Free online course arms parents with basics to get involved in education issues

June 12, 2014

Ed100 walks parents through a range of California school issues and policies in 10 chapters divided into manageable subsections.

A joke around Sacramento is that it takes a Ph.D. in Proposition 98 to understand how California schools are funded and governed.

The truth is that a good short course is probably all that’s needed for the basics of California’s complex education policies. And now there is one –

Created by Jeff Camp, a former Microsoft Corp. manager and a longtime champion of public involvement in schools, is a free, 10-chapter online course that people can explore and complete at their own pace. The California PTA and the Full Circle Fund in San Francisco partnered with him.

The goal, said Camp, is to cut through education jargon and help prepare parent leaders – and parents who may not yet know that they’ll be called on to be leaders – with basic information they need “to be influential and smart.” At that stage, they’ll be able to “confidently interact with anyone who makes decisions on education,” he said in an interview.

Camp, who is a parent himself, went through the process a decade ago when he wanted to know more about education policies. He said he constantly felt as if he were jumping into the middle of a book – without context and background, let alone knowledge of the acronyms that educators and policy makers tend to use – to understand the nature of the issues and conflicts. Camp served on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence, which recommended significant changes in governance and finance in 2008. He also chairs the Education Circle of the Full Circle Fund, which encourages its members to take on a project to improve schools in the Bay Area.

Camp started the Ed100 website two years ago and now, with the help of Mary Perry, a former deputy director of EdSource and expert on California school governance, and Carol Kocivar, an attorney and past president of the state PTA, has updated and relaunched it as a formal course. The timing, with the shift of control over spending and policy decisions from Sacramento to local districts, through the process of creating a Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP, is fortuitous, Camp said. The PTA has created a checklist, tied to the LCAP, that parents can use to do a detailed needs assessment of their school and make recommendations for improvements.

“Education standards, accountability and school finance systems are changing quickly,” he said. “The notion that accountability is in the hands of parents is a big switch. If communities are to succeed in the new role of holding the system accountable, parent leaders need to know some of the basics. Ed100 introduces these topics in a way that parents can engage on the basis of knowledge.”

Chapters and subchapters cover a range of issues related to students (who they are in California and what their needs are); teachers (preparation, pay, evaluation, collaboration); finances and resources (from Prop. 13 to the Local Control Funding Formula); governance (federal, state and local powers, the role of unions and foundations); and measurements of success (academic standards and standardized tests, college and career readiness).

An example is subchapter 2.2, on poverty and race. In 600 words it summarizes studies that found correlations between poverty, race and academic results. It includes a chart of international academic comparisons and a graph plotting the relationship between poverty and Academic Performance Index scores in California, with links to various research. The section presents an objective look at a complex subject. Reader comments are encouraged; in this case, UC Berkeley author and sociologist Bruce Fuller was the first to submit his.

Camp said it’s difficult to estimate how long it would take a person to complete the course. A parent worried about discipline in her school may focus on that section and fly past the subchapter on teacher pensions. Another reader may spend hours following the links on pension reform.

He’d like to see parents approach Ed100 as a book club, and go over the course together. The PTA agrees and referred to Shereen Walter, a PTA vice president for advocacy in Orange County, who said she plans to organize several Ed100 study groups in her district when school resumes in the fall.

By fall, Ed100 will be part of the course reading for an online Stanford University course, “Changing Education,” that Professor Susanna Loeb, director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis, will teach. Ed100 also plans to release a version in Spanish and video tutorials.

Financial supporters for Ed100 include Full Circle Fund, the Stuart Foundation,* the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation* and the Noyce Foundation.