Shared Decision-making Can Help Students

 

The following column first appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during March, 2022, including but limited to the Morrison County Record.

 

Shared decision-making can help students

 

More involvement by families, educators and students is needed in decision-making. That’s a clear and wise message from a large statewide Minnesota survey and a national study. This can help more students reach their potential, although it takes time and can be abused. Let’s start with two stories.

One of our children attended a public elementary school where she and other sixth-graders showed they were ready for algebra. Their teachers responded.

Then she went to a public junior high that started teaching her math she’d had two years earlier. When some parents approached the educators to explain, initially, educators resisted. Families diplomatically suggested it would have been helpful for elementary and junior high educators to meet to share information about the students’ math preparation.

We focused on solutions, rather than blame. Within two months, revisions were made and the math curriculum was revised to reflect what students were ready for.

Years later, as a parent, I attended a meeting at a public school where decisions were being made about how to spend about $150,000.  The school received this money because about 30% of the students were Hmong American and didn’t speak English as a first language and about 50 % of the students were from low-income families.

About 20 Hmong-American parents, students and grandparents came to the meeting. Through a translator, they figured that their students had generated at least 30% of the money, or about $45,000.

They requested two things, totaling $30,000.  First, they asked for a person to be hired as an office assistant, for about $25,000, who was a fluent speaker of Hmong and English. Educators acknowledged that no adult in the school spoke Hmong. Families needed someone they could communicate with. They also asked for $5,000 to create after-school classes so that the students and families could learn English more rapidly.

Though several of us supported these recommendations, the educators turned them down. The principal thanked the families for coming to the meeting.

This was not the first time recommendations from Hmong-American families were rejected. Many of these families and friendly educators then decided to set up a charter public school. Both of their suggestions, and many more, were part of the school’s design. (The school is open to all, and enrolls a variety of students, not just Hmong-Americans). Thanks to Minnesota’s public school choice programs, dissatisfied and frustrated families have options.

 

Hmong Families Urge St Paul Public Schools to Make Curriculum More Inclusive

These stories help illustrate why more involvement of families, as well as educators and students on what’s being taught and how money is spent, can be valuable. A recently released survey focusing on lessons from the pandemic, from the University of Minnesota of more than 18,000 Minnesotan educators, families and students found, among other things, that people “wanted more family and community, teacher/educator and student involvement in decision making.”  The survey is here.

A recent national survey found much stronger support for families and educators to be involved in curriculum decisions, rather than governors and state legislators. Learn more here.

Khulia Pringle, Minnesota manager of organizing and outreach for the National Parents Union, agrees.  She told me, “It’s important for student and parents to be able to voice their concerns or be critical of materials being taught.”

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, believes, “authentic, two-way communication between students, educators and parents is always appropriate and encouraged.”

This is allowed, in part, under a Minnesota law permitting families to ask for alternative instruction if they object to instructional materials being used. The law is found here.

Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Board Association, told me, “We believe the current process works well for our districts and families.”

Another law requires student, educator and family involvement in developing post-high school plans. The statute can be viewed here.

More publicity and attention to how these laws are implemented could be useful. Future columns will discuss them. Reader reactions welcome.

More involvement in decision-making won’t solve all our problems. It can be abused. For example, families can overwhelm schools with requests for information. But on balance, students benefit when families, educators and youngsters share their insights, listen to and learn from each other.

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org or on Twitter, @joenathan9249