Parents are using online tools to push on schools

growingupassumingyoucanpublishThe Washington Post recently published a really interesting article on the ability of well-connected parents to influence the decisions of their local school districts (hat tip to The Science Goddess). The term ‘well-connected’ refers to parents’ abilities to use online tools to communicate and mobilize (rather than to their connections to people with power).

The article highlights several different online communities of parents and has some great quotes:

We are not our moms, who were just involved in the PTA. . . . To expect us to show up and just make photos or write checks does not sit well with this generation.


It used to be that the superintendent and the School Board made decisions and said, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’ and the community would accept that.


Many school systems ‘are still responding to 21st-century parents with 20th-century approaches.’

Below are a few examples of parents pushing back on their local school systems. Parent tools include blogs, online petitions, and even administration countdown timers! I’ve linked to individual posts but you can click on the headers to see the blogs in their entirety.

Be sure to also read about the New York City Department of Education ‘truth squad,’ whose job it is to ‘scour a group of 24 education Web logs, e-mail Listservs and Web sites in a hunt for factual errors and misinformation.’

Dean Shareski, Will Richardson, and Alec Couros, among others, have blogged about the importance of trying to manage one’s ‘digital footprint’ or digital identity. However, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, in their excellent book, Born Digital, note that “Social identities are much richer, more varied, and more persistent – AND FAR LESS UNDER OUR CONTROL – than ever before” (p. 34; emphasis added). In other words, now that everyone can have a voice, we have a lot less control over what gets said about us than before, and what does get said is more visible and findable than ever.

Online communication technologies have greatly amplified the abilities of parents to voice their opinions and mobilize for desired change. Activist parents now have a bevy of new tools and strategies to help facilitate their agendas and they are not afraid to use them. School organizations are going to have to get used to this new state of affairs in which parent activism and criticism are more public, permanent, and far-reaching. I’m pretty sure that most school leaders haven’t really thought about this…

What are your thoughts on this? If you’ve got an example of a parent group in your area leveraging online social tools to advocate for change in its local schools, please share!

Image credit: lynetter

15 Responses to “Parents are using online tools to push on schools”

  1. As parents we do have a greater ability to affect change on “hot” topics through the use of web tools. If we use these tools responsibly we can help move the entire system into the 21st century.

    The concern expressed in the article over the digital divide where only select parents have access to information is a red herring. While it is true that 100% of parents will not be “well connected”, the 80 – 90% who are connected have the potential to come to more balanced, democractic decisions than the 2% who used to have all the power.

    All that said, I think the greatest potential for online communication tools is to have parents more engaged in the everyday workings of schools and classrooms. Providing parents a connection to what our children are learning everyday and drawing us into the learning equation is where the best potential for true change exists.

    Some positive examples of parents working collaboratively for change can be found at the Parents as Partners website ( or through the People for Education Ning (

  2. I certainly welcome the active involvement of parents in their children’s education, especially in the planning process. However, the examples from the Post article of “well connected” parents lobbying for change from the school board are pretty poor.

    The hot topics these very small and vocal groups of parents are all hot and bothered about right now in our district (we are the focus of the reporter’s story) are school start times for high school students and the grading scale. Both are relatively superficial issues which will likely do little to improve student learning (both sides have their studies!). But every little point counts when you’re trying to get your kid into Harvard.

    I would much rather see these parents put their energies into pushing for changes in the actual process of how we teach kids as well as the largely outdated and increasingly irrelevant curriculum, both of which are at the heart of American schools. Organizing to challenge the educational malpractice behind No Child Left Behind would be nice as well but that could be too much to ask.

  3. From the Post article:
    School officials “are always in the position of having to be defensive and to correct misinformation because they are not proactive,” she said.

    Yes, that is how our Board of Education & administrators characterize the Maryland Constitution – as misinformation. Our school system says that the document is old and out of date and therefore they are able to disregard the Constitutional mandate that student’s be supplied a free public education.

    Thank goodness for websites, blogs and Internet search capabilities so that parents all over the county can access the Constitution for themselves! Parents can then walk into their local schools armed with the law when presented with bills for their child’s attendance in public school classes. Parents in Montgomery County, Maryland now know that they are entitled to a free public education, even when the school administrators say otherwise.

  4. I brought this conversation up at Educon. Here’s the video archive.

    Here’s a link to the information that framed our discussion.

  5. Wow,

    As a 21st Century Parent of 21st century kids, I agree with the comment about 20th century approaches. I get so frustrated that my kid does his own YouTube videos about books he is reading and yet is told he doesn’t turn his homework in well enough. Also, could I please get said homework online somewhere so I can print it if…scratch that… when he loses it.

    As a 21st century Teacher and edutechnologist I do wonder about the value of expertise. I have spent a lot of time doing my very best to become the very best teacher and educator I know how and to have uninformed (sometimes) parents wag the dog is frustrating, however, I have been on the other side when no matter what we did to try to adopt a new (and I believe better) approach it was stonewalled by administrators and school boards. Our world it is a changin’ and all of us will have to reevaluate our work based on this new very public commentary on said work.

  6. I think this is a good situation. Parents communicating and being aware of what is going into their student’s education? It is what we have been asking for for years.

    There are a couple of things that can turn this into a royal pain.

    Time to respond to EVERY one’s problem is hard to come by. Please don’t treat everyone like they have several secretaries and all the time in the world.

    Occasionally, some of my ideas need some constructive criticism and I am OK with that. I just don’t want to be bullied by a stampede of half informed parents that haven’t fully studied the idea.

    I guess the world has changed. Be very clear about what you are doing and be clear up-front. Or as they say, “There is a fine line between leading the parade and being run out of town.”

  7. I know that I should just go to bed and that I shouldn’t ask this, but, well, here goes:

    Do these technologies and online abilities give parents too much control/too loud a voice/too much influence/too much whatever? I’m a teacher and future parent (he comes at the end of May) so I only have one view of this right now, but I worry about a “put parents in charge” mentality (isn’t there a law with that moniker? Or is it “put patients in charge”?).

    For whatever reason, I dislike the word “shareholders” but that is a fairly accurate description of what we are. But, are we all equal shareholders? Should we be equal shareholders? Should the (hopefully) experts that are trained to educate have more influence than parents? Should the parents who perceive a larger personal stake in the outcome have more influence?

    I think that as a society we equate the ability to educate with the ability to parent–I have a child therefore I know about education. I don’t think that’s true. Educators are trained professionals with a specialized skill set like any other trained professional. Theoretically, the trained professionals should have better ideas on what’s good for education within a community (better ideas–not only ideas, not best ideas, not perfect ideas). I know that a top-down system that tells parents “the way it’s going to be” isn’t productive or practical in the education system, but I’m also confident that I know more about assessment, pedagogy, management, motivation, etc etc etc than most parents.

    I guess that I’m wondering how much influence well-connected individuals should have versus well-trained professionals.

    Talk to me in 3 months and I might feel differently.

    • Hi Chris. Great questions.

      First off, I agree that STAKEholders is the wrong term for parents, educators, and community members. It IS too close to SHAREholders which deems education as purely an investment opportunity where by there are losers who go on to a life at the bottom. Education is more about developing and empowering a citizen to make the personal decisions (making gobs of money, doing great social service work, etc).

      Having parents with multiple means of communication is a good thing. Schools have long been disconnected from the community due to various reasons, some of their own doing, but most from the social engineering of the last 30 years that promotes disconnection through individualism and severe competition.

      This begs the question of if and how teachers are to respond and adapt to a tidal wave of parental interest. Perhaps that should be one more notch in the belt that needs to be loosened so that an authentic community can exist whereby teachers are held to a true professionalism, not some further form of alienation and hierarchy. That model has failed in so many areas of our society and economy.

  8. Scott wrote:
    Be sure to also read about the New York City Department of Education ‘truth squad,’ whose job it is to ‘scour a group of 24 education Web logs, e-mail Listservs and Web sites in a hunt for factual errors and misinformation.

    You know, I like the idea of parents holding schools more accountable and using digital tools to do so—after all, we are funded by taxpayer dollars. The community SHOULD have the right to a larger voice.

    I wonder if some of the controversy would be removed if schools did a better job communicating on their own. I find in our district that the only time things get controversial and heated is when our district hasn’t been aggressive enough about making their thinking on key issues transparent.

    Misinformation and confrontation really only starts and spreads in a vacuum, after all.

    In the end, it seems like this is yet another example of a situation where proactive steps could help schools to stay out of situations where they have to spend time, energy and resources reacting.

    And, sadly, we’ve always been better at reacting!

    Whaddya’ think?

  9. We often hear educators say they want public involvement. But what they usually mean is that deep down they mostly want their support.

    The Stock Mark Report linked to Scott’s post

  10. In my local school system, parents who felt the interests of a block of school board members were out of step with the needs of the community organized to put a stop to it. Through a letter writing campaign in the local newspapers (in print and online), through launching a local grassroots advocacy campaign (involving all the tools of email marketing, postcard mailing, autodialers, website, youTube, online surveys, etc.), through public testimony at school board work sessions, and through good old fashioned face-to-face meetings, the shape of local school politics and governance has been indelibly shaped.

    Is this ultimately a good thing for education? Hard to say. What is true is that this is the new reality facing local school governance. The good news is that sunlight can be spread on the decisionmaking processes of school boards and superintendents. The bad news is that those with parochial and special interests – if they are well-organized and savvy – could carry the day against a more moderate majority interested in the needs of the entire system.

  11. I agree with Bill. I have experienced the need to address issues brought up by constituents that have very little to do with student achievement. I think the other issue not mentioned here is that there are parents out there that are far more concerned about the grade their students have earned than they are about what they have learned. I have seen some very good teachers leave a school or even the profession due to parental pressure to lower their academic standards. Educational accolades without the knowledge they are supposed to represent. The grade without the learning.
    We don’t see patients entering their doctor’s office and want the doctor to tell them everything looks good when they have some terrible disease. Yet we have a great many parents that want the teachers to give their children an A without having learned the material.

  12. This is an interesting concept that has broader application and addresses an area of our education system I rarely see debated here… i.e. the nation’s universities! I am amazed at the continued reverence with which we hold university professors… and yet they remain among the poorest “teachers” in the nation. Both of my kids are in college and I am amazed at the antiquated instructional methods that are still used… when those of us in the K-12 system rooted them out long ago. Giant lecture halls, on-line classes (that really don’t harness the power of technology as much as they just provide the same canned powerpoint lecture without anyone actually having to show up!), no regard to learning style, cooperative learning, guided instruction, “Gradual Release”. Marzano? Are you kidding me? My daughter is taking Marine Biology at a college located 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean… guess how many times they are scheduled to go to the tidepools or Scripps Institute of Oceanography… or to watch the annual migration of the gray whales off of Point Loma or even Sea World! (Zero… that is correct). Perhaps this is the opening salvo in a concerted attempt to improve teaching and learning in our esteemed universities… especially since they are afforded such influence over the K-12 system. Shouldn’t they listen to parents too?

  13. Chris points out a good facet of the decision making process where a single answer is given by a single person that then lives or dies with it. I do believe that this type of leadership is eventually dying, although it is quite effective in its simplicity and quick response-less so in accuracy. Conversely, having every person who wants to chime in on any issue get their 10 minutes is enough to choke any process. There does have to be some level of professionalism mixed with experience and expertise to make a good decision.

    Opening up to ideas and comments is good when considered fully, including context and the person delivering. Does the same complaining person (read some of the excerpts and tell me they aren’t habitual whiners) automatically appear when there is a concern or a question of what/how to do something? The less invested in a situation, the more credibility a person can carry with me. Sounds backwards, right? How many times have people totally supported an effort, concept, or rule but then bucked the system when it was his/her specific son/daughter involved. People love to encourage tough rules and strict discipline for our kids (unless it becomes my child). Give me someone who doesn’t have a possibility of being affected in order to look at the fairness of a rule or procedure.

    Bill (with Dave’s blessing) hits the topic of transparency with a forward thinking approach, and I can say that is and has been important in my experience as well. Transparency can also include telling someone, “I can’t/won’t speak on that topic” or similar concept. This is very true when you are talking negotiations, reductions, etc. that affect people’s lives. Did it just the other day, and the response was, “Yeah, I understand. Good luck with the tough decisions.” Long-term transparency got us there, though.

    Mark says, “We often hear educators say they want public involvement. But what they usually mean is that deep down they mostly want their support.” Being one of these, I totally agree. I would like their support, and I would include viable discussion and dissent as “support” in making decisions and moving forward. Support isn’t blind, but it doesn’t attack either. There is where the difference for me is clearly important.

    Luckily, I feel like I am in a district that appreciates and supports collaboration with the backbone to make the final decision, knowing not everyone will be satisfied. Good public intentions, educator transparency, and a focus on students makes for good, effective working relationships.


  1. Helicopter Parents - January 11, 2011

    […] Dangerously Irrelevant post on parents who use online tools to make their wishes known to schools. In Grown Up Digital, Tapscott calles these folks “helicopter parents” and contends they not only attempt to influence schools, but also employers. I am guessing coaches have it the worst. As a college prof, the law gives us an out/requirement. When contacted by parents, we must suggest that we are not allowed to discuss student performance with anyone but the supposedly “adult” student. […]

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