COVID drove a wedge between parents and schools, and Texas must pull them back together

A good education has always required a partnership between parents, teachers and policymakers. That’s never been more apparent than in the era of COVID-19, and it should guide Texas as we determine the best way to educate future generations.

When the pandemic shuttered schools, parents rallied alongside teachers. Then, as education pivoted to online teaching, parents with broadband turned homes into classrooms. Despite these adjustments, learning during the pandemic was frustrating and often unproductive, leading to a significant drop in student reading and math skills.

Meanwhile, in many places, the partnership between elected officials, educators and parents grew strained. In Virginia, for instance, parents were shocked to hear a gubernatorial candidate say, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

In Texas and beyond, school board meetings have turned heated over conflicting concerns about curriculum, books and pandemic-related directions — often overtaking concerns about student achievement, mental health and broadband access.

In August, Texas 2036 polled Texas voters on numerous issues and found they shared an overwhelming concern about the state’s future. Such concern was particularly pronounced among parents: 54% of mothers with school-age children thought schools didn’t handle the pandemic well, and nearly twice as many parents described online learning as a “disappointment” or “failure” (50%) than a success (26%).

Worst of all, 52% of Texas voters polled said the state is in worse shape than it was this time last year; only 13% said the state is headed in a better direction.

If left unaddressed, growing frustrations will continue to drive headlines, elections and school board meetings. And perhaps more important, these forces threaten to distract us from what should be our single-minded purpose: student achievement. Given that more than 60% of Texas fourth graders cannot read or perform math at grade level, it’s time to get back to basics. It’s time to empower those who know the students best: parents.

Core to parents’ ability to engage in constructive conversations about their children is standardized assessment testing that can objectively show whether a school is meeting its obligations to children and helping them reach their full potential.

Parents need — and want — actionable and timely data on how their child is progressing; that empowers parents to have transparent conversations with educators. We can’t break the feedback loop by reducing or eliminating assessments. And when we get that data, we must be prepared to act on it.

Our polling shows that Texans want data about student learning and decisive action to follow when needed. Almost every parent polled (96%) thinks it’s essential to have standardized testing data so resources can be targeted to children needing support.

In addition, most parents we polled (84%) support quicker state interventions when a school fails to meet accountability standards. More than half think the state should intervene within two years rather than waiting the current standard, five. Finally, 82% of parents support allowing the parents of a child at a failing school, or a school that fails to adequately meet the child’s needs, to choose another school.

In a post-pandemic Texas, parents need a transparent accountability system with an honest depiction of how their child’s school is performing. At the same time, they also support systems that quickly force improvements or find more appropriate options to meet their child’s needs.

Parents want to help shape their child’s education. It’s time we listen and empower them to do so.

Margaret Spellings is chief executive of Texas 2036 and former U.S. secretary of education. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.