Do we need better parents?

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If we want our children to perform better academically, we need “better parents.” That’s what Tom Friedman wrote, perhaps ironically, on November 19 in the New York Times. The column provoked hundreds of readers to comment, and those comments provide insights into just how far apart we are as a nation, at least when it comes to public education.

Friedman cites an OECD study that reveals that “Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.” (My use of the verb ‘reveals’ is my effort at irony, in case you are wondering.)

Friedman cites another study, “Back to School,” from the American School Board Journal, which says that, when parents are involved in children’s learning, the kids do better. “Monitoring homework; making sure children get to school; rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to college. These parent actions are linked to better attendance, grades, test scores, and preparation for college,” the study reports. It adds that these things matters more than attending PTA meetings, volunteering in classrooms, or helping raise money for the school.

There is a certain “Duh” factor — yes, involved parents make a difference in their children’s education — but what struck me was the heat and intensity of the responses, some of which I am excerpting below.

A few readers responded to Mr. Friedman’s comments about ‘better parents’ by changing the subject and preaching about the need for ‘better teachers.’

Janet of Salt Lake City was an early responder who wrote, in part: We need to place the responsibility for teaching squarely where it lies — on the teachers. A great teacher can teach anything to any child. Rather than wishing to turn every parent into the perfect parent, a goal that can’t be achieved, we need to provide the training and salaries that will attract the best and the brightest of our college graduates into a career in public education.

Moreover, suggested another respondent from Salt Lake City, SThomas: It’s the fault of the schools that parents aren’t involved. He wrote, in part: Unfortunately, most of these uninvolved parents were educated in the same school systems that are now failing our children, so naturally they lack the kinds of skill sets needed to instill in their children a thirst for learning. And it’s a vicious cycle: these same parents will then go on to elect next year’s school board members who will determine next year’s under-performing curriculum when compared to the rest of the world, thus setting up their children for failure in an ever-changing world.

Many readers attacked Janet, often in a ‘what planet are you living on?’ vein.

Persam1197 of NY was pretty typical: Janet, you said: ‘The public school system of every community has the responsibility to teach every student, regardless of the quality of the home life.’ I agree wholeheartedly, and that’s why placing the burden and responsibility of squarely on teachers as you suggest is misguided. It takes a village to raise a child, and, until our communities accept responsibility for our children, expect more of the same.

Do mom and dad need to improve?

Predictably, teachers — like Malcolm in Pennsylvania — responded defensively to the being criticized. I have taught in public schools for more than 20 years, in an inner city and in a rural setting. I wouldn’t mind being held highly accountable for achievement in children I see for 150 hours a year (50 minutes a day for 180 days) if the parents who are responsible for them the other 8,610 hours out of the year were also held highly accountable. “Accountable” means more than showing up for a 10-minute parent conference once a year.

A more common response, however, was supportive of Mr. Friedman’s point, often with hand-wringing. Here’s what Judy C of Phoenix wrote:

It goes without saying that when parents are actively involved in their children’s education, the children do better. Unfortunately, for many reasons, a lot of parents are uninvolved, and the raising of the child is essentially left up to the school. Sure, there’s nothing better than a good teacher; but really, a child’s primary, and most important, educator is his or her parent. Parents need to step up.

Don Myers of Connecticut agreed: How the parent respects learning is the key to how the child perceives and respects learning. Learning is a 24/7 deal not just limited to the school and related activities. We treat the school with disdain and with no more respect than we do the baby sitter.

Dale, a former teacher in Idaho, suggested that parents actively instill anti-school attitudes in their children: Many students regard school and their teachers as adversaries.

Jim G in DC agreed: Hostility toward education does not come from the great teacher. It comes from the parent, or from the lack of a parent. We must break the cycle of poor student performance in economically disadvantaged homes, and we cannot expect the preschoolers in those homes to do the fixing. The parents must change.

Which prompted a question from Josh Hill in Connecticut:

Sure, but how do you improve the parents?

If the challenge is to improve parents, whose job would that be?

Susan of Eastern Washington noted that “Parents often do not acknowledge that they, and not any school, are ultimately responsible for their children’s educations.”

Why is this happening? Do parents not know they are responsible, are they aware but incapable, or are they willfully ignoring their responsibilities to their children in their mindless pursuit of money and status? (Those were all popular explanations, by the way.)

None of the comments I read addressed what to me is a critical issue, and that is a false distinction between ‘education’ and ‘schooling,’ a distinction that I believe has been perpetuated and reinforced by many educators. That is, too many educators act as if they are in charge, a kind of “Leave your children — and your tax dollars — at the schoolhouse door, and don’t bother us.”

(Many superintendents and principals then set up ‘parent involvement committees’ and other patronizing activities that actually reinforce the barriers between parents and schools. It’s like saying ‘yes, we will let you be involved in your children’s education, but only through channels and by serving on committees.’ No wonder so many parents are fed up with educators!)

So what’s to be done? Ken of Hobe Sound (FL) suggested that “One powerful change a parent from an at-risk family can apply to transform their child’s defeatist approach to school is to become very involved in their student’s education on a daily basis.”

Bingo! But how can that happen? Mr. Friedman quotes from his conversation with Andres Schleicher of OECD:

“Just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring. It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”

Sure, every parent can do that if they know they’re supposed to, but I believe that schools and teachers can actually make that happen, organically and naturally, with a carefully designed curriculum in the early grades that continues up through secondary school.

I have written about this elsewhere but here’s a short summary: beginning in kindergarten, teachers should create ‘homework’ that involves the parents or guardians of their students. It can be as simple as asking Mom or Dad about their favorite movie for the first-grader’s ‘show and tell’ the next day. Early writing assignments can be on family-connected topics: What was Mom’s favorite food growing up, and why? What was the first trip Dad or Grandma took? Why is XX your favorite (athlete, actress, political leader)? And so on. And this is not a one-off but a routine, at least once every week.

This works for math as well, with shopping and cooking and anything else that involves numbers.

When ‘homework’ is organic, the families cannot help but ‘fulfil their responsibilities, but not in an ‘eat your peas’ way. Parents will want to see what their children write, and what the teacher writes on the paper. More connections emerge.

I am thankful that we live in a country where we can speak freely, but in public education the ‘them versus us’ approach isn’t working. We all can and must get better, but finger pointing won’t get us there.

34 thoughts on “Do we need better parents?

  1. Parenting is so different than when I was a child in the early 60s in elementary school. There were very few “single parents”. One parent (usually the father) was the breadwinner and mom stayed home to cook, clean, be a Blue Bird Leader and PTA President (my mom). My sisters and I were read to as toddlers. My mother, as many mothers probably did at that time, mail-ordered Dr. Seuss books and we were passionate users of the Arrow Book Club through school.

    What was not happening at home was a mountain of homework. I never brought home work in elementary school except for an occasional essay or book report. I never took books home. I was a good student and received high grades. I never thought to ask my parents to help me with homework – it was MY work.

    Teachers taught AT SCHOOL. I remember in first grade being involved with, what I now realize was the teacher’s assessment of our reading skills. She would take a small group of no more than 5 of us at a time (in a classroom with 25-30 kids) and while the rest of the class would be doing some form of written work or art projects – I can’t remember – we would read out loud in these small groups and she’d determine our skill levels. She would then create reading groups from these assessments and we’d still be in small groups of no more than 5, but at comparable levels of skill so she could really concentrate on helping based on her little groups of good, fair and poor reading levels.

    We also would have student teachers who stayed in one room with one teacher for at least a year. This same student teacher would sometimes be hired at the school where she “practiced” her skills. Made sense – she already worked with the faculty and knew the kids.

    My parents helped with annual fairs and attended PTA meetings. Fund raising was never at the frantic and desperate level we see it now. It was always supplementary. It was to provide “extras”.

    Now, both parents (if families are set up that way) work or children live with a grandparent who is on a pension and retired, or is homeless or in foster care. Parents nowadays don’t have time to do what they used to in the past. Schools demand more from them than they did of my parents.

    Students have too much busy work disguised as “homework” that takes time away from what little supposed “quality” family time is available. Children should not be carrying heavy backpacks full of books and notebooks when they should be doing this work at school. The only item I would bring back and forth from home to school as an elementary student was my lunchbox. My parents would be stunned at what is expected of parents today. It’s the school’s job to teach. Teaching should be done at school. Kids need to decompress and just noodle around sometimes. This doesn’t happen anymore. We live in fear. We don’t let our children explore. Their lives are so structured they don’t know how to really relax.

    Life is different now. Parents have so much more stress and many more obligations to their time than ever. We all need a break. Teachers aren’t bad. Parents aren’t bad. We’re just allowing business interests determine how and what schools should be teaching children so they can sell their products. Our children aren’t learning – they’re being “processed” through an overabundance of testing (to help support the testing industry).

    Children need to sing, dance, laugh and learn how to play well with others. All of my K, 1st, 2nd & 3rd grade teachers had a piano in our classroom (and knew how to play it). Every week all the grade levels would take turns in the auditorium (all first graders together, etc) and learn folk songs which also taught us history. We learned square dancing and other types of dancing and had festivals to show off our skills for parents. Learning was fun. It’s not fun anymore because those things are gone or will be soon.

    I don’t know why, but we’ve squeezed the life out of public education. It’s not the fault of parents nor teachers. Our leadership has been tearing it down, year by year, until our educational system is now a pale shadow of what it once was. Shame on all of them for strangling the joy out of education. Shame on them for blaming everyone but themselves. Fully fund IDEA. Dismantle NCLB. Allow real academics and educators to create programs that don’t turn our children into widgets for test-taking industrialists. We can still salvage it. But it took years to get into this mess – it will take as long or longer to get it back into a system that works for all children.


    • I have similar memories. Some districts have tried to cap hours of homework. That’s a story we will have to do for the NewsHour. Great comments…


      • the amount of homework can be crushing. So can be the pressure to take ever more demanding courses. On this I am going to suggest a film that I have heard Tom Friedman condemn (which is part of why I think he does not understand education), and that is Vicki Abeles’ Race to Nowhere. I teach in a school where some of our students graduate with more than ten AP courses. They feel pressured. When we showed the film more than a few acknowledged feeling burnt out by all the work.

        I am not a parent. I see some parents who are uninvolved to be sure. I also see too many parents who are TOO INVOLVED – that is, they micromanage their kids, they regularly intervene on their behalf, they sometimes do the work for the children – yes, that happens and it is not that hard to spot.

        I am in my 17th year of teaching. It may be my last, given my age (turning 66 in May). Every year I have taught I call all my parents at the start of the year. I try to be in regular contact at least via email. It is close to impossible when you have over 170 students, as I do in my 6 classes.

        The education of a child is a collaborative effort. It includes school personnel and parents, to be sure. But at least at the high school level part of the responsibility has to be that of the students. Is it not far better to let the child experience what happens when s.he does not take responsibility in the safer environment of a school so s.he can learn how to take responsibility than to allow the child to go forward believing that someone – parent, administrator, even teacher – is going to provide a rescue?

        Just a few thoughts from a classroom teacher.


      • I think that film is worth seeing but only as a contrast to what is happening is so many poorer districts and schools. It is a perfect example of our resources and effort are over invested in one group of kids and many other children have few adults if any that are urging them to do higher level thinking. In fact the education debate may mirror the health care debate in this respect. Why are we paying so much for such a poor outcome.


  2. Blaming parents for the success or failure of their child as a general statement is blaming the victim rather than the policies and practices of the schools. We (the general public) still accepts the educational objectives of the 19th century based on the storage and retrieval of information as the exercise of short-term memory, which I characterize as a dedication to teaching children what to learn when the more pressing human development issue is helping students understand how to learn. Human beings are designed by nature to be learners not simply storage and retrieval information devices. The problem lies with the policies and practices of the 19th century which are still being imposed on 21st century students. Teachers do what they are told because it is how an industrialized school system manages its minions. Even when more and more teachers realize that these practices don’t serve the intellectual lives of the students the metrics of the public school classroom measures information retention not cognitive development and uses that metric to judge students as well as teachers. Sadly, the mass of data and insights gained from a neurophysiology of brain science and human cognitive development has had little of no impact on public school policies and practices. Schools are still firmly anchored in the 19th century in terms of school performance. Parents and teachers are simply pawns in the games of a flawed public school system which is in denial of its own dysfunctionality.

    Blaming the poor and abused for not conforming to the standards of the dominant society is a way of avoiding the racist and oppressive impulses of the larger society. From slavery to industrialism the schools have been the instrument of indoctrination and conditioning used to control those marginalized by persistent poverty and racism.

    The miracle is that in spite of the malfunction of the schools so many of these children not only survive but thrive. Mr Friedman is not simply naive about the lives of the poor and the pressures that industrial society imposes on their lives, he is indifferent to the hurdles that a racist society places in the lives of the poor. A more equitable society might solve many of the problems he cavalierly attributes to the marginalized human discards of the modern industrial society.


    • “Human beings are designed by nature to be learners not simply storage and retrieval information devices.”
      Well said!! It’s what I call ‘regurgitation education,” and it’s killing us…


      • and we are seeing ever more of “regurgitation education” as a result of two decades of wrong-headed educational policy, including from this administration.

        Too much of what is occurring is passive learning, with children becoming turned off to school at ever younger ages.


  3. In response to Sonja, I also grew up in the sixties but I had tons of homework, hours of it in fact. Like you , I never asked for help on it from my mom, I did it myself. And I never would have dreamed of not doing it!
    Today, children show up at school without their homework complete and think nothing of it. Parents don’t support the teacher, they argue with them about every little thing. (I know, I am a teacher and have been one for the last 25 years) It seems to me, at least in the area that I teach in, that parents want the teacher to do it all, except they don’t want their children to have any negative consequences, for anything.
    And the teacher can’t do it all in school. There are just not enough hours in the day. Yes, we continue to fall behind the other developed nations, but that is because no one wants to give up this archaic schedule we follow. Children need to be in school more hours and more days. We do not live in an agricultural society anymore so entire summers do not need to be scheduled off.
    If everyone would leave their agendas and egos at the door and really open up for an intelligent discussion of what is best for the children, maybe education would change. Until then, I don’t see much positive change occuring.


    • To Kathy: I was speaking more of elementary school, especially K-6. By 7th grade there was homework, but on a weekly, not daily basis. High school was more homework intensive, but nothing like what I see now. I remember one Thanksgiving about 4 years ago where my niece had too much homework to join us for the full day of our out-of-town visit. Stressed to depression, she later sought out psychiatriactric care & medication (& dropping one of her 4 advanced placement classes). It pains me to see smart, capable students driven to depression over homework.

      Another problem you bring up that has been mentioned, but not nearly enough done about it is a huge factor: lack of proper after school programs. As the parent of a student with special needs and a parent advocate for others in LAUSD we fought against our mayor’s attempt to take over LAUSD in 2005. Our Special Education Community Advisory Community wrote to him (he never replied) & I spoke out at a town hall we forces on him through then state rep Jackie Goldberg (he dodged real dialogue going to the state in attempts to end-run the city charter).

      I asked in the letter & at the town hall (where he walked out before thee public comments) why he didn’t do more in his capacity as mayor to help schools and families. Provide jobs for families so children can come to school well fed & ready to learn. Provide more (& high quality) after school programs so children can have a safe haven until families come home from work. Provide affordable health clinics in or near schools. Police presence in difficult neighborhoods so children can walk to and from school without fear. There is so
      much our government has failed to provide that used to be there. LAUSD must now spend a huge chunk of their budget on thier own police force because the city fails to provide cursory patrol. That money could & should go back into education.

      I agree that the school day should be longer to provide that safe haven, with educational supports, after school. Parents work 7:30 am to 5,6 pm & later. We need to support them outside school so their children can succeed. Many problems blamed on teachers or parents are due to lack of community supports for families. There is no safety net. A child who sees drug deals and witnesses abuse or even murder will not be an attentive student. Many of our children (& their families) need access to counseling services to help them cope with the daily challenges in their lives.

      As a member of our CAC over 10 years now (8 in leadership positions) I work with families who are 200 to 400% below the poverty level. They are well-intentioned or they would not come to meetings looking for help and training. They cannot solve all the problems they face without a little help from outside…and there is very little for these children. Of the almost 80,000+ students with IEPs in LAUSD, 90% are Title I students.

      I have seen such an overwhelming need in these last ten years. To their credit, LAUSD’s Division of Education does support families of students with disabilities as best they can with an unfunded mandate (CACs require oversight & parent training, but unlike Title I, provide no funding for it). We’re lean &mean. Creative with minimal funding support, but it’s never enough. Our legislators do need to step up their game and help fami,ies in the community if they want to see thaws children succeed in school. It really does take a village. Politicians have forgotten to homor their side of the social compact.


    • We could have more hours, but please remember that the favorite phrase, ‘time on task’, also includes the often-ignored word ‘task.’ We need quality tasks for our kids, and then more time in school would make sense. That could get rid of the hours of homework as well…


      • School requires a set of social skills that are not always taught in the home environment; behavior such as sitting quietly, discussing and sharing information along with the willingness to belong to a cooperative learning environment is needed for the success of a classroom and the learning process. Before the school day is extended, there is a need to ‘reclaim” the lost hours due to discipline problems. According to statistics from the American Federation of Teachers, a poll was conducted and 17 percent of teachers said they lost four or more hours of teaching time to disruptive student behavior; another 19 percent said they lost two or three hours. In urban areas, fully 21 percent said they lost four or more hours per week. Improving academic achievement is difficult to achieve when so much class time is lost to disruptive behavior. Much of the negative behavior viewed in the classroom is a result of behavior accepted in the home that is adverse to the classroom environment. On the average, students began school with behavior patterns already established and in place. Parents re-enforce these established patterns of behavior by what they allow to occur in the home. The student’s behavior is allowed and re-enforced in the home in order to receive a certain response from the adult. What parents accept at home because they don’t want to invoke discipline and guidelines, is totally inappropriate in a setting of 25-30 other students. When there are 3-5 students in a room with a lack if self-discipline, self-control and direction, a couple with ADD or other special needs and no standard disciplinary guidelines from administration, a lot of time is lost in the classroom. The initial question comes to mind, do we need better parents? Before there is a discussion on extending the school day, efforts should be made to reclaim lost time due to disruptive behavior.


      • Your suggestions for the early elementary years are really sweet. Most teachers are giving those types of assignments, or “homework.” Many parents, however, can’t or won’t do even these simple activities with their children. Some are too busy. Some don’t see the importance. Some are mentally ill. Some are drug or alcohol abusers. Your assumption that if teachers would just give the “right” assignments to invite participation in the schools, then everything would change. As a former teacher and a parent of three children who have gone through public schools, I never felt that my voice as a parent wasn’t heard. Almost every teacher was willing to listen to me and discuss concerns that I had about my children. Too often, parents don’t respect teachers as professionals (this attitude currently permeates our society), and children pick up this attitude from their parents. My children had excellent teachers and I worked with them as a team. It’s naive and condescending of you to say that schools don’t welcome parents. I’ve found that if you treat teachers with respect, make an appointment, as you would with any busy professional, and address the teacher as someone who is trying to help your child rather than an adversary, then schools are very welcoming to parents.


  4. John, this morning you are sending out statement about what educators are grateful for that includes something from Dr. Joyce Epstein. She is extremely knowledgeable about how to increase school, family, community partnerships. She has a great deal of extremely practical, specific examples of what can and is being done all over the nation.

    She was just here, talking and working with almost 500 people, many in teams that included parents, students, educators and community members.

    Epstein is one of the most practical, optimistic and useful people I’ve ever met about improving learning, not just schooling. Strongly recommended.


  5. Having children is a commitment…a commitment to the well-being of another person, a person that has to be guided and taught how to navigate life. Children are not accessories to Life… the 3,500 sq. ft home, the fancy car and 1.7 children as the family. People should be conscious of their actions that result in children because children didn’t ask to be born. Too many people are having children without wanting to spend the time needed to be parents, which is why they can’t wait to get them in a “good” school so they can delegate the responsibility of teaching the child to someone else, thereby neglecting their responsibilities as parents.The Reality is: parents are the first teacher. It is parents that teaches the child to crawl and walk. It is the parent that encourages language and sets the tone as to what type of language development will occur by the type of language they are exposed to. Expose them to reading, they develop better vocabularies and listening skills. Curse at them and give demands as opposed to dialogue and you have a child with limited language skills. This is sets up the foundation of learning for each child..what their first teacher provided for them. The Parent. Teachers take what is presented to them in the form of the student and provide information, direction and help develop skills necessary to function and be successful in life. Reading and comprehending, problem solving should always be the goal and the parent should co-partner with the teachers to help reach academic and educational goals. and I can say this because “I practice what I preach”. spent 5 years with early intervention working with parents and children with special needs from birth to three. I’ve taught special ed middle and high school as well. partnership between parents and teacher sis the answer and both need to come to the table with the student’s well being as the focal point.


  6. Thanks for writing about this John. What worries me most is the idea of shifting blame at all. It is a shell game.

    Head Start is a systemic policy intervention aimed at addressing this issue, empowering parents to be advocates for their children. It is a critical part of Head Start that is seldom discussed or quantified. Yes parents need to be involved, as do teachers, administrators, and businesses not only through supporting schools but supporting parents’ relationships with schools. It needs to be the job of the grocery store, the church down the street, and the media. It falls on the shoulders of higher education, government agencies, and the corner store.

    The truth is blame gets more notice than praise and partnerships. In constantly focusing on the blame we are never looking at the possibility of improvement.


    • J M Holland brought up Head Start and the training their parents receive regarding parents advocating for their children. When working with early intervention, it was part of our responsibility to place the young ones in a Head start program, so, after we completed the “home schooling” at three,we moved them to Head Start. An informal observation and survey will show that many of those parents that participate in Head Start and learn how to advocate for their children will continue to do so throughout their children’s educational career. Parents who are taught what to do and how to work with teaching staff and school programs will continue using that knowledge throughout the students’ educational time, which re-enforces the importance and significance of parent training by the school staff and community agencies to inform parents as to what is effective parental involvement.


  7. This is the “Culture of Poverty” debacle all over again. Not knowing how intense the Sixties battle over Pat Moyihan “blaming the victim” was, in the 70’s I used that phrase in regard to white Oklahoma sharecroppers of the early 1900s. You should have seen the look of horror on my dissertation advisor’s face and he told me that using those three words could destroy your career.

    The blame game is unnecessary. Yes, the breakdown of the black family (which we had to deny had happened) took hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration. But the same occurred, across racial lines, with the rapid deindustrialization that happened overnight. It was triggered by the Energy Crisis of 1973, but accelerated by union-busting, incentives to move jobs from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, where they stayed for awhile until fleeing to the Third World.

    Deindustrialization may have been inevitable, but if it had happened at a natural pace, families could have adjusted better. Then, Reagan accelerated it further by voodoo economics which incentivized the closing of factories that were still profitable. When economic futures disappeared overnight, too many fathers also disappeared.

    Look at the percentage of black and white high school dropouts before 1970 that were incarcerated, and then look at the way it exploded after deindustrialization took off. We needed them in the game to teach kids inner directedness so that they would be helpless in the face of rampant consumerism.

    The history that “reformers” don’t know is repeating itself. They don’t know how the story of how children’s first teachers, their parents, were undermined by the forces that they see as liberators. Back then it was called, “creative destruction.” It was great for the elite’s creativity, but the destruction wasn’t so much fun for children. “Reformers” have borrowed the union-busting techniques of the early 70s without knowing that union reformers, like Walter Ruether then and Randi today, had the better plans.

    The “answer” is realizing that education is a team sport. We need community schools that bring the full diversity of adults into schools and bring isolated kids out into the full diversity of society. Kids learn from people who love them. The key to being effective in secondary neighborhood schools is being a parent first. That’s what the kids really want (social media is just the weak sunbstitute for their “father-yearning”)

    The “answer” is not designing a few superstar teachers. We need to invite all types of adults (but especially twenty-somethings and Baby Boomers) into schools. But we won’t social engineer solutions. We need trust that these adults and kids will form loving and trusting relationships, and somehow we’ll create better schools.


  8. I think there’s a deeper question presumed – and un-addressed – in Friedman’s (and OECD and School Board Journal) diagnosis. “Doing better” means doing what OECD and the Journal perceive is better, not necessarily learning more, learning resilience, learning responsibility, teamwork and other soft skills. From a student’s perspective, getting to school within 15 minutes of starting time can be the biggest accomplishment of the day, and it may never show on a test. From that same perspective, negotiating rather than fighting with peers of other colors and languages may be much more important than learning the years of the John Adams presidency. From, again, that kid, finding someplace to live when a parent, facing their own stressors, says you’ve got to get out is a fairly substantial “performance objective” and well above “the common core” as a priority. While none of this absolves parents from parental responsibility, it does reflect the realities faced by students and teachers, which none of the research, nor the comments above, much address.

    Finally, and this is truly non-spiteful, since when do we only learn from great teachers? One of my most successful learning experiences in school, now 50 years ago, was an abysmal teacher who would regularly assign a paper “on anything” for a weekend. I would give her papers on “how to teach Junior English” and on elaborate methodologies. We hated each other, and I certainly learned plenty. The next year in English, I had the department head who asked, after a few weeks, how I’d gotten a “c” the year before. I smiled and said I earned it from one of the worst teachers he’d ever hired. He smiled, agreed, and said “that’s why I fired her.”


  9. I am reminded of the chapter on Education in Tom Peter’s book, Re-Imagine. A twelve-year old boy was asked to describe the perfect school week:

    2 days of classroom
    1 day of community service
    1 day working on a project he really cared about
    1 day hanging out with their parents/guardian/mentor/volunteer (somebody who cares) learning about stuff

    So simple and profound.


  10. A shell game indeed! I have always looked at standardized, compulsory education as a pizza, or for the sake of the holiday, a pumpkin pie. As pre-K students, kids have a tiny slice they are responsible for, but parents and teachers share the greater pieces of responsibility. As kids progress (or sadly, as many don’t) their “share” increases. By the time they have reached say 10th grade, the responsibility is almost exclusively theirs. Teachers and parents still play support roles, but that is where the wheels fall off.

    No one likes this analogy and I have no data to support it. Just have my observations. And for as many as dislike this perspective, fewer still practice it because by the time kids get to be this age, teachers are often frustrated with the system, the gaming that takes place. Parents are tired of the smart mouths and defiance (never mind the other issues of adult-teen conflict). Instead of empowering young people to take increasing responsibility, we put more rules and restrictions that seemingly have no meaning or validity on kids and call it disrespect when they dare ask why.

    It does take a village, though as I increasingly like to view it through my dad’s experience growing up in Parker, Idaho. He was born in 1942 and the town never has been more than a few hundred souls, mostly in potatoes or ranching or in services that support those areas. If he and his buddies stepped out of line at school or just in playing or at the little market, they got called on it. And it wasn’t a phone call to Grandma Beck, the neighbor or community member would call the boys by name and ask if their parents would approve of their actions–usually borderline or potentially harmful or destructive. When kids were being kids, people were okay with that. All adults took responsibility for how their community felt. Now, forget it. We hardly dare breathe much less speak out to hold kids of any age accountable. And in that, I’d say we need better adults overall in the lives of our children.

    Dysfunction seems to breed more of the same and even worse. Blaming teachers is just too easy. Only in America. Having lived in southern Chile for 2 years at the height of Pinochet’s military rule, I saw teachers honored and respected. And that was literally a Latin American dictatorship. They valued the effort a person put forth to seek out their own learning and the desire to help others do the same. Not in America. We scapegoat them, think it is clever to say if you can’t do anything else, you teach and so on. And then have the audacity to wonder why there is the lack of solid professionals in our classroom and that roughly half quit somewhere in the their first 3-5 years?

    Won’t make me popular, but I see it and feel it daily. We are a spoiled and lost nation. We have demanded perfection from our elected officials, from our educators, from our children, while we neglect to give ourselves a good long look in the mirror. Everything that is wrong with education can be fixed by everything that is right with it. We simply need to put up or shut up. By association, everything that is wrong with America can be fixed by everything that is right with her. To borrow and alter a rodeo phrase, we need to nation up and get ‘er done!


  11. Given the opportunity by JM this morning, to comment on “What’s wrong with parents” or on “what are we grateful for in education,” there are 13 comments about the first, and 2 about the 2nd topic.

    Why? Perhaps in part because people are more driven to comment about what’s wrong than what’s right. Perhaps in part because there are some educators who are deeply unhappy with their jobs, the concerns raised by others about education, denial of what schools can accomplish, etc. Perhaps because some of us think the Friedman piece was too much about blaming the victim.

    Thanks to John for making the effort to encourage others to think about what we’re grateful for, as well as what’s wrong.

    In our work with educators, families and policy-makers, our Center is trying in every way we can to identify things that are going well, honoring those people and places, and trying to help expand those ideas. The finger pointing does not seem to help young people very much, or the people who care about and work with young people. Helping young people is, after all, what I think all this is about. Happy Thanksgiving, and please consider commenting on the things you are grateful for.


    • I didn’t know about “What should we be thankful for in education” blog until you mentioned it here so I added a comment giving thanks to all the dedicated special education professionals who have helped my son and many others. Thank you to all in this difficult but rewarding profession. You are appreciated.


    • Okay, Joe, you want to know what I am grateful for?

      I am grateful for the parents who trust me with the lives of their children.

      I am grateful for the administrators who recognize that I don’t easily fit into most molds and allow me the freedom to be totally out of the box if I think it will benefit my students

      I am grateful for the likes of people who are willing to challenge conventional wisdom and explore alternatives – I have a long list here, and that includes Deb Meier, George Wood, Linda Darling-Hammond, Gerald Bracey, and Joe Nathan – yes, you.

      I am grateful for having discovered my purpose in life as I approached 50

      I am grateful for a woman named Linda Poole, who when the dean at Johns Hopkins did not want to admit me to the MAT program argued on my behalf

      I am grateful to those who cover education who even when they disagree with me allow me to offer my point of view. That includes Jay Mathews and it certainly includes John Merrow.

      I am grateful for the fact that we have not YET lost meaningful public schools, which is why I keep engaging in venues like this.

      Is that enough?


  12. We as a local COMMUNITY have to accept the facts: (1) there are parents who are prevented from being involved but still do promote the love of learning in their children by routine dialogue with them and making arrangements to link their children with others who can help; (2) there are parents who are prevented from engaging but don’t see they are responsible in any way for impact on their children’s educations; and (3) there are indeed parents who feel it’s their responsibility to make as much trouble for all education as possible – for whatever reason(s). Rather than finger-pointing at some others as responsible, it truly is the community that can and must accept responsibility for change.

    I have been advovating that local Education Communities (my terminology) be organized to address local issues that are serving as hurdles to improved and effective education for all. All parties are encouraged to engage, bringing with them the particular solutions they champion. BUT here’s the key: rather than pushing their solutions (leading at best to non-sustainable compromise and at worse no action as every party stonewalls any attempt other than their own – THINK CONGRESS …), they work to clearly identify the local issues. But all parties agree to work to find the BETTER ALTERNATIVE. The better alternative is defined as a plan of action that is accepted by all parties as being better than the particular solution championed at the start.

    OK, I can hear your reactions (in too many instances): This will never happen. What kind of happy pills are you on? My solution IS the better alternative. … Well, Steven Covey championed the third alternative (I use better alternative to acknowledge the possibility or actually likelihood that more than two solutions will be championed at the start) in is best seller, “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.” Even more fortunately for us, his new book out recently is titled “The Third Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems.” One chapter is “The 3rd Alternative at School.” I of course accepted the concept from the time of the first book and have tried it when appropriate – with some success but also failures, usually due to parties that wouldn’t buy into the effort. If you find this simplistic or unbelievable, please read AND CONSIDER the messages from the book!


  13. Thanks for the variety of comments. Here are a few reactions. Thanks to Ken for including me in a list of folks who question “conventional wisdom and explore alternatives.” One of the wonderful things I’m seeing is a growing # of educators all over the nation who are doing the same.

    I wish Tom Friedman had talked with Joyce Epstein of Johns Hopkins, who knows so much about how to increase constructive school/family/community partnerships.

    One of the things I’ve struggled with over 41 years, since entering teaching, is how we can more skillfully share and implement what is working well. We sure have a lot of successful teachers and schools. John alluded to this issue earlier in the fall. I hope he will return to it.

    Happy Thanksgiving break.


    • Just the real life. Un poco de verdad y redailad es lo mejor para ser libres y desembarazarse de tanta inercia subvencionada.Y si no quieren tomar el rectorado para echar por la ventana a los perroflautas que lo ocupan, al menos hacen bien en hablar alto y puentear el sistema educativo.


  14. We need societal norms that value education and hard work. Parents that inquire about their kids education are signaling that it matters. I am still struck by this NYT article about why we don’t have science majors. Too many kids are afraid to fail and too many don’t want to do the workload. As a parent of a 5th grader that dreads the homework, I do appreciate that it is necessary. What I wish is that there was more focus on helping a child understand how and why that homework mattered rather than the random stuff at the end of the day.

    Here is the link to the NYT article.


  15. In addition to many many other things to be thankful for, I’m thankful for all those students who welcomed me into their lives. I’m thankful for those who did not come to school needing a parent figure, as well as those who did.

    Although not wanting to be a Thanksgiving scrooge, I am thankful for living in an Open Society. That allows us to engage in a tough-minded debate into how to best fill the gaps at home, and elsewhere, of our most vulnerable children.


  16. At the same time, when national sovereignty and dignity is threatened, a very patriotic and defensive stance is also taken. But this can be seen across many developing countries. What’s really unique about Indian culture and society is how it sustains and celebrates both western and national lifestyles, habits, perceptions.


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