If you ask professional educators in a public forum whether they view parents as assets or liabilities, the answers will vary only in decibel level: “Assets,” “Our greatest asset,” “invaluable partners,” and so forth. But what if you caught them off guard, late at night after a few drinks, say?
Or, better yet, what if you simply examined how most schools treat parents?
In my experience, most administrators and many teachers hold parents in low regard, and their behavior and policies reflect that.
Perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence of attempting to elevate education to a high-status profession. “After all, you wouldn’t expect a heart surgeon to consult with a child’s parents before replacing a ruptured valve and saving the child’s life,” the thinking goes, as if the work of educating a child were the equivalent of complex surgery.
It seems to me that most schools push parents away in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There’s the once-a-year “Back to School Night” and perhaps a “Parent Involvement Committee’ or a “Parent Advisory Board” that meets occasionally with the Principal. Many schools expect parents to hold bake sales, auctions and fundraising drives (which can be a large chunk of a school’s budget these days) but that doesn’t treat parents as partners in their children’s education.
Unfortunately, it’s the rare educator who says “We cannot do a good job of educating your child without you,” actually means it–and then proves it by his or her actions.
Why this negative attitude toward parents? Some educators feel that low income parents do not have the time or energy to get deeply involved in their children’s schooling. But even if their dismissal of parents is rooted in empathy or sympathy, it adds up to the same thing: the exclusion of parents. Unfortunately, however, plenty of administrators and teachers are genuinely disdainful of parents and apt to dismiss them as uncaring, uninvolved or ignorant. “Just leave the education to us” is how I would characterize their attitude.
As evidence of parental detachment, these administrators and teachers often cite the low turnout at ‘Back to School Night,’ concluding from the large number of no-show parents that they don’t care. But I suggest we look carefully at how ‘Back to School Night’ is structured: a quick series of show-and-tell presentations by teachers, one-off lectures that make parents feel like visitors or strangers who happened by. The educators will tell the parents to make sure their kids do their homework assignments and don’t watch much TV. Why would most parents bother to attend more than once? What’s inviting about being talked down to?
The problem of ‘summer learning loss,’ sometimes called ‘summer slide,’ offers an insight into what might be labeled the professional arrogance of educators. Summer slide is a real and significant phenomenon that is more pronounced among lower income children whose parents do not take them on big trips or provide a wide range of stimulating experiences in the summer. When school begins again in the fall, poor kids tend to have regressed, while middle- and upper-income kids have either gained or not lost ground. The cumulative effect of many summers of sliding is a significant achievement gap.
Cure ‘summer slide,’ and graduation rates would improve, et cetera, et cetera. But what to do?
Educators, naturally, see ‘more education’ as the solution to ‘summer slide,’ and so they propose to extend the day, extend the year, send kids to summer school–or all of the above. After all, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail….
But suppose the achievement gap is the symptom of something else, the result of a different problem? If educators are misdiagnosing the problem, then their solution (‘more school’) is not likely to be effective in the long term.
We’re editing a story for the PBS NewsHour about a young man, a first grade teacher, who–probably because he’s not a professional educator–looked at summer learning loss very differently.
Perhaps summer slide happens, he hypothesized, because parents (who spend far more time with their children than do teachers) are not involved in the nitty-gritty of their kids’ schooling. What if parents were taught the skills to help their kids become better readers and treated as partners in the education process? No lectures, no ‘parent involvement committees,’ no window-dressing, but a genuine partnership that required openness and commitment from everyone?
Suppose the root problem is education’s failure to recognize that parents want their children to succeed but may not know how to contribute? Suppose the real problem is education’s failure to treat parents as assets?
But could parents be treated as valuable assets? Would teachers–long accustomed to holding parents at arm’s length–learn humility and acknowledge that parents were essential? And would parents accept this responsibility (because, after all, many have become accustomed to educators saying ‘leave the education to us.’)?
He’s had some success in Philadelphia over the past couple of summers, and it’s intriguing to speculate about what might happen: could this radical idea—parents matter–spread to regular (September-June) school? What would that look like? How much change would be required, and by whom?
You may learn more about this young teacher, Alejandro Gac-Artigas, and Springboard, the promising program he established in Philadelphia, at springboardcollaborative.org. Or wait a few weeks and watch our report on the NewsHour. Or weigh in with your insights here…which might help us with our reporting.