Judge the Schools? Act, Don’t React


When was the last time you wondered whether our schools were doing a good job of carrying out their responsibilities to our children? Most of us do make judgments about the performance of schools, but how many of these judgments are based on emotional reactions and how many on available evidence?

One of the most frequent and persistent topics of conversation among parents is their children’s schooling—how their children are doing in school and what the school is doing for them. This concern should be even greater among members of the Church because of the belief that parents are responsible for the training of their children.

Since most people would agree that the school has a major responsibility to teach reading, let’s use reading as an example in discussing some things that may help us evaluate the school’s performance in this task.

Consider a conversation heard recently in response to the question: “Are the schools doing a good job of teaching reading?” The five couples involved were parents of several children, ranging in age from preschool to sophomore in college. The response to the starting question went as follows:

“Judging from the materials available and the materials children bring home today, they are doing much better than they did ten years ago.”

“I’ve noticed a difference from the time our first one started school and our latest one. They are now stressing phonetics and doing a much better job.”

“This may be true when they first start out, but by the time they reach fourth grade, I’m not sure that there is any great difference. I think the schools are doing a pretty good job of teaching the mechanics of reading, but somehow, I wish they would do a little more with giving the children a desire to read on their own. Our children hardly ever pick up a book on their own just to read for pleasure. There are always fifty other things they would rather be doing. One of the reasons I’m upset about this, perhaps, is because I remember as a child I read everything I could get my hands on. I feel bad because my children never seem to pick up a book except for a specific assignment.”

“Well, in our home I don’t feel that this is entirely the school’s fault. My children bring their books home and then there are piano lessons and Cub Scouts and Primary and a talk for Sunday School. I’m really glad, though, that the schools are teaching children to use encyclopedias and other reference books. When I taught school ten years ago, there was only one little boy in my class who was using such books.”

“Our one little boy was so excited by the attractive materials and presentations in kindergarten that he taught himself to read, so I know they are using many interesting and stimulating things.”

“With a few of the teachers our children have had, I’ve felt that our children learned to read in spite of them. I think most children, given the stimulation and materials available, would learn to read themselves. And I think many reading problems go on for years before they are recognized.”

“Some children do better on an individualized reading program, such as our child’s teacher had last year.”

“I think also that many times schools give up on reading too early. After the third or fourth grade, there seems to be very little organized reading instruction. There should be a reading program up through junior high school, where the children are still being taught reading skills.”

“We had a child who was ready to read and ready to start school when he was four, but we couldn’t get him into school, of course. One of our friends taught a group of four-year-olds some basic elements of reading and mathematics last summer, and she said they learned amazingly fast. She admitted that when they started kindergarten it was going to be very difficult, because they would be ahead of their peers, but she maintained that someone should ‘buck the system.’”

“Some schools seem to do a lot more innovative things in teaching reading than others.”

Let’s interrupt the dialogue at this point to make some observations. First, all of these parents expressed opinions about how well schools are teaching reading. Second, these parents judge the effectiveness of the schools in teaching reading by various kinds of evidence. Third, some of these parents feel that reading is a shared responsibility of the school and the home. And fourth, there appears to be some confusion about what the schools should be emphasizing in reading programs.

We rejoin the conversation just after the question “What evidence or indicators do you use to judge a school’s reading program?” has been asked.

“One school did a very good job of teaching our children to read, because they not only read well, but they enjoy reading; I think this enjoyment is a good indicator.”

“Each individual child and each home is different, though, and sometimes in a home where you would least suspect it, a child enjoys reading immensely.”

“And there is much difference in teachers, not only in their skill, but also in the way they relate to individual children.”

“In a home where there are no books, however, reading might not be considered very exciting by the children, thinking it is only something you do at school.”

“Then there are families in which one member will sit with his nose buried in a book and the others couldn’t care less if the book had never been printed; yet they come from the same environment.”

“No two children come from exactly the same environment, because each one’s personality is so different. One of our children would read for us to show us that he was reading. Our other child couldn’t care less if we know he isn’t reading.”

“One of our children had three teachers in the first year of school, and none of them followed through with a reading program.”

“It has been my experience that it is difficult to find out just what the schools are doing. We have such limited contact with the teacher—ten minutes a year in which we learn really very little about how our child is doing as compared with the other children or even how he is progressing with regard to his own capabilities.”

“Our little girl could read before she went to kindergarten. She loved books, and she would spell out a whole line to me and ask me what it said. After a few months of this she could read many of her little books. By the time she was in kindergarten, she could read second-grade books. So when she was in first grade, the teacher would give our daughter a more difficult book and send her over in the corner to read while she was teaching the other children to read. Our daughter never learned basic skills, such as how to sound out words or which syllables to put the accent on.”

“What indications do you have that she didn’t get these skills?”

“To this day she has difficulty pronouncing many common words. Tonight she came across the word chronological, which shouldn’t be beyond the ability of a sixth grader who is considered an excellent student. She could neither pronounce it nor define it. That is only an example among many. I am just stunned sometimes at the words that she doesn’t recognize as she reads something aloud to me from the newspaper or another ordinary source.”

“I think that often the accelerated child is neglected because the teacher doesn’t have time for him.”

“However, there are so many challenging materials now for the superior student that the teacher can better serve those children.”

At this point, the group was asked, “What do you want schools to do for your children in reading?”

“Give him some tools he can use.”

“If a child can gain the basics of reading, the skills and the tools he needs and how to use them in the first few grades, then I think the schools are succeeding.”

“What do you mean by tools?” we asked.

“Well, when he comes to a word he doesn’t know, does he sound it out? Does he analyze it according to syllables and shape?”

“When our child was in first grade, the teacher not only tried to teach the mechanics of reading, but she tried to teach how to read with meaning and expression. However, the next year he had a teacher who was poor in many facets of the curriculum, and the progress of the year before was lost.”

“What indications did you have that made you believe she was not an effective teacher?”

“After the entire year, she didn’t even know which boy was ours. She didn’t take the children to the library because she said most of the books there were too difficult for them, and it would just be a waste of time. When we asked her how the children were doing with modern math, she replied that most of the children didn’t understand much about it, so she just didn’t worry too much about that area.”

“What I’d like to know is how effective teachers really are. If they certify as teachers, does that mean that they have had courses in teaching reading? I think there is evidence among college students that the main reason for flunking is that they can’t read well enough. Is this an indictment against elementary and secondary teachers of reading?”

“If we see our children in a particular situation where they can do the reading they need to, we have reason to believe that the school is doing a pretty good job. For instance, if a child can read and abstract information from an encyclopedia, then he apparently has been taught not only how to read but also how to do a related job.”

“If a Cub Scout can read his manual, then that is an indication that he can read at the required level he needs for that task.”

“I agree. If he can understand what he reads and utilize it in various situations, then he is reading successfully.”

“Would all of you agree that if your child could read the Cub Scout manual with comprehension, he was an adequate reader?” we asked.

“Well, if he were eight years old, I would think this was fine, but I would expect my sixteen-year-old to read on a more sophisticated level.”

“What would you accept as an indicator for your sixteen-year-old?”

“I should think that a text required in his science class would be a more appropriate measurement for a child this age. However, I have seen a few textbooks that I wouldn’t be alarmed about if my children couldn’t read them.”

A careful look at the entire conversation shows several important things.

First, these parents stated in general terms what they wanted the schools to do in relation to teaching reading. They gave two general goals: (1) that students be able to perform the mechanics of reading and (2) that students have a desire to read.

Second, the home not only shares the responsibility for the child’s learning to read; it also has control over many of the conflicts that might limit the child’s time or desire to read, such as music lessons, practicing, Cub Scouts, television, or family outings.

Third, parents judge the performance of the school in two ways—methods and results. In other words, they are concerned about the methods that the schools use to teach the children the mechanics and desire for reading and they are concerned also about the results—the ability or inability of their children to read with comprehension.

The dialogue above actually produced a list of goals or results that these parents expected from the schools. There were also numerous comments, both positive and negative, concerning the methods of teaching reading.

What does all of this tell us about judging the quality of the schools? Can we make any assessment of the quality of our child’s education? Should we play any positive role in the process?

No judgment can really be made by the public until the public (parents and other taxpayers) have specified exactly what they expect from the schools. Identifying the results expected from the educational process is a basic responsibility of those who own the schools, not those who are hired to operate the schools.

Once that goal or objective has been agreed upon, then the test of effectiveness follows. Assume, for example, that the public has agreed upon a reading goal, such as “student uses context to get meaning,” as a skill that they wish the schools to develop in their children. Regardless of the method selected to achieve this goal, the final judgment of effectiveness is not that process or method but the result—can students use context to get meaning when reading?

The role of the professional educator, as a public servant, is to determine how the objectives might best be achieved. They should use those methods that they would predict as being able to achieve the desired results.

This then leads to the final step in evaluating the schools: to observe the results after learners have been exposed to the processes of the schools and compare the results with those specified as desirable by the public. This final evaluation should be the joint responsibility of parents and educators.

Now it is easy to propose that parents help identify the goals of the school, but in real life how can this ever come about? A sudden appearance before school authorities with the demand that they allow the parents to outline the goals of the educational process will certainly not do.

The place to start is with your own children who are in school. Discuss with them what they would like to get out of school. Then broaden that discussion to other parents. Can you agree on some basic things you expect the schools to accomplish? The experience gained in working in these situations will prepare you to work with or function as leaders in parent-teacher groups. And finally, this background will enable you to patiently discuss your expectations with professional educators to determine how well their instructional objectives fit your expectations.

This is not a simple proposal nor is it likely that most professional educators are really prepared to receive such advice from school patrons. But the fact is that knowledgeable, involved parents are an essential key to successful schools, and successful schools breed successful children. It is worth the effort.

[illustration] Art by Merrill Gogan

[photo] Photography by Bob Taylor

Dr. Belt and Dr. Holder are both on the College of Education faculty at Brigham Young University, where they have collaborated on a number of innovative educational projects and engage in extensive consulting. Dr. Belt is the teacher development director and Dr. Holder is high priests group leader in the Orem 29th Ward, Sharon West Stake.