My Turn: Daniel J. McKee: Close the parent information gap

By Daniel J. McKee, Providence Journal

Rhode Island must close the parent information gap if we want to close the student achievement gap. Every parent, no matter their zip code or socioeconomic status, wants their child to have the best education possible. If parents know that their child’s school is letting them down, they will be the fiercest advocates for reform.

Unfortunately, too many parents are being left in the dark about the quality of their school district. According to a nationwide study by “Learning Heroes,” 84% of parents believe their child’s school provides an “excellent” or “pretty good” education, and nearly 90% of parents think their child is performing at or above grade level in math and reading.

The actual numbers paint a far more pessimistic picture. Here in Rhode Island, only 30% of students are proficient in math and only 38% are proficient in reading.

The Providence Journal’s Linda Borg further underscores this disconnect in an Oct. 6 piece (“R.I. SAT scores don’t keep pace with grad rates”), where she highlights the inconsistency between schools’ high graduation rates and low proficiency scores.

Something is not adding up. What parents believe and what students achieve are at odds in Rhode Island and nationwide. The underlying cause is due in part to the difference between what parents see on student report cards and the reality. Parents who believe their child is succeeding have no reason to change how they engage in their child’s education, and schools have no reason to set the record straight with parents if they are not required to do so.

We can change this by requiring, through state law or regulation, that every parent receive a school performance card from the school their child attends. These school performance cards will highlight information like the school’s math and reading proficiency scores compared to the grades on student report cards; student and teacher attendance rates; a school facilities overview; and a comparison to a similar school in Massachusetts.

While most of this information is available online, it is lumped in with district averages and requires parents to spend time deciphering charts and graphs. Busy parents should not be expected to play detective just to find out if their child attends a good school.

School performance cards would be presented to parents at an annual public meeting in every public school in Rhode Island. Administrators would explain their school’s performance and offer a plan for improvement. Local elected officials would be invited to attend. Parents who cannot attend would be given the tools to view and sign off on the information electronically. Parents who do not respond would receive a personal visit at their home.

We know that informing parents encourages them to hold schools accountable. The Learning Heroes study shows that when parents compared their child’s report card and their state test scores, 36% changed their opinion about their child’s school. When parents begin to understand the reality of their school system and the outcomes it produces, they will demand action.

I saw this play out on a small scale in Cumberland when, as mayor, I held community meetings and actively notified residents that we had two failed elementary schools, a middle school on the brink of failure and a high school in disrepair. When people became aware of the problem, the community dialogue shifted and parent involvement increased. These changes created a new culture of accountability in our households and in our public schools.

States like Massachusetts, South Dakota, New Mexico, Louisiana and Texas have already taken steps to better inform parents and close the parent information gap. Rhode Island should raise the stakes by setting a goal of having the most informed and engaged parents in the country.

Daniel J. McKee, a Democrat, is the 69th lieutenant governor of Rhode Island and a former mayor of Cumberland.


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