New research from a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has found that parents of public school students in states with more extensive and stringent student assessment systems express lower trust in government, less confidence in government efficacy, and more negative views of their children’s schools, thereby threatening civic engagement and the potential for future education reform.
In a study, Learning Citizenship? How State Education Reforms Affect Parents’ Political Attitudes and Behavior, published by the journal Political Behavior, associate professor Jesse Rhodes merged data from an original survey of public school parents with quantitative measures of the scope and alignment of state standards, testing, and accountability policies, to determine whether and how education reforms influence the parents’ political attitudes and behaviors.
He found that highly developed assessment policies alienate parents from government and discourage parental involvement in education, an effect he terms “demobilization.” Parental trust in government was 11 percent lower in states with the most extensive assessment policies, and parental assessments of government effectiveness were 15 percent lower, compared to states with less developed testing polices.
Over the past decade, federal education policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have led states to develop and adopt education reforms, including content standards specifying what children should know and be able to do, assessments measuring student progress toward those standards and systems of policies holding schools accountable for performance. As years have passed these policies have extended to a greater number of subjects and a wider range of education levels, but there is considerable state-by-state variation in the policies.
While previous studies have examined how these policies affect student achievement, Rhodes’ research is the first to assess how they affect the citizenship practices of public school parents—a key education stakeholder.
“Today, with trust in government near an all-time low, government’s authority to accomplish collective objectives is arguably at low ebb,” Rhodes writes in the study. “My findings indicate that standards-based reform policies may be further threatening the foundation of public support that government needs to function effectively.”
In addition to their negative views of government, Rhodes also found that parents in states with more developed assessment systems were less likely to become engaged in some parental involvement behaviors, especially contacting teachers and participating in school fundraisers. The likelihood that parents would contact their children’s teachers was 17 percent lower in states with the most stringent testing policies, and the chance they would participate in school fundraisers was 28 percent lower. Parents residing in states with more developed assessment systems were more likely to attend their local school board meetings, but Rhodes argues that this involvement is stimulated by anger and dissatisfaction with the perceived negative consequences of state assessments.
He argues that these policies tend to depress civic engagement among parents because they provide few opportunities for parental input and can introduce undesirable changes into schools.
“My findings suggest that a major reassessment of standards, testing, and accountability policies is necessary,” Rhodes concludes. “At a minimum, standards-based reforms must be redesigned so that they engage parents more directly in the process of policy design and administration and allay parental concerns about counter-productive consequences. However, given the seriousness of the problems identified here, it is possible that an even more searching reevaluation of the standards-based agenda is necessary. Today, the question for policymakers and citizens is how to design education policies that advance the objective of high achievement for all students while strengthening the practice of citizenship for all adults.”