By Gretchen Vaught
As a parent and advocate of children with learning differences, I spent two years on a sub-committee researching best practices for inclusive learning. Despite the warm reception from our school board, the district’s Equity Officer strategically killed all momentum through inaction.
Frustrated yet still committed to change, I joined my child’s School-Based Decision Making (SBDM) Council for the possibility of a more direct – albeit more limited – impact.
Our meetings were mostly mundane, until discussion came up around whether to change promotion qualifications. Specifically, should the school permit a student to fail reading, writing, or arithmetic and still move on to the next grade level?
The topic surfaced due to the increase in failure rates the school was seeing related to non-traditional instruction (NTI). Out of compassion for the struggling students, a few people spoke up in support of the change. Though I shared their concern for the children, I was appalled at the short-sightedness.
“While the failure data is tragic, we need to look beyond the immediate crisis and focus on the long-term impacts of permitting failure in these subjects,” I said. “These are not electives, but fundamental skills our students need in order to successfully continue their education and eventually become independent adults. Instead of lowering the bar, we should look for ways to meet the struggling students where they are and help them meet these basic expectations.”
It seemed that no one had considered this perspective. Thankfully, the topic was tabled without compromising the standards during my year-long tenure.
This was a close call. But the experience made me look even closer at the data for my home county, which is comparable to the rest of the state. When I did, I noticed that graduation rates are disproportionate with performance data. Somehow, though only 50% of students are proficient in math and reading at an eighth-grade level, 90% of them are graduating. Clearly, we are pushing students into the real world ill-equipped at basic communication and computation.
Though I was shocked, the data matched my personal experience. Beginning in the 4th and 5th grades, I noticed that my child was not consistently turning in work, yet somehow maintained A’s and B’s. I questioned the teachers but was told it wasn’t a big deal for work to be forgiven. I was assured that my child would be fine.
Unfortunately, things only got worse for my child. In high school, grades inexplicably hovered above failing in every single class, even though I knew for a fact that my child was not doing any work at all.
Instead of taking away the mobile phone in class as I requested—a necessary safety feature since my child rode a bike to school—my child was permitted to remain distracted by it during the entire school day.
Hoping for a voice in shaping school policies, I once again joined my child’s SBDM Council. Unfortunately, my experience with the high school SBDM Council has been even less impactful than with the middle school council. By the time our council is briefed on issues, the topics we vote on have already been discussed at the principal’s executive committee. I get the sense that we are expected to be a rubber stamp.
My parent-involvement experiences have left me more disheartened than before about parents’ ability to make an impact in their school, much less their district.
I see that impressive educational standards have been written for anyone to read online. But achievement of those standards is dependent upon each teacher to adapt a weak local curriculum to meet those standards. What if a teacher is lazy or ignorant? Too bad for those students.
I see that SBDM councils were established by well-intentioned leaders from the past to give parents a way to impact their schools. But the councils are really at the mercy of decisions already made by executive committees and the school board.
I see that my district has established an Equity Council with lofty goals and is even paying an Equity Officer a handsome salary. But unless parents’ recommendations fit the Equity Council’s priorities, parents find themselves at a dead end.
I see that my district is spending $15,000 per student – more than most private schools – but 50-70% of our kids are graduating with an inability to read or do math at an eighth-grade level.
I firmly believe we have some great teachers and administrators within my district and that the majority of people who work for the district are well-intentioned people. However, I am concerned that perhaps we’ve gotten our eyes off of student performance, focusing instead on the money that fuels the engine. However, if we push students through our education system without actually filling them with fuel of their own, they may stall out by way of joblessness, hopelessness, and the behaviors that follow these.
Gretchen Vaught is the mother of four children, who have motivated her to be an active advocate for them and all Kentucky students. She has served on SBDM councils, is a Prichard Committee fellow, and was secretary of a sub-committee of her school district’s Equity Council. She resides in Lexington and works as a senior communication consultant.