New Hampshire Views: In Lebanon, a promising effort to improve teaching
Although it is widely believed that engaged parents are essential contributors to good schools, it isn’t always clear how to accommodate their involvement when it extends beyond donating baked goods for fundraisers – particularly if they’re unhappy. When dissatisfied parents confront professional educators, the resulting dynamic often yields little more than frustration – for both sides.
Perhaps that’s why the ongoing interaction between a small group of parents calling itself, yes, the Lebanon Parents Association and Lebanon High School administrators is so striking: It seems to hold real promise for establishing an avenue for a constructive and productive relationship.
The moving force behind the parents group is Lou Maresca, whose focus is upgrading the quality of teaching at the high school. His motivation stems from the experience of his son who, before he graduated in June, endured some teachers whom Maresca describes, in no uncertain terms, as “horrid.”
In many circumstances, using that harsh of a description might signal yet another doomed effort. Professionals generally don’t react well to suggestions that they or their colleagues don’t meet the standards of their profession. But the Lebanon Parents Association has demonstrated much more than a willingness to speak candidly. Most important, the group has taken pains to not tar all high school teachers with the same brush. Maresca points out that most Lebanon High teachers are, in fact, skilled educators. Moreover, the group has identified several specific practices it believes amount to substandard performance, including teachers who devote too much class time to showing movies, fail to maintain adequate control of their classrooms or take too long to return student work to provide much educational benefit.
It’s hard to dismiss a group of parents who have: 1) targeted a legitimate issue (under-performing teachers); 2) identified factors that they believe contribute to the problem; and 3) made a special point of emphasizing that they have high regard for the majority of teachers.
And just as the parents deserve credit for making sure their effort doesn’t devolve into mere venting, school administrators are to be applauded for responding in kind by avoiding defensiveness and seriously engaging with the association. Administrators are quick to point out that an effort to improve the quality of instruction had, in fact, been underway long before the parents group formed. At the behest of the school board, Principal Nan Parsons established annual reviews of all teachers when she was hired seven years ago. More recently, a new administrative position was created that includes oversight of teaching as one of its responsibilities.
But the administrators do acknowledge that there are some teachers at the high school who are, to borrow a phrase now in vogue, in need of improvement. The administrators and parents group disagree about the magnitude of the problem, with the parents saying there may be as many as a dozen teachers who aren’t performing adequately, while the educators believe it’s only a handful. Needless to say, one is too many for any parent who becomes aware that a child’s class time is being squandered.
Considering the time and commitment required and the fact that parents’ engagement with a school is unlikely to last longer than their children’s enrollment, it’s not entirely clear that this effort will be sustainable. But even if it ends up being short-lived, the Lebanon Parents Association and Lebanon administrators deserve credit for providing a worthy model for how parents and professionals can work together on important educational issues.