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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.
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.