Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) are doing it wrong. They spend too much time and energy on things that don’t matter for our kids’ education, and they leave out many of the people who desperately want to help.
PTAs spend too much time on things that don’t improve education.
Many PTAs hold elaborate fundraising events and enlist students to sell products to friends and family. This type of fundraising has gotten way out of hand. Maybe you’ve seen the form created by a North Texas PTA, with options like, “I am making this donation to express my appreciation for having nothing to buy, sell, or do except fill out this form.” The parents at that PTA are heroes for promoting this “just send money” approach. Fundraising events have a lot of overhead, and selling products is inefficient. My advice for parents: Don’t make your kids sell things door-to-door; just make sure they get their homework done and then let them play outside or read a book. Your coworkers and neighbors will thank you.
Bake sales are not worth your time. Cut the carbs and go straight for the pork: the Texas Legislature, I mean. Even a spectacularly successful school fundraiser is a drop in the bucket compared to the state’s biennial education budget of roughly $40 billion. Civic involvement is key to making an impact on education budgets and standardized testing. Register to vote, and vote in every election you can, including primaries, runoffs, and special elections. During legislative sessions, January through May in odd-numbered years, contact your representative and senator about issues that are important to you. Tour the capitol and visit their offices. Go to a rally. Attend school board meetings and neighborhood meetings of your city elected officials.
Does spending more money on education make schools better? That question sparked a lively discussion at the recent Outside the Lunchbox luncheon, hosted by The DoSeum and featuring Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. Ripley’s book looked at studies comparing education systems around the world and found that the United States spends more money per student than most other countries, with merely average results. In the United States, a substantial amount of money is spent on classroom technology like smartboards and tablets. However, American students are being outperformed on international tests by students in many countries with low-tech classrooms.
Ripley presented another controversial idea, backed up by research. When you look at the parents who volunteered for their children’s extracurricular activities, you might be surprised to learn that their children scored lower on reading tests. Why? We all believe that parental involvement is a good thing. What seems to make the difference is how parents are spending their time. Fundraising and extracurricular activities do not seem to help.
So, what does help? Reading. Parents reading to their kids, parents talking with their kids about what they read, and kids seeing their parents read for pleasure. Ripley gets text messages reminding her to go to school fundraisers; she wishes the school would send reading tips instead. (Find reading tips in these Alamo City Moms Blog posts: summer reading, boys’ books, tween books, holiday books, and school libraries.)
PTAs should help create a culture that values learning. Many PTAs are already doing this by holding parent workshops on topics like math and science. But they could do a better job of signaling what’s really important. Parents have a limited amount of time every day. Before assisting with fundraising or extracurriculars, parents should make sure their kids do their homework. If needed, do extra drills on math facts or phonics. They should teach young children to tie their shoelaces, and take teenagers to college fairs. They should place reasonable limits on screen time and help their kids get enough sleep.
PTAs and parents need to stay focused on the mission of making sure that every student graduates with a strong grasp of the basics: reading, writing, and math. That may not be as much fun as planning a party, but it’s what really matters for our children’s futures.
PTAs create too many barriers for parents, especially working parents, who want to participate.
Signals matter. When PTA meetings are scheduled during the workday, it sends a message to working parents that they are not welcome. General meetings should be held after the workday. Period.
For planning meetings, try to accommodate working parents. Get together early in the morning—right after dropping the kids off at school—or over the lunch hour. Use online tools like Doodle for scheduling and Skype for virtual meetings.
To recruit volunteers, don’t just bring a signup sheet to the general meeting; use online tools like VolunteerSpot and SignUpGenius to include more families. Although some volunteer jobs need to be done on campus during the school day, other tasks can be sent home. For example, my daughter brought home a stack of construction paper for me to sort by color.
Other tasks can be done by a working parent on a coffee break. For example, at my daughter’s school, a Kindergarten room parent used her work computer to make a beautiful flier for our next picnic; she has a full-time job in a design field.
In addition to working parents, PTAs should welcome dads. While researching this blog post, I learned about a wonderful organization, WATCH D.O.G.S. (D.O.G.S. = Dads of Great Students), that brings fathers, grandfathers, and uncles on campus for full-day volunteer shifts. Some employers grant time off work for WATCH D.O.G.S.
PTAs should be inclusive of diverse families of all races, ethnicities, and religions; of families with two dads or two moms; and of families with single parents, stepparents, grandparents, and adoptive parents.
I’ve written before about not letting money get in the way of friendships. Likewise, PTAs need to be inclusive of wealthy, middle class, and poor families alike. Debra Monroe, a writer who lives in Austin, wrote a chilling account of a PTA dominated by elite parents. You may have read about a school carnival in New York that excluded students whose families could not pay the $10 fee. PTAs should be inclusive, not exclusive. PTAs should not even charge membership dues.
Is there room for compromise? Yes. Here are my proposals for better PTAs:
- Do a modest amount of fundraising, using the “just send money” approach of that brilliant North Texas PTA. Then, spend the money where it will have an immediate impact on morale (e.g., giving teachers gift cards to set up their classrooms, stocking the teachers’ lounge with coffee and snacks, and pooling funds for gift cards as holiday bonuses and teachers’ gifts).
- Coordinate volunteers to help in the workroom with repetitive tasks, which will free up teachers’ time for academic planning.
- Hold community-building events that have a low cost and are accessible to all (e.g., park playdates, picnics, potlucks, and parent-led field trips).
- Bring parents together to learn about ways to help their children learn (e.g., curriculum workshops, parenting classes, and book clubs).
- Organize community service activities (e.g., a shift at the San Antonio Food Bank or a park cleanup day).
- Communicate by every available means: email, social media, and also paper fliers sent home in backpacks.
If you are currently a leader or member at your kids’ school’s PTA or PTO, or are thinking of joining, please take a long, hard look at what your organization is doing. Change can come from within. It’s important to create a culture that values learning complex academic material and is sensitive to all of our differences. This will provide our children the best chance to succeed in life—and really, isn’t that the point?