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Education: Punish the Parents of Failing Students?

Should parents of failing students be punished?

Some time ago I wrote a blog post in which I argued, contrary to the current political wisdom (is that an oxymoron?) and education policy that the problem with public education in America is not lousy teachers or failing schools. Rather, failing students are the problem, specifically, students we enter the public school system wholly lacking in the attitudes and skills necessary for academic success. In that post, I hold the parents responsible for this absence of educational preparedness. But I would never consider punishing the parents of unprepared students because there are far too many economic and cultural barriers that exist to place the "blame" so squarely on their shoulders. To reiterate, hold responsible, yes, punish, no.

Yet, a recent article in The New York Times indicates that punishment is exactly what some states are beginning to mete out to parents of struggling students. Recent state laws being proposed or that have already been enacted in states as diverse as Florida, Alaska, and California decided that "If a student is behaving badly, punish Mom and Dad." For example, in Alaska, if a student is missing a lot of school and his grades decline as a result, his parents can be fined $500 a day for every day the student misses school. In California, if a student misses school without a legitimate explanation more than ten times in a semester, the school district can ask the district attorney to press chargesagainst the parents that could result in fines of up to $2500, a year in prison, and court-ordered parenting classes.

Though the intention behind these laws is obviously to motivate parents to keep their children in school, I just don't see how such draconian measures would have such a positive effect and, in fact, they would likely have the exact opposite effect. The sad reality is that most parents who aren't able to monitor and guide their children's behavior and efforts in school can't afford fines and jail time would obviously only exacerbate the problem, though I'm a big advocate of required parenting classes.

And punishing parents for their so-called bad parenting unfairly stigmatizes them as bad parents when they may, in fact, want the very best for their children. Those who are most likely to be identified as bad parents based on their children's behavior and academic performance may, more often than not, be victims of poverty, lack of education and job skills, and poor English.

It doesn't seem entirely unreasonable, as the article suggests, to legislate parenting. Gosh, government legislates an awful lot of our lives that are far less important than parenting. But legislating parental behavior through punishment doesn't seem like the best use of governmental "muscle." It would seem that a better approach would be to encourage good parenting behavior rather than punish bad parenting behavior.

For example, an Indiana State Representative introduced a bill aimed at encouraging volunteerism by forcing parents (are volunteer and force contradictions in terms?) to commit three hours each semester to school-related activities. This legislation has a nice ring to it because it promotes parental involvement and investment in their children's educations. But a question I have is what would the consequences of failing to fulfill the requirement be? Then you get into potentially unfair punishment.

And I can't believe that I'm agreeing with this one, but a State Representative from Florida has proposed legislation that would grade parents on their participation in their children's education. And get this, parents would be assigned a grade on their children's report cards for the quality of their parenting. The writer of the New York Times article calls this bill "startling," but I don't find it particularly harsh. It simply provides useful information about how the parents are doing and it could act as a wake-up call for them. Now if these grades were posted on line and on the front door of the school, that would be another story. And, of course, who does the judging and the criteria for the parents' grades would certainly be sticking points. But I find the basic concept quite appealing because it is instructive rather than punitive.

As the noted educator Diane Ravitch suggests, "What we should be doing instead is giving a helping hand...Parenting education needs to begin when a woman gets pregnant." Dr. Ravitch has it right. If we assume that just about all parents love their children and want to give them the necessary opportunities to experience academic success, we need to figure out what's preventing them from doing what's right and then give them the support they need to do what's right. That's not only how we can get and keep kids on the right track educationally, but we just might be able to break the cycle of poverty and hopelessness that pervades the lives of so many parents who so many in America are so ready to punish.