Friday, December 2, 2011

Teaching Quality Series Part V: Parental Engagement

It's generally true that the more that parents are involved in their children's education, the more academically successful their children will be and the more effective the teachers will (at least appear to) be. I largely agree with Thomas Friedman's take on this.

That being said, the seemingly growing "parent accountability" movement troubles me. Moreover, the strategies (which are in many cases de facto requirements) some charter schools are using to engage parents are in some cases are worth emulating but in others amount to punishing kids for the failures of their parents.

Before I continue, I must acknowledge that I have almost exclusively taught students with parents who weren't very involved in their education, despite my varied efforts, and so some of my thinking on this may be colored by a certain fatalism. The parents could have been less involved because I taught secondary school and parents often think of this as a time to step back. It could have been because the parents worked very long hours and simply didn't have the time be involved. It could have been because I taught mostly the children of immigrants, whose parents sometimes cede almost all education authority to schools and teachers, or whose parents want to be more involved but don't feel included in the school community. Also, in some cases, these parents expect their older children, especially the males, to be at least partial bread-winners, treating them more like adults. Alas, frankly, a handful of parents simply didn't seem to care.

Now, in my mind, a lack of involvement doesn't necessarily translate to a lack of support. If nothing else, being supportive means doing an adequate job at home, as a parent and as such: sending your kids to school prepared to learn, adequately feeding and housing your children, making sure they have a quiet place to study, and encouraging them to read and study. For me, as a teacher, such support would be more than enough.

That all being said, just because parents aren't much involved or supportive, doesn't mean in any way that teachers and schools shouldn't work actively work to engage, involve, and get input from parents; they absolutely should. However, if such outreach fails, teachers must still keep in mind that their job is to educate their students, regardless of parent involvement. Students should not be punished because of their parents' lack on involvement. At the bare minimum, the parents should parent and the teacher and school should educate. And when the parent fails to parent adequately, well, schools are still responsible to educate those children students as best they can.

Which leads me to parent accountability. I've noticed among some of the blogs I follow, some support of the concept of parent accountability. Now, these links are pretty old (yes, it takes me a loooong time to get around to finishing many of my posts), which I hope means the idea is losing traction, but in case it doesn't. . .

Though he recently agreed with Friedman's softer take, this past summer, Ed Week blogger and former teacher Walt Gardner expressed a bit of a harder line on parent accountability, saying:
Yet there is a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon. According to The New York Times, legislators in some states have introduced bills holding parents responsible for their children's performance and behavior ("Whose Failing Grade Is It?", May 21). Whether these bills ever become law is another matter, but at least they signal a possible shift in the accountability movement.
An American Propsect blogger also threw her hands up, saying (albeit at the end of an otherwise very good post about evaluating teachers),
On a final note, I wonder if the day will ever come when we legislate or evaluate parenting as part of the performance of children. It may be an unfair intrusion of the state into the home, but it's rare to see improvement and advancement in children if it doesn't come from encouraging or demanding parents. This is the "x" in the education equation, and until we find a way to solve for it, no answer will ever truly be accurate.
This post on The Answer Sheet by is by Catherine Durkin Robinson who is the founder and president of a group called National Coalition for Accountable Parenting, which promotes parent accountability measures, including fines, jail time, mandated parenting classes, school-issued parent report cards, and financially rewarding "good" parents. Yikes. I'm not able to chose even one block from this piece as the whole thing is so chock full of terrible recommendations. I strongly suggest you read it for yourself. I'm telling you, the Tea Party couldn't make this stuff up.

Many states are considering fining parents for their children's truancy. In West Virginia, legislators proposed a bill that would revoke parents' driving licenses due to truancy and tardiness of their children. It's unclear to me how fining parents who are likely already struggling financially or taking away a means to get their children to school is supposed to help their children go to and succeed in school.

To me, these example of parent accountability via legislation is just spreading bad policy pain. I don't want to be held accountable for things that are beyond my control, but I also don't want parents and students to be held accountable for things beyond their control. The solution is not to transfer draconian and unreasonable demands from teachers onto parents (or even unto principals), to find new teams to play the blame game; the right thing to do is to do away with the concept altogether. As my father always told me growing up (and as I'm fond of declaring in these education reform conversations): Two wrongs don't make a right. We don't need a war on bad parents; we need a society and government that supports families, especially ones that are struggling. Also, do we really need to criminalize more things in our society? I really don't think so.

Some reformers, for example, Peter Meyer of Fordham, makes the case that good schools will make good parents. He posited in an earlier post that charters are superior to neighborhood schools because they better educate kids and they get better results. He said that KIPP, for example, creates motivated parents rather than merely attracting them because the type of education KIPP offers is a motivator. I tried to discuss the finer points of this with him (for one it's very hard to measure motivation) but didn't get very far.

Though people like Meyer do have a point that KIPP may well "motivate" parents simply by offering a solid education, this logic is ultimately faulty. I, as a neighborhood school classroom teacher, can promise and offer a rigorous and engaging curriculum, but I can't say that students can only remain in my class if their parents do their homework with them each night. That would be punishing my students for the behavior or actions of their parents. That's not fair to the students. Also, I just really couldn't do that.

I am responsible for communicating and being available to all parents, but if the parents don't do their part, I still have to treat that student the same as the one whose parent does meet me halfway. I need to promise my students best and most appropriate pedagogical practices and a rich and meaningful curriculum. If the parents get more on board because of that, so be it, but my duty is primarily to their children, not to them. Likewise, as a teacher I learned to assume nothing about my students' home life, to give only homework that they could do on their own. Any bigger projects that required supplies or computers or extra help we worked on in class. Otherwise, I would be rewarding students who had more resources and more available and educated parents and punishing those who didn't.

KIPP, HSA, and other charters can exclude kids because of their parent won't get involved. They can counsel them out if the kid hava behavior issues or special needs. I don't think KIPP denies this and this post isn't meant to explore any ethical dilemma inherent in that, only to say that it's not fair to compare performance of the two or claim that charters like KIPP are doing a better job with the same population. Such schools can openly exclude or expel or punish kids for their parents' lack of involvement, while traditional public schools can't. This is a form of parent accountability that ultimately holds students responsible.

We should work harder to engage and inform parents at our traditional public schools and to offer better education, and we shouldn't get rid of all charters--they're not without value. But if we really want to put the most vulnerable students first, we should focus our education reform efforts on strengthening the neighborhood schools that are responsible for educating them regardless of their parents' commitment to their education. We should strengthen our outreach to parents, or at least, not diminish it. And when parents can't for whatever reason be adequate parents, making their lives even more difficult via parent accountability schemes is not going to help and will ultimately, I fear, punish the children we're trying to help in the first place.

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