For the first time in history, a generation of American students will be less well educated than their parents. Teachers are getting the blame. In the current dialogue and debate about how to make our schools better, not much is being said about disengaged parents. While teachers have become the scapegoats for America's failing schools, maybe it's time to shine the light on parents.
Blaming the Teachers
Not only are teachers being vilified, they are being punished. We're cutting their pay, firing them, denying new textbooks, dictating new curricula, increasing class size, demanding longer hours, requiring high-stakes testing, making teachers teach to the test or face retribution, closing schools, reassigning teachers arbitrarily, taking away their pensions, criticizing their training, and both degrading and grading them.
Last week the National Education Association shifted its position and for the first time is advocating using student learning to assess teachers–great idea except there are no clearly reliable and valid measures of student learning. Some places are even having students grade the teachers as part of teacher assessment.
Since research shows that the parent is even more important to student success in school than teacher quality, should teachers be grading parents instead?
Among the nations of the world, the US ranks 14th in science, 17th in reading, and 25th in math. Yet one still reads about immigrants giving up their previous jobs as professors and accountants to move to the US and drive cabs–this, so their children have a chance at the American dream. Those parents get it. But other statistics on American parents' investment in their child's education have been disheartening:
(From Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do by Lawrence Steinberg, pages 19-20)
Real Stories from the Front Line
I asked my teacher friend, Will McIntyre, who has a 25-year career and currently teaches in a typical American high school in one of the nation's ten largest districts, about the parents in his school. He rolled his eyes and had plenty to say. His observations supported the disturbing statistics cited above: "Parents don't read at home. They buy the kids iPods, expensive phones, and all kinds of electronic gadgets, but few parents are modeling reading. Even the kids on free lunch somehow find the money for a three hundred dollar iPhone, but not a free library card or an eReader."
His biggest concern was that too many parents are disengaged, and he could cite example after example. Few parents show up at open house or communicate with teachers unless there is a problem. Even though his high school provides electronic access to grade books and daily assignments, half of the parents rarely use it. One father whose 12th-grade daughter had a 1.4 grade point average complained to the counselor that he had "no idea" that his daughter was not on track to graduate. The father was shocked to learn that graduation required a 2.0 grade point average. "I don't have time to use online parental academic review," the father complained, "and she refuses to show me her report cards." How is that an option in any home?
My teacher friend went on to say: "In my suburban high school of twenty-two hundred students, the typical yearly Open House/Back to School Night only brings in ten percent of the parents. Students who are in academic jeopardy seem to have the parents who are less likely to attend. We made the mistake of scheduling one parent meeting during the American Idol Finals–roughly two dozen of the five hundred invitees attended."
Tips for Engaging Parents
Maybe schools need to be more aggressive in communicating to parents the importance of parent engagement, including what the school expects of the parent. A state representative in Florida actually filed a bill in 2011 that would have required PreK-3 elementary school teachers across the state to grade parents based on the quality of their involvement in their children's schools. A parent grade of "satisfactory," "needs improvement," or "unsatisfactory" would have appeared on the child's report card rated in four categories. Did these parents communicate with teachers, attend meetings, help their children complete homework and prepare for tests, pay attention to absentee and tardy rates, and send kids to school rested and well nourished? We don't know. The bill didn't pass.
Grading parents may be heavy handed and a little harsh. In place of a parent report card, here are tips to encourage parents to be more involved in their child's schooling.
Parents who back their children make a difference in school success by helping develop an appropriate mindset, motivation, and self-discipline at school. Disengaged parents promote school failures and are helping create a generation of children who are less well educated than they are.
(For a research synthesis and excellent commentary on this topic see Richard Rothstein's essay, "How to Fix the Schools.")
(Dr. Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write--from Baby to Age 7. Available on Amazon.com. Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.)