EdNavigator Insight #5: No “Theory of Change” Will Work If It Doesn’t Work for Families

This week we’re sharing some of the insights we’ve gained through our work at EdNavigator, helping families with schools in New Orleans over the past year. Here’s what we’ve covered so far:

Insight #5: No “theory of change” will work if it doesn’t work for families

We started this week telling you about Maria and her daughter, to illustrate what a little help can do for a family. We’ll end by sharing another parent’s story. We’ll call her Kendra.

Like Maria, Kendra is a housekeeper at a downtown New Orleans hotel, and her employer provides her with support from EdNavigator as a benefit. One day this past school year, she visited the school where her daughter was a fourth grade student.  Kendra was dropping off a note asking her daughter’s homeroom teacher to call her so she could set up a meeting to discuss her daughter’s progress.  Her daughter was two grade levels behind in reading.  Prior to dropping off the note, Kendra had called the school four times to leave messages.  None of the calls had been returned. The teacher didn’t respond to the note either.

This may sound like nothing more than the story of a school that’s unresponsive to parents, the equivalent of a bad customer service experience. But for us, it’s more than that. To us, it shows that theories of how to improve our educational system won’t matter and won’t lead to change unless they work for families on a day-to-day basis.  This is the most important thing we’ve learned at EdNavigator so far.

Let us explain. If you read Eduwonk, you are probably well-versed in the various arguments related to New Orleans schools.  Some people argue the post-Katrina choice-based system has led to large, sustained improvements in performance and should become a model for the rest of the country.  Others say it’s still largely a low performing system and the process of creating it profoundly disrupted its workforce and community.

To be honest with you, most parents don’t care about that stuff.  They really don’t.  Nor do they care about Finland or Race to the Top.  Do you know what they care about?  They care whether schools return their phone calls when they are concerned about their kids.  They care whether schools are well run and welcoming.  They care about their kids’ results and growth, and whether their local schools are part of the solution for their family or yet another problem.  And they make that decision based on lived experience.

Kendra’s story provides a kind of Rorschach test.  Folks with concerns about the changes in New Orleans might immediately assume Kendra’s daughter attends a charter school and that the lack of school responsiveness proves the theory that charters are disengaged from families.

But the school in this case isn’t a charter.  It’s not even in Orleans Parish.  It’s a traditional school in a parish outside the city.  Kendra moved there hoping her daughter would get a better education than she had herself.  So far, she’s been wholly disappointed.

Upon hearing this, charter school supporters might feel that the story has vindicated their views on the post-Katrina reforms.  But that’s not the case either.  You see, before Kendra moved to where she lives now, she lived in Orleans Parish, and her daughter – the one who is two grade levels behind in reading – attended two different Orleans Parish charter schools. Kendra disliked them so much, she sacrificed significantly to leave the city.

Kendra works hard and is never late to her job, despite her commute.  She is a great mom to two girls.  She takes their education very seriously.  But the system is not working for her, whether we are talking about the “new” system or the “old” one.

Parents like Kendra don’t have time for competing theories of educational change.  This is likely why neither education reformers nor critics of education reform can claim much of a constituency in low income communities.  There aren’t that many grassroots rallies springing up in major cities, calling for the replication of the New Orleans system.  Nor do you see the opt-out movement making inroads to recruit families of color to boycott tests.  Those debates get outsized attention among those of us in the wonk-sphere.  But they aren’t what animate families.

All of us, no matter what set of educational priorities we subscribe to, ought to care a lot more about what happens for families when our favorite ideas are implemented. Because it’s a very mixed bag out there, folks.   At the moment, nobody has a monopoly on providing excellent experiences on the ground.  We theorists of all stripes have an awfully long way to go.

This year, our EdNavigator families have dealt with obstacles large and small, from being denied access to their children’s records to special education services that were never delivered to late buses that cost a parent wages because he clocks out from work every day to pick up his daughters at their stop.  Some of these issues were at traditional schools.  Some were at charter schools.  All of them were frustrating for families.

We continue to spend some of our time in the policy world and some of it on direct service.  The juxtaposition is striking.  For one thing, wonks and families draw conclusions differently.  Wonks declare policies successful or unsuccessful based on whether they improve academic outcomes across large populations.  They rarely know whether the process of getting those results also felt better to the families meant to benefit.  Wonks wait, sometimes for years, until “the data” come in.  Families make up their minds about whether changes are worthwhile based on their lived experience much sooner.  They may be dead set in one direction or another before “the data” arrive.

All of this leads us to conclude that we should re-balance our focus.  Systemic change is important and we should not back away from it. There’s no shortage of things that need fixing within our current education system. However, we’ve underinvested when it comes to earning the support of families for these changes—and making sure these changes actually have a positive effect on their lives.  As a result, parents have scant loyalty to any particular educational ideology. They care as much about the process as the results, and will form their opinions accordingly. So the next time a parent like Kendra calls a school four times trying to set up a meeting about her daughter, we ought to make damn sure she gets a call back.

Thanks for reading this week. If you’re interested in our work, subscribe to our blog updates and emails, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook. We try to offer a different perspective. In the coming weeks, we’ll share what we learned from Secretary of Education John King, Jr. and his wife Melissa about parenting (can you guess their daughters’ favorite children’s book?), tips on helping with homework, and more. We look forward to hearing from you.

Ariela Rozman, Timothy Daly and David Keeling are Founding Partners of EdNavigator (@ednavigate), a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that helps families give their kids a great education. www.ednavigator.com


5 Replies to “EdNavigator Insight #5: No “Theory of Change” Will Work If It Doesn’t Work for Families”

  1. Outstanding. As we open schools across the nation, educators should consider reading this story. It is important. It is an example of public school customer service. It is sad.

  2. Great stuff. This is a refreshingly clear appraisal of what matters in education. Thanks for your guest blogs this week.

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