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Creating a Public Accountability for California Schools

by John Rogers - 2004

This article explores the role of the public in California’s educational accountability system. Drawing on a review of state policy and case studies of two school communities, it examines whether California’s accountability system draws on and supports an informed and engaged public. The analysis points to a disconnect between a rhetoric that upholds public engagement and policy structures and practices that limit or distort educational information and thwart public efforts to participate in accountability. The article calls on California to nurture an informed and engaged public that will both enable and demand high quality schools.

In southeast Los Angeles, where public schools are overcrowded, poorly staffed, and undersupplied, an organization of parents calling themselves Parent-U-Turn is advocating for better educational data. “Parents don’t re­ceive enough information about what is going on in their schools,” explains the group’s executive director. “Until more parents become empowered with knowledge to advocate for better schooling, the system will continue to fail our children.”1 Parent-U-Turn’s demand for public data speaks to the heart of any credible and legitimate education accountability system. Such a system must both support and respond to informed public participation in educational accountability.

What, then, does the public require to participate vigorously and dem­ocratically in a system that takes account of and is accountable for educational conditions? In the literal sense, this means a system that allows parents and others to “reckon with” available information and “count in” their own knowledge and experience so that they can call school officials to “answer for [their] responsibilities and conduct.”2 Public participation in such a sys­tem entails (a) learning about the conditions students experience in school; (b) contributing information about these conditions based on observations or the experience of local children; and (c) encouraging the system to use this information to respond to presenting and potential problems. For these purposes, data about school conditions are a tool for leveraging participant and “official” knowledge to accomplish reforms that improve schools’ ca­pacity to provide high-quality education to all students.

This understanding of public participation in accountability comple­ments, yet pushes beyond, common practices of parent involvement. Schools often call on parents to volunteer in classrooms and the school as a whole, support homework and other school activities, and encourage chil­dren to obey school rules and embrace the school’s goals. These modes of participation contribute valuable labor, extend the school’s curriculum into the home, and promote student engagement.3 An extensive body of re­search over the last two decades establishes that these practices of parent participation enable some well-functioning schools to enhance student learning.4 Yet these activities alone cannot reliably redress substandard school conditions. Parents and community members are most likely to contribute to the school’s program when they believe the educational sys­tem serves their children’s interests and when they believe in their own efficacy for contributing to change. This sort of confirmation requires a transparent and responsive system. It demands a two-way flow of informa­tion between educational officials and the public, processes that ensure that the information is acted on,5 and when those process are lacking, leverage for change that is built into the accountability system.

Whereas we expect parent involvement to focus narrowly on local schools, public information and participation must be nested within a state­wide accountability system. Many of the conditions that the public needs to know about or to weigh in on are shaped fundamentally by state policies on taxation, teacher credentialing, curriculum standards, and assessment. Par­ents and community members today need access to information that allows them to compare their schools with other schools in the state as well as to the state’s own standards. The public needs to be able to share its knowl­edge about educational problems with education officials who have the power to address these problems across the different levels of the state system. Finally, parents and community members need to know who to hold responsible, again at all levels of the system, for ensuring decent con­ditions for all students. Of course, it is the state’s responsibility to provide a system of professional oversight that ensures all students adequate and eq­uitable learning conditions. Public participation in accountability can serve as both a critical source of information for, and an essential check on, this oversight system.

Does California’s accountability system draw on and support an in­formed and engaged public to ensure quality educational conditions for all? To answer this question, I examine California’s framework for involving parents in educational accountability as well how this framework plays out in two school communities. My analysis points to a disconnect between a rhetoric that upholds public engagement and the structures and practices that limit or distort educational information thus thwarting public efforts to participate in accountability. The final section of this article explores policies that are needed to build and sustain a robust flow of public information and a vibrant public in educational accountability.


The state of California has long acknowledged the general role of parent involvement in enhancing student learning as well as parent’s involvement in educational accountability and school improvement.6 In a variety of of­ficial documents, California articulates three compelling state purposes served by parents who are involved in educational accountability. First, the state sees parent participation in accountability as critical to sustaining civic life. In 1998, the legislature declared, “It is essential to our democratic form of government that parents and guardians of school-age children attending public schools and other citizens participate in improving public education institutions.”7 Second, the state suggests that broad-based parent partici­pation enables parents with different experiences and information to con­tribute unique perspectives and knowledge to the system. This principle grounds the state’s commitment to engaging “broad and diverse groups” of parents in the local improvement plan process mandated by the federal government’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act.8 Third, the state holds that including parents as “stakeholders in the accountability process” promotes a broad sense that the schools are legitimate and deserving of public commitment.9 In its “Consolidated State Plan,” California argues that “successful educational reform” requires that members of the com­munity literally have a “stake in and are accountable for the planning, implementation, and evaluation of [these] reforms.”10

California’s Public School Accountability Act of 1999 (PSAA) signals the importance of an informed and engaged public through its introductory findings and declarations. The opening statements of the act claim that the “active involvement of parents and guardians” is a cornerstone of any “promising and effective accountability system.” Such involvement re­quires “easily accessible and understandable” information about the local schools. It also calls for the public to be provided with opportunities to share their insights about the “causes of pupil failure” and their ideas for “designing programs for remediation.” The PSAA suggests that these conditions create a public press that enhances civic life and fuels educational improvement efforts. Parents who are informed and able to communicate their concerns to school officials will be more likely and more able to “support and sustain high quality educational programs.” In addition, they will have the opportunity to shape the “development and implemen­tation” of school improvement plans in line with their interests and experience.11

The PSAA’s model is that of an informed public spurring educational improvement. The model requires that the state take on three roles to ensure a comprehensive and unimpeded flow of information about school conditions. First, the state must report high-quality information that allows the public to assess conditions, make meaningful comparisons, and identify remedies where needed. And it must report this information in ways that can be accessed by parents who do not speak English or who do not have the capacity to acquire information through the Internet. Second, the state will ensure that parents have meaningful opportunities to share their knowledge, experience, and interests with educational officials charged with improving the schools. Third, the state must encourage educational officials to be responsive to the ideas and concerns raised by parents.


California’s most notable effort to inform the public about school quality is its School Accountability Report Card (SARC) first created in 1988. The legislature substantially revised the SARC in 2000 to make it a “more ef­fective tool” for enabling the public to compare schools within and across districts.12 Today, the SARC includes school-level information about (a) ed­ucational outcomes such as student test results, graduation rates, and drop out rates and (b) conditions of student learning such as teacher qualifica­tion, availability of Advanced Placement Classes, and quality of textbooks and school facilities. The legislature’s intent was to “ensure that all parents receive a copy” of the SARC and that it be “easy to read and understand­able.” Yet, in practice, the SARCs are neither widely accessible nor com­prehensible to most parents. Schools can choose to notify parents that the report is available online, rather than sending out a printed copy.13 Given the unequal access to the Internet across California’s communities, Web-based reporting translates to no access for many parents.14

Schools report selected data on student outcomes (mostly, test score re­sults). However, they typically provide only minimal information on the conditions of student learning. The state’s voluntary template for the SARCs includes broad prompts asking schools to provide information on “Quality and Currency of Textbooks and other Instructional Materials” and “School Facilities.” Yet comparisons with other schools are not encouraged and neither are there standards for adequacy. Instead, schools frequently offer general statements that parents cannot use to determine whether their children are receiving an adequate and safe education. For example, Lut­her Burbank Middle School in San Francisco reports “Burbank has re­ceived new textbooks in math, science and social studies. Textbook inventory is presently being computerized to assist in determining text­book needs.”15 The report card does not mention how many texts the school received, when they arrived, what other texts are in short supply (according to the current non-computerized tallies), when the new inven­tory system will be in place, or how the school’s textbook status compares to other schools.

Data posted on the SARCs often are unreliable and difficult for parents to use. California Department of Education official William Padilla ac­knowledges, “Schools are required to do School Accountability Report Cards. We have never monitored whether or not they’ve done it, and sec­ondly, we’ve never monitored, if they did it, what the quality of the re­porting categories would have been.”16 Thus, with no accountability for their SARC responsibilities, schools have little incentive to publicize their problems and frequently ignore selected reporting requirements or pro­vide false or misleading responses to the state’s questions about school conditions. Many SARCs contain an amalgam of testing data unique to the school and ‘boilerplate’ provided by the local district. For example, every high school in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) posts the same “Message from the Principal,” as well as identical information on finances, school facilities, and textbook quality.17 Each LAUSD school reports that “Our school makes every effort to provide a safe, clean environment for learning. Classroom space is used to support our instructional program.”18 The best that can be said for this dissembling is that it is “not entirely untrue,” but it certainly does meet the spirit of state’s accountability ob­jectives. If taken seriously, the report would lead the public to a false im­pression that school facilities are at least adequate and the same across the district—from relatively new schools like Palisades High School in Los An­geles’ affluent Westside to schools scheduled to be torn down, like Belmont High School in the predominantly immigrant community of Pico Union.19

Even when schools do provide some information on school conditions, the public may have no way to compare across different schools or to judge schools by a common standard. For example, schools report the number of uncredentialed teachers on staff, but offer no figures on average numbers of uncredentialed teachers in neighboring schools or in the state as a whole. Parents have no way of knowing trends—whether the school has more or fewer uncredentialed teachers than the year before. Neither do the SARCs explain the state’s expectations for teacher qualifications—why the public should care about the percentage of uncredentialed teachers. It is inter­esting to contrast the lack of data and information about qualified teachers with the abundant data parents receive about the state’s standardized achievement tests. Whereas the state compares schools’ test performance to state standards as well as to a set of “similar schools,” only noncomparable qualitative responses are reported for all areas of student opportunities to learn.20 The state does not require schools to use a common reporting format for opportunity to learn conditions. Parents and community members cannot know whether to be satisfied or concerned about the con­ditions in their schools.


California has endorsed a model of parent involvement that follows the National Standards for Parent Involvement in encouraging “two-way and meaningful” communication between the school and the public about school conditions and programs.21 However, the state steadfastly maintains that it has no constitutional or other obligation to oversee the fidelity of local enactments of this model. So, despite its endorsement, the state neither knows about nor contributes resources to parent involvement in local schools and districts.22 Because local districts and schools bring different levels of interest and capacity to their work with parents, schools across the state enact very different forms of parent involvement. For the most part, these policies emphasize forms of parent involvement that add value to local schools—volunteering, supporting student learning at home, and so on—and few policies that encourage parents to gather and communicate information about school conditions.

California does acknowledge the right of parents to gather information about their children’s schooling. The legislature created a set of “Parent Rights” in 1998 (amended in 2001) that establishes parents’ rights to “ob­serve their child’s classroom” and “review curriculum materials, student records, academic standards, and school rules.”23 Yet these “Parent Rights” provide parents with only limited tools for monitoring school conditions and practices. The legislation offers no standards by which parents might assess the quality of their child’s learning experience, nor does it encourage parents to look beyond the experiences of individual children to the con­ditions of the school as a whole. Further, even if parents wished to share information on school conditions, the legislation does not provide any structure for that. It offers no sense of how the information gathered by parents might be counted or used to hold officials accountable. Finally, the “Parent Rights” lack specific assurances that parents can access classrooms and school facilities in a timely manner. In short, parents’ “rights” can be said to be mildly permissive, but with no imperative for schools to encour­age and facilitate (and be forthcoming with) information, parents only have limited ability to gather information about the everyday school experiences of their children.

California’s most substantial commitment to engaging the ideas and concerns of the public is demonstrated in its school improvement and school-based governance structures. Schools that volunteer for the Imme­diate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program must solicit parents’ input on “action that should be taken to improve school performance.”24 In addition, the state requires all schools to create school site councils that are responsible for developing and then assessing the school’s improvement plan.25 These councils must include parent representatives, selected by other parents. Membership is supposed to create parity between educators on the one hand and parents and community members26 on the other.27 Although the councils can allow parents to voice their concerns and con­tribute to school improvement, the degree and quality of parent partici­pation varies greatly. In some schools only a handful of parents are aware of the site council process. Betty Malen’s research suggests that parents often are not allowed to discuss “provocative issues.” She explains that on school councils that include parents as well as teachers and prin­cipals, conflicts regarding the proper role of parents in policymaking, fears associated with ‘intrusion’ by ‘outsiders’ and anxieties about the school’s ability to withstand scrutiny set the stage for a protective pol­itics. These tensions tend to be managed by ceremonial exchanges that reflect and reinforce a traditional pattern of power wherein profes­sionals, notably principals, control school policy, teachers control in­struction, and parents provide support.28

Malen does not dismiss site governance out of hand but suggests that states need to create conditions for what Gary Anderson terms “authentic par­ticipation”—participation that enables parents’ voices and concerns to be taken into account.29


The state channels public questions and concerns to local school officials who often have little incentive or capacity to respond. For example, the state’s parent brochure on the Academic Performance Index (API) recom­mends only that parents “direct their questions” to their principal or other school administrators.30 In a similar fashion, California’s Department of Education (CDE) encourages parents to ask school officials about the High School Exit Exam and about the conditions that enable students to succeed on the test. The CDE “Parent Notification Kit” includes handouts that in­form parents that their children “will need to use their knowledge of the . . . state content standards,” to pass the test and graduate from high school. The parent handout continues, (in bold letters):

“How do parents/guardians find out if their student’s school uses the same or similar standards as state content standards?” Parents/guard­ians should ask their student’s teachers or principal if the school cur­riculum is aligned to state content standards in English-language arts and mathematics. Parents/guardians also should ask how teachers are helping students achieve these standards.31

The CDE offers no guidance on what the public should do if local school officials are unresponsive or if their responses do not comport with the public’s observations or understanding. And, in the hard to imagine event that an official were to inform parents that teachers are not teaching to the state curriculum standards, the state does not offer a course of “next steps.” When particularly efficacious parents communicate problems to the Cal­ifornia Department of Education, the state routinely redirects these parents to local school officials. Susan Lang of the California Department of Ed­ucation reports that after her office has determined that there are no local remedies, they tell parents only that there are no remedies.32 The state thus neither collects information from local parents nor responds to them with state action—even when the presenting problem is beyond the scope of local action. Of course, parents can seek to influence local district and state policy through the ballot box. But voting for local school board members or state officials who address education policy—the governor, assembly and senate members, and the superintendent of public instruction—is at best a slow way to communicate that your child is receiving substandard or unsafe education. Further, these officials, perhaps offering a sympathetic ear, will typically defer to long-standing structural and policy impediments to fixing problems. As Katheryn McDermott argues in her recent study of local par­ticipation in Connecticut districts, “citizens’ power not to vote for a member whose policy stands they disagree with is too blunt an instrument” for parents to remedy immediate and pressing problems.33


California policy expresses a commitment to an informed public while its policies subvert the flow of public information. This contradiction finds its way into the foundations of its educational accountability system. This sec­tion looks to two case studies of public participation in accountability to explore these contradictions and their effects on the capacity of the educational system to prevent or detect and correct substandard learning conditions. The first case examines public participation in an “underperforming” elementary school that boasts high levels of parent involvement.34 The case focuses attention on parents’ access to high quality, reliable, and comprehensible information on student achievement and learning oppor­tunities. The second case builds on an ongoing collaboration between this author and community members in Lynwood, California. It highlights strategies for providing parents with the knowledge they need to participate meaningfully in school improvement as well as the obstacles knowledgeable parents face in making their voices heard.35


Fremont Elementary is a K-8 school serving low-income students of color. Sixty-eight percent of the student body is Latino, 21% are African Amer­ican, and 9% are Pacific Islander. Roughly two thirds of the students are designated English language learners (ELL) and four fifths of the students are eligible for the federal government’s Free and Reduced Lunch Pro­gram.36 By most measures, there is a good deal of parent involvement at Fremont Elementary. Many parents attend cultural events such as the school’s annual Cinco de Mayo celebration.37 Also, many parents regularly volunteer their time to support the school’s program. Every classroom benefits from one or more “room parents” who tutor, chaperone field trips, assist teachers in supervising events at the school, and provide translation between monolingual English speaking teachers and students and parents with limited English skills. Parents also monitor student bathrooms and supervise the yard during recess and after school.38

Fremont Elementary parents can access information about student learning and school quality in four ways—regular communication from the school, unofficial parent observation of classrooms and school programs, information shared in school site council meetings, and official state, dis­trict, or school reporting on student learning and school quality. Fremont’s monthly newsletter provides the broadest diffusion of information to the school community. Four fifths of the parents say they read the principal’s newsletter.39 The purpose of the newsletter is not to give parents informa­tion about student learning or school quality but to inform parents about upcoming events. A few parents learn about school programs through their participation as volunteers or in school governance committees. Room par­ents and yard or bathroom monitors learn a lot from their observations, but their number is a small percentage of Fremont’s parent population. Sim­ilarly, knowledge about school governance is largely limited to the handful of parent participants in the school site council.

Significantly, Fremont parents are least able to access the information that the state deems most important to educational accountability—official reports on student performance on state standardized testing and on school quality. Parent volunteers report that they are familiar with the SAT-9. Their children’s teachers inform them when the test will be administered. Apparently, this is the only information the school communicates about the tests. The state reports test scores in English and provides no explanation of their meaning or translation to Spanish, the first language of the majority of parents.40 Neither the teachers nor the school as a whole offers any further explanation about the SAT-9 scores—nor do they provide parents with any other official information about the school’s academic program or facilities. The state intends for parents to receive this information in the SARC. Yet none of the parents interviewed has heard of the SARC.41 Fremont’s prin­cipal explained that the SARC “data is on the web, but we haven’t given it to the parents directly.”42 (While this practice is technically allowable within CDE’s regulations, it clearly violates the spirit of the legislative intent to “ensure that all parents receive a copy” of the SARC.)43 Further, although the state has designated Fremont Elementary as an “underperforming school,” the parents only have limited information about what this desig­nation signifies. In fact, the lone parent who reported familiarity with the term, “II/USP” is on the II/USP governance committee where she learned only that “the school’s test scores were very low” and the school “might be taken over by the state.”44

Even when parents at Fremont Elementary learn about their school’s quality and program, the information does not lead to positive action. For example, many Fremont parents draw on an array of observational and experiential information in making sense of teacher commitment and qual­ity. This information leads the vast majority of the parents to indicate ap­proval of their child’s teacher. Such positive assessments are not to be dismissed; they reflect important parental beliefs about which factors de­termine quality teaching. Yet they also might reflect a lack of familiarity with state standards for qualified teachers. It is telling that one Fremont parent comments favorably about her principal’s decision to replace a teacher, who consistently missed 1 day a week, with a long-term substitute. This parent does not know that long-term substitutes, like the one third of Fremont’s faculty without teaching credentials, do not meet the state’s standards for teacher quality and likely would not be viewed as acceptable hires in an affluent school community. Nor do Fremont’s parents know whether a re­cent 3-month delay in the distribution of math and reading textbooks rep­resents a minor snafu common to all schools or a major infringement on their children’s ability to learn the state curriculum standards that would not be tolerated in many other schools. As one of the parent volunteers reports, “I know about this school, but I don’t know anything about the other schools around here.”45 The point here is not to criticize engaged parents for not knowing about conditions in different schools. Rather it is to highlight the way that the quality of information provided by the state determines whether parents have a meaningful opportunity to understand whether their children are receiving the same opportunities as other chil­dren in the state.

Fremont’s parents, along with their children, may be best positioned to assess the quality of the school bathrooms and other facilities. While there certainly are standards that can be used to compare such conditions across schools, there also are absolute standards of decency that shape parent and student beliefs about whether a bathroom or piece of yard equipment is clean or safe. The majority of respondents to Fremont’s parent poll said that the school’s bathrooms are not sanitary. Two thirds of the parents indicated that the playground equipment is not safe. Parents in the focus group echo these assessments, as do Fremont’s teachers and principal.46 Yet the con­ditions persist. The parent volunteers, who believe they have an open in­vitation to raise concerns with the principal, may have concluded that these facility problems cannot be resolved. They have no way of knowing what would constitute reasonable expectations for addressing their concerns. They know only that the school’s bathrooms and play equipment continue to pose a threat to their children’s health.


Lynwood Unified, a district located south of South Central Los Angeles and east of Compton, serves one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles County. Over 80% of the district’s students participate in the federal gov­ernment’s Free and Reduced Lunch Program. Of the students, 84.3% are Latino, 11.8% are African American, and 3% are Filipino. More than half of students across the district are designated as English learners.48 Lynwood schools lack qualified teachers. At least one third of the teachers at every elementary and middle school in the district are not fully credentialed. This figure is far higher in many Lynwood schools; two thirds of Abbott Ele­mentary teachers do not have a clear teaching credential.49 Lynwood schools also have a poor record in ensuring student safety. Two students were killed by automobiles in two separate incidents at Lindbergh Elemen­tary during the 1999-2000 school year.50 Unsafe and unsanitary facilities pose more regular, albeit less extreme, threats to student safety. These conditions contribute to patterns of low academic performance and low college-going rates across the district. All of the district’s four secondary schools place in the lowest decile in the state on the SAT-9. Fewer than half of Lynwood High School graduates have taken the sequence of courses required to be eligible for admission to California’s 4-year public univer­sities; only 2% of these graduates enrolled in University of California cam­puses in Fall 2000.51 In short, Lynwood’s schools face many of the problems the state hopes to redress.

The UCLA Parent Project began work in Lynwood in the fall of 1998 as part of a broader partnership between UCLA and Lynwood Unified aimed at raising college eligibility rates.52 When the project started, few parents participated in Lynwood schools. Moreover, although many parents felt a general sense of dissatisfaction with their children’s schooling, they did not have sufficient knowledge about curriculum and instruction to assess the quality of Lynwood education in relationship to the education provided in other schools in the area and around the state.53 The Parent Project thus sought to “get parents to understand what these schools should be doing to educate their kids.” Parent Project Director Laila Hasan created a 13-week Parent Institute to help parents understand “what good teaching and learning looks like.”54 Attending class twice a week, parents studied the state curriculum framework and assessment tools.55 Class activities modeled the curriculum and instructional practices recommended by the state, so parents could tell whether they saw similar practices in their children’s classrooms. Lynwood’s parents have become increasingly knowledgeable about educational policy and practice. Many continue to take seminars with UCLA instructors and regularly seek out information from elected officials, researchers, and policy makers on issues they deem important. Yet despite their efforts and their unique learning experiences, they find it very hard to access information about the schools. They receive a monthly newsletter from the district that includes positive stories about Lynwood schools and a list of upcoming school activities.56 The parents also receive the results of the SAT-9 test in the mail.57 But the information parents want most is not easily attainable. When asked about what information parents receive from the school aside from the SAT-9, Parent Leader Mary Johnson replied:

It’s sort of funny because at this time, and I’ve been in this system for a long time—I have four kids—I really haven’t gotten any information regarding that at all. . . . In the years I’ve been raising my kids from Kindergarten to 12, I haven’t had any other information but the SAT 9 as a way of saying where our kids [are] at.58

Johnson would like to have access to information on the availability, quality, and age of student textbooks, and the stability of the school’s teaching force. This information is not included in Lynwood’s SARCs, even though the state’s voluntary SARC template asks districts to include information about textbooks.

Nonetheless, many Lynwood parents have developed a strong degree of sophistication about the educational process that they would like to use to improve their neighborhood schools. They have encountered many obsta­cles, however, in their attempts to share their knowledge and hold the system accountable. None of the parents surveyed indicated that their “school actively seeks ideas from parents on school related issues.”59 One explanation for this failure of schools to reach out to parents is that school leaders are not accustomed to working with parents in a collaborative way. Hence a Lynwood principal became “irate” when she learned that the Par­ent Institute had trained parents to observe classrooms and then write notes about what they observed. She viewed this process as training parents to be “oppositional,” rather than part of an accountability process.60

A second explanation for the schools’ failure to work with parents is that school officials do not have sufficient capacity or autonomy to respond ad­equately to parental concerns. For example, school and district officials dismiss parent calls for high-quality teaching and learning that meet state standards, as unrealizable goals beyond district control.61 Through their work with the Parent Project, many Lynwood parents have begun ques­tioning their children’s teachers about whether they are teaching toward the standards. Instead of asking, “Is my child doing well” at back to school night, parents like Emma Street have used the standards as a way to ques­tion whether their child is receiving appropriate instruction. None of the teachers have provided a direct answer to this question. They offer only that they use the textbook and the textbook is representative of the standards. When Lynwood parents shared these responses at a district meeting, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction explained that most of the teachers do not understand the standards since so many of them do not have credentials. District officials have expressed concerns that when parents ask teachers about standards, they intimidate teachers and create a hostile environment.62 Lynwood’s parent leaders have assured the district that they are not trying to intimidate but rather to ensure their children receive a decent education.63

Whether for structural reasons beyond their control (such as funding and policy constraints) or inability to look to cooperative models outside the current administrative and teaching cultures (such as top-down, centralized habits and practices), school officials in Lynwood regularly ignore or un­dermine parents. So even among individuals with the best of intentions, we see the immediate creation of oppositional relationships when parents seek to add their voice and participate in their children’s schooling. It is a failure that bears great costs. For example, in 2001 a group of parents at Mark Twain Elementary School became concerned about the quality of the caf­eteria food when a number of children took ill after each lunch period. The parents requested that they be allowed to inspect the food preparation facilities. When they were denied this request, the parents asked their chil­dren to sneak food out of the cafeteria so that it could be tested. The parents found that the meat had not been completely cooked (some of the meat served was still partially frozen) and that the milk contained unsafe bacteria. The school principal agreed to make sure that the meat is cooked longer, but still will not let parents supervise the lunch preparation and service.64 Further, the costs are not limited to the immediate health or education consequences that result from the school’s failure to engage parents. Equal­ly devastating to the opportunities for student learning is the resulting climate of conflict, distrust, and unaccountability that makes the improvement of school opportunities seem hopeless. Frequently, schools label par­ents who raise concerns “trouble makers,” further quelling democratic participation.65 Parents, interested in improving health and learning con­ditions for their children, feel caught within a system that offers them no timely process for meaningful appeal. While Lynwood parents can work over the long term to change the governance of the local school board, they want a state accountability system that includes their voice and ensures decent conditions in the here and now.


California’s failure to establish and enforce clear standards for reporting on school conditions leaves the quality of public information to the whims of local education officials. Many local education officials want public support without contentious public voice. They reach out to the public for taxes, volunteer labor, and forms of parent involvement that advance school goals. Yet they worry that greater transparency will lead to increased public dis­appointment. These worries are most acute in communities with the poor­est learning conditions. In such communities, education officials often feel least able—for want of resources or capacity—to address problems brought to the public’s attention. The point here is not that local officials are callous to the needs of their students; many care deeply about the conditions for learning in their schools. But even well-meaning education officials are wary of sharing information that reflects poorly on the local community, its schools, and themselves. This wariness is hardened into protective silence when they do not believe reporting additional information will improve conditions.

The poor quality of information about school conditions in turn de­grades the capacity and engagement of the public. Members of the public need information about school conditions relative to a set of standards so that they can readily assess whether any public action is required. When parents and community members lack information—for example, about whether students have received textbooks in a timely fashion—they are left with no meaningful role to play in accountability. Similarly, members of the public need to know that education officials will listen and respond to their ideas and concerns. Without confidence that their voice matters, parents and community members tend to become disengaged from the account­ability process and from the school itself. Such disengagement, taken to­gether with poor learning conditions, erodes public confidence in local schools. It undercuts public willingness to contribute to the school and support the school’s goals.

Quality information and enhanced public participation have the poten­tial to improve school conditions in several ways—providing educators with timely insights about student needs; creating a press for remedial actions; and encouraging public commitment to and support for the school’s pro­gram. To realize this promise, California must reengage education officials and the public in sharing and responding to information about learning conditions. Two levels of state action are required. First, the state needs to resolve large structural problems that demand state or regional ac­tion—such as the uneven distribution of qualified teachers or the lack of sufficient school facilities to adequately accommodate students. By address­ing these structural problems, the state will allow local education officials to focus on ensuring decent conditions under their control.66 Second, the state needs to nurture an informed and engaged public that will both enable and demand high quality schools. It must foster this energized public in part with transparency provided by clear standards and reporting. It also must establish what political theorist Archon Fung describes as “public-creating” policies. Such policies “invite citizen participation in, . . . organize that par­ticipation, . . . and empower” these citizens to prompt “state action.”67 State officials must not assume that any and all “empowerment” is oppositional or that all oppositional empowerment is contrary to the interests of the state or the officials themselves.


Parents and community members need access to reliable and comprehen­sible information to play a meaningful role in accountability. School Ac­countability Report Cards could provide much of this information. But to do so, the state must create opportunity to learn standards, provide mean­ingful indicators of whether schools meet these standards, and monitor school reporting. A recent report on school report cards by the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., offers several examples of what opportunity to learn indicators might look like. To assess teacher quality, Kentucky’s School Report Card provides information such as the percent­age of classes at a school taught by teachers with an undergraduate major or minor in the subject being taught. (See Appendix 2, Figure 1.) Hawaii and Connecticut’s School Report Cards score the quality of each school’s dif­ferent facilities on a likert scale and provide a quantified measure of the degree of overcrowding in each of these facilities. (See Appendix 2, Figure 2.) Further, Delaware reports on the year each school was built, the year of the last remodeling, and the number of classrooms with air conditioning.68 In each of these cases the state first established clear criteria for what should be expected of every school and then required that each school report on the extent to which they live up to this standard.

Beyond reporting information, the state needs to provide support to enable parents and community members to understand what the SARC says about the quality of education in their local school. New York provides a useful service in this regard by publishing a “Parent Guide” to the school report cards that explains how to use the bar graphs to judge “if your child’s school is doing well or improving.” The Parent Guide also includes an extensive glossary of educational terms used in the report card.69 But many parents, particularly parents with limited experience in American schools, need more than written guides to make sense of the large body of complex information included in the SARC. They need training and personal guid­ance to understand the SARC. The state of California’s Community-Based Parent Involvement Grant Program provides a model of how a state can ensure that parents receive such training. Through this program, the state funds nonprofit community organizations to train parents in school gov­ernance.70 By similarly contracting with community groups to provide training on the SARC, the state would enhance the capacity of parents to understand the conditions in their schools. (The UCLA Parent Project in Lynwood offers a powerful model of how independent organizations can work with working class and immigrant communities to promote new par­ent understanding.) Because nonprofit community groups are independent of the schools, they can more effectively guide the public in assessing both positive and negative indicators of school quality than school officials who might feel pressure to downplay school problems.71


California should provide systematic opportunities for members of the public to share what they know about conditions in their local schools. The state’s six million students know a great deal about learning conditions by virtue of experiencing these conditions on a daily basis. They know, for example, whether bathrooms are clean, play facilities are safe, or books are distributed on time. Parents learn about these and other conditions through their children as well as through direct contact with the school and its staff. The state can gather this valuable “participant” knowledge with regular student and parent surveys. Rhode Island conducts an annual survey of students, parents, and educators and then publicly reports the results for each school as part of its state accountability system. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California has recently adopted the Rhode Island model—collecting “comprehensive data [which provides] a mechanism for making important decisions by raising key questions.”72 In his recent book, Making Schools Work, William Ouchi argues that such surveys strengthen accountability by motivating officials to attend to “customer satisfaction.”73 Certainly the surveys encourage educators to heed student and parent in­put. But they also potentially foster a more informed and empowered public.

The state also needs to create meaningful opportunities for the public to gather and share information on school quality. Toward this end, existing California legislation on parents’ rights needs to be expanded and strength­ened. Individual parents and groups of parents must have the right to observe students wherever students learn, eat, and play. They must be able to inspect play equipment, learning materials, bathrooms, and other school facilities. The state will want to establish general guidelines to guarantee that schools respond to parent requests in a timely fashion and parents do not disrupt student learning. It will also want to designate school officials who are responsible for these conditions of access. California law now calls for local governing boards of school districts and community college dis­tricts to appoint oversight committees to review and report on school con­struction spending. 74This legislation could be expanded to create similar oversight committees that would periodically review the quality and con­dition of school facilities.


Education officials must listen and respond to public concerns. New leg­islation should require schools, districts, and the state to publicize the names of individuals responsible for rectifying substandard conditions. Parents and community members need mechanisms to lodge complaints at every level of the educational system and for officials to publicly report these complaints and responses to them. All of this information belongs in a state accountability system.

Finally, the state needs to provide training for educators and school of­ficials to view parents and community members as a resource in the ed­ucational accountability system. California currently provides grants under the Parent/Teacher Involvement Program to support teachers to visit the homes of their students. Participating teachers receive training in “strat­egies for communicating effectively with parents.”75 To date, this program has received only modest funding ($15 million per year) and thus has touched only a small percentage of California’s schools. By expanding the program’s scope, the state could provide training to a wide array of ed­ucation officials and parents in order to marshal productive participation in the accountability system.

Many parents, such as those in Lynwood, already go to great lengths, at much personal sacrifice, to secure decent educational conditions for their children. They deserve an educational accountability system that works with and for them. California can only gain from a free flow of information and democratic relationships between education officials and members of the public. Certainly, such a flow of information will generate passionate responses, some of which are sure to be acrimonious, but many of which will be highly productive. Just as surely, students will gain from the passion, knowledge, action, and even anger of their parents, about whom no one would dare say, “Those parents don’t care.” As John Dewey noted more than 70 years ago, “Only through constant watchfulness and criticism of public officials by citizens can a state be maintained in integrity and usefulness.”76

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 11, 2004, p. 2171-2192
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12763, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:50:43 PM

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About the Author
  • John Rogers
    University of California, Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    JOHN ROGERS, the associate director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, studies strategies for engaging urban youth, community members, and teachers as public intellectuals seeking to make schools places of equal opportunity and democratic life. In 2000, he founded Teaching to Change LA, an online journal. Recent publications include “Accountability for Adequate and Equitable Opportunities to Learn,” in Kenneth Sirotnik, (Ed.), Moral Dimensions of Educational Accountability: Toward Responsible Concepts and Practices (New York: Teachers College Press) with J. Oakes, G. and G. Blasi (forthcoming) and “The School and Society Revisited: Research, Democratic Social Movement Strategies, and The Struggle for Equality” in Teachers College Record (2004).
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