciated. And teachers' unions aren't pleased. In August, the AFT was forced to offer several apologies to school reformers (including one from its president, Randi Weingarten, during a face to face meeting) after education news magazine Dropout Nation revealed the union's presentation on how its Connecticut affiliate worked unsuccessfully to kibosh that state's parent trigger law .

But for those parents who neither have choice nor parents' unions to count on, they can look to Dr. Steve Perry and his new book, Push Has Come to Shove, for help. A blunt-speaking social worker, he has garnered national acclaim for his work as founder of Capital Prep Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., rated by U.S. News & World Report among the best-performing schools serving black and Latino students. As a CNN commentator and member of a new generation of civil rights leaders, Perry has also emerged as one of the leading critics of status-quo defenders. He has particular ire for his fellow principals and school superintendents, who he blames for paving the "path to public education's meltdown," and for the NEA and AFT, whose efforts in making teaching a lucrative public-sector profession insulated from even desultory performance management, for helping to perpetuate bureaucracies that "feed the egos of adults while squashing the hopes of children".

Perry offers a step-by-step guide on how to negotiate through the school bureaucracies and force school boards to pay attention. A few well-timed e-mails and tweets, for example, will do more to force superintendents to meet with a group of parents and pay them heed than attending a school board meeting (by which time the proverbial fix is already in); as Perry notes, "no district is equipped to combat e-organized parents." He also instructs parents on how to deal with principals, teachers, and bureaucrats who conveniently blame parents for not being engaged enough in schools -- even as they do plenty to alienate them. From where Perry sits, public schools should be more like private schools, which often schedule open houses for families and even grandparents to visit and watch what goes on in schools. And Perry doesn't let families off the hook for what they should be doing at home. For high school students, for example, it means at least two hours of studying every night so they can be ready to do well in college.

Meanwhile Push Comes to Shove offers an insight on the Kafkaesque cultures of public school districts, especially when it comes to all the hoops principals must jump through to run their schools. In Hartford, for example, it can take as long as two years to for Perry to remove a laggard teacher from his school. Given that teachers are the single-biggest factor in the success of schools in educating kids, a poor-performing teacher can set back 264 kids by the time she is finally kicked out of the profession.

All in all, Perry offers a guide for parents to know why traditional public schools are doing little for their kids and for themselves as taxpayers. Now, it's time to storm the school buildings -- or argue for expanding school choice. 

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.