When I was a high school principal, I was visited by many middle class parents asking favors for their children.  These favors included, to name a few, asking for their children to be moved to more popular teachers, asking that their children receive a better grade because the teacher was unfair assigning the original grade, asking for their children to drop a class after the drop date so their children’s GPA and transcript weren’t tarnished.  Although some of these requests were legitimate in my eyes, most cases were non-starters once the parents entered my office.  Many of these parents served on the high school’s parent-teacher organization, so they saw the above requests as a sort of “quid pro quo” in return for their participation in a parent-teacher organization that raised considerable amounts of money to contribute to the school’s improvement.

Although what I describe above are examples of negotiation, I think we all can agree these are examples of bad, bad negotiation.  What I found interesting is that, although many middle class parents participated in these types of bad negotiations, very few low income families did.  These families, many who had both mom and dad working several jobs to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, either didn’t know how to negotiate this way, or they understood the ethical problems associated with such negotiation.

What is needed now between the school and the family, no matter their economic situation, is the endorsement and practice of good negotiation, not what I describe above.  Whether you are a middle class or low income parent, there are negotiating skills that you need to know if you are going to be successful in helping your children find success inside these places called schools.  Here are several suggestions on how to carry the art of negotiation into your relationship with your school:

You Know Your Child Better Than Anyone – Because they are trained professionals, school people often believe they can diagnose problems and prescribe solutions for children without accounting for parent input.  This is a big problem when it comes to school relationships with low income families. This is a mistake, and parents, no matter their economic level, need to address this error early in their relationship with the school.  Saying “I know this kid better than anyone” is a great move at the beginning of the first conversation with school leadership, whether it be a teacher, principal, or central office personnel.

What Is My Child Learning? – This is a great question to ask schools after parents proclaim their expertise of knowing their kid better than anyone else.  Here’s some advice – don’t let the school answer this question by listing the subjects or courses your children are taking each day.  Parents must push schools to describe learning goals in detail, like “Your child is working on fractions this week. They are finding success with proper fractions, but struggling with improper.”

This type of specificity should apply to all skills the parent’s children are expected to learn.

How Do We Know My Child Is Learning? – This is one of the most important questions a parent can ask a school, and probably the one that most schools don’t know how to answer. The usual evaluative practice schools send home is the grade. Explaining grading practices is going to have to wait for a future blog, but suffice it to say most grades are extremely arbitrary.  Whenever you have teachers giving bonus credit for kids bringing toilet paper to school (See my past blog “Toilet Paper or Diploma – That Is the Question”), you know you have a serious problem legitimizing grading practices. My advice to parents, when thinking about answers to this question, is focus on demonstrations and explanations that prove competency.  Part of the reason schools rely on grades and standardized tests is that they don’t feel they have the time or the talent to move to a more competency-based evaluation system.  The Aurora Institute offers many excellent resources to help parents down the competency-based learning pathway.

What Do We Do When My Child Doesn’t Learn What They Need to Learn? – This is another important question for parents to pose to schools. The usual school answer to this question is to offer a failing grade.  WRONG!  Learners need time to learn difficult tasks, and most school pacing guides are designed around a testing calendar, not an individual’s need to learn.  Time and support are the answers parents are after when they negotiate with the school around this question. A ladder to success, or a learner-based intervention plan, will be a topic for a future blog.

Parents! Please start with this statement and three questions when beginning to negotiate with your children’s school.  And let Matt and I know how these questions and your school negotiations are working for you and your children.

There are other questions to share, but they will have to wait for a future blog posting.  Stay tuned!

If you want to learn more…consider two upcoming Podcasts

In next week’s podcast, I interview a 16-year-old girl who is living the self-directed learning experience. She happens to be my daughter, Olivia Barnes. 

Olivia Barnes: After “quitting school”

The following week, we’ll share an interview with a former admissions officer from Pomona College in California. We learn that she, and many admissions officers, look for a very different type of student. They are looking for — say it with me — self-directed learners. 

Pomona College

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