TAMPA — When asked to describe a good teacher, John Leroe thinks of his mother.
"She was an English teacher for 46 years," said the father of three in Citrus Park. "She was very creative, and she encouraged her students to be creative. She may have been a little too lenient. But her students did very well."
Parents such as Leroe, through their children, have an enormous stake in whether teachers are retained, promoted or dismissed for poor performance. They are watching as Florida lawmakers make teacher performance their cornerstone of education reform.
Some wonder if they should be part of the process.
"Teachers judge parents by the way their kids are," Leroe said. "We should be able to judge them, too."
Others are sharply divided on whether they are qualified to offer a valid opinion.
Valrico mother Leslyn Williams said she would like to see teachers held to standards. "If you're not working up to par, why should they keep you?" she said. "In any corporation or job where you are not working up to par, you can lose your job."
Still, she wonders if it's even possible to bring parents into the process, given their subjectivity and widely different degrees of education. "I don't know how they could do that fairly," she said.
While no one is offering parents a central role, lawmakers mentioned parental input in the education reform bills now moving through both houses of the Legislature.
The Hillsborough County School District, a trailblazer with the Gates-funded Empowering Effective Teachers program, is looking at ways to incorporate parent input as well.
But officials in Hillsborough worry that if they do not collect sufficient data on every teacher, it will not be reliable.
"The entire issue is pretty complex if it is really incorporated into the evaluation process," said David Steele, chief technology officer for the Hillsborough district and point person for the Gates project.
Many parents might be surprised to learn that under state law, they already have a right to voice their opinions.
"Parents have always had an avenue to add their input into teacher evaluations," said Lisa Grant, director of professional development for the Pinellas County schools.
They can write letters to the principal, who is supposed to consider that information when evaluating the teachers — especially if there is a pattern of either parent satisfaction or complaint.
And schools are supposed to provide survey forms that parents can fill out, although these are voluntary and deal largely with the overall school climate.
"I was never aware of that," said Williams.
A lot of parents aren't. Grant and Steele, who both have worked as principals, said people rarely used the survey forms.
What's more, they said, there is a world of difference between reading random surveys and letters, and including parents formally in teacher assessments.
In Citrus Park, parents at a recent elementary school movie night voiced similar reservations.
"A parent who has a large number of volunteer hours might be able to do it," said Lisa Cooper, a mother of three. "But even they don't really know."
So much depends on how a child meshes with the teacher's style, said Tina DeJongh, who has two school-age children. "You can get, in the younger grades, someone who simply loves a teacher, even though that teacher may not be very effective."
There also is age to consider.
"Parents of younger children seem to know more about the teachers than some of the middle school and high school parents, unless they are helicopter parents," said Susan Edgerley, whose daughter is an International Baccalaureate student at Tampa's Robinson High School. In the older grades, "you're at the mercy of what your children tell you."
At Bryan Elementary School in Plant City, fifth-grade teacher John Perry said he would not mind parent input if it was limited to questions a parent can answer objectively.
A good question, he said, is: "Does the teacher communicate with me about my child's progress?" Or: "When I call or e-mail, does the teacher get back with me?"
Beyond those parent-centered issues, he said, it is hard to imagine getting a reliable assessment.
"The vast majority of parents will tell you if their child is happy, they're happy," he said. "They don't necessarily know how to teach."
Nor is there consistency in parental attitudes, he said.
Those in one socioeconomic group might be active participants in the school and classroom. Those in another might ignite loud arguments in the principal's office. The school where he works now has a large immigrant community, and parents tend to defer to school authority.
"And the administration makes a difference," he said. Some principals send a clear message that they will back their teachers, while others do not, he said.
Some parents will complain "if they know they will get away with it."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.