Three Wishes for the New School Year

As public schools open across the country, I have three wishes:  One, that most parents and most teachers will be open to working together.  Two, that most teachers will accept that parents are their children’s primary educators.  And, three, that most parents will accept and embrace that responsibility.  

This is, unfortunately, a tall order. Some parents have gotten accustomed to playing second fiddle, meaning they are reluctant to get involved. As the same time, some educators truly believe that they are children’s principal educators and thus treat parents with disdain.   While in public forums many professional educators may describe parents as “our greatest asset” and “invaluable partners,” how most schools actually treat parents belies their words.  In my experience as an education reporter, many administrators and 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’s not brain surgery; what it is, instead, is a team effort.

Many schools make parents ‘outsiders’ 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, but that’s not treating parents as partners in their children’s education. Unfortunately, it’s the rare educator who 1) says “We cannot do a good job of educating your child without you,” 2) actually means it and 3) 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 look carefully at how Back to School Nights are 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?

What if parents who need help 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 with 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?

Parents could and should be treated as valuable assets and not as ‘outsiders.’  Teachers–accustomed to holding parents at arm’s length–can learn ways to acknowledge that parents are essential.  Parents, who may have become accustomed to educators saying ‘leave the education to us,’ will have to learn to accept this new role and responsibility.   

Let me add a fourth wish for the year ahead:  That the men and women in charge acknowledge the importance of the citizens who do NOT have children in schools.  The problem with the truism “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. Only about 25 percent of homes have school-age children, and in some communities that number drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.

However, it is the people in those households with no strong connection to public education who hold the future of public schools in their hands.  They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers and students matter. Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than young voters, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18-to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008.  The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”

For these reasons, educators and those connected to schools must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools.  It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; ‘the outsiders’ need to be supportive, and the best way to make that happen is to get them involved.

It may be difficult for many educators to take this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Leave the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.”  That approach won’t work any more, if it ever did. The ‘outside world,’ meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may also have trouble adjusting, because they’ve grown comfortable with being kept at arm’s length.  But that’s what has to change…and determined educators can do this pretty easily by meeting ‘the outsiders’ where they are and involving them in the ‘curriculum’ of the modern world. Here are a few ways that students–generally every school’s underused asset–can make those connections: 

*Students can create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street and then post portraits on the web for all to see and talk about.

*Art students can sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the web.

*The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype.

*A video team can interview adults in a senior citizen center around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. Producing short biographies of ordinary citizens will teach all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines.

*Music and drama students can rehearse and then present productions at retirement homes and senior centers — but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).

Once involved with students, these citizens will be much more likely to be supportive of the enterprise….at the ballot box and elsewhere.

With public education under relentless attack from powerful forces, including the current national administration, people who believe in public education must not remain silent or stand on the sidelines.  We must pitch in and work together to give every child multiple opportunities to succeed. 


(This is excerpted from “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)

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