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.


  1. Excellent post, Rachel. People can blame the teachers, or they can blame the parents, or they can try and find ways to help support both in their endeavors to educate children. The idea that parents don't want to help their children is as crazy as the idea that teachers would rather not teach in the classroom. We seem to move from one extreme to the other. What has been needed for some time is an end to the blame being passed around and some honest work towards providing meaningful support to schools, teachers and parents. As you point out, strengthening the outreach to parents would be a very good beginning. Your last paragraph is filled with the kind of sensible ideas and views that is sorely lacking in the reform movement. Well done.

  2. KIPP and its spokesman usually DO deny that they exclude or counsel out kids they don't want. They're erratic -- sometimes they acknowledge it, and then they go back to denying it again.

  3. @lodesterre Thanks for the support! Yes, I just hung my head when I started reading calls (especially from teachers!) for a parent accountability movement. No more blame game, please. I just don't believe we can legislate good parenting.

    @caroline As far as I know, the policies, outreach efforts, and population served can differ from KIPP school to KIPP school and to their credit, they do reach out to parents who might not come to them otherwise. It sounds like they make a real effort in that way. But they do all have that contract that parents/guardians must sign and their behavior and suspension/expulsion policies are overall much stricter than traditional schools. If I recall correctly, those things are non-negotiables and they do (openly) call themselves places of choice. I'm working on a brief follow-up to some of this. Stay tuned. . .

  4. Great post. If I had time I would read the rest of the series but being "just" a parent, this one caught my eye.

    When it comes to dis-engaged parents in middle school, one reason you may not have considered is the experiences these parents may have encountered previously. Unwelcoming elementary experiences due to staff and administration encounters of the worst kind do occur and you never know what "advice" parents may have been given by misinformed counselors, teachers , or administrators.

    I'll never forget sitting in a meeting and hearing the principal tell parents "your kids are at the age where they don't want you around!" Really?

    As far as "fixing" the problems, the original architects of ESEA did a fine job of considering and comprehending what needed to happen for school/community engagement and improvement to occur. There are no "new" ideas, just good 'ole forgotten ones whose time has come to be resurrected.

  5. Let us agree on your conclusion: teachers with students who don't have a lot of domestic/family support (let's call them "unsupported students" for brevity's sake) still have to do their job, namely, educate those students.

    I think that's right.

    But I also think -- and it's not clear we disagree here, either -- that there are two very important facts about the job of educating unsupported students:

    1) First, educating unsupported students is a little more work. It takes additional effort. Now, given the fact that you're time-limited (usually one school year), you're not going to be able to make quite as much progress in a school year with an unsupported student as you will with a supported student.

    Just in case anyone misunderstands, I'm not saying that unsupported students are stupid or unmotivated or anything else like that. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. But the fact that they aren't getting the support that they could be getting at home means that their academic progress is going to be a little slower, because overall there's going to be less time spent thinking about school stuff.

    2) Second, while the goal is the same in each case, the techniques used to work with a student who has a rich, fertile home environment and lots of resources are very different than the techniques used to work with students who essentially have nothing but maybe the pencil they bring with them. As you pointed out, you don't assign big projects that require resources outside of class.

    Let me be perfectly clear: I'm not faulting you for this. I think you're doing the right thing. I'm just pointing out that the techniques are different.

    So with those two facts in mind, I think we can see that the business of working with supported students is substantially different than the business of working with unsupported students (assuming both groups are being taught at maximum efficiency).

    We might think that this is an argument for separating out these groups of students, so that each group (and, realistically, there's probably more than two) can be taught in an environment that is tailored to address their particular needs and to push them as hard as they can be pushed. It's the same argument that is used for GATE programs and differentiated instruction (which is really just tracking-on-a-budget).

    We might also think that this sort of segregation is already taking place through property values/school districting, and now even more through the rise of Charters.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that I agree with what you say here, Rachel, and I think that it's a powerful argument for understanding that we don't have some unified education system that is in need of reform. What we have are several different educational systems, and the system that we have in place for the unsupported kids needs different reforms than the system that we have in place for the supported kids, which in turn needs different reforms than the system for the honors/GATE kids, which needs different reforms from the system for the Special Ed kids. It's not clear to me that Charter Schools are really designed to address the sort of problems that you're talking about, at least not the Charter schools that make it into the news.

    It's popular to talk about "Educational Reform" as if it were the search for some single solution to fix "the system". But it's both intellectually lazy and non-productive to think about education in those terms. And as I said above, I don't actually think we disagree on any of this. (Or maybe we do -- I'm sure you'll let me know if that's the case.) I just wanted to point it out for clarity's sake.

  6. Michael,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I'm not sure about separating out the groups entirely (though I agree that rather happens in some cases already) but I certainly agree that conversations about tracking, grouping, etc, or not tracking, grouping, etc, are conversations well worth having.

    Otherwise, I agree completely with you: this is very complicated stuff and when it gets boiled down to as you put it, "education reform as the search for some single solution," we don't get very far at reforming or improving anything.

  7. Victoria,

    Thanks for your comment--I always appreciate hearing your measured & insightful feedback.

    You bring up a very important point that I left out: Sometimes parents don't get involved because they've gotten bad advice from their children's educators or they've been told by educators, especially at the secondary level, to take a step back.

    I've seen that happen sometimes with the transition to high school from middle school. All of a sudden, there are no team-based interventions to reach out to struggling students, the logic being that high school students don't need that. I agree that high schoolers are ready for more independence and responsibility, but especially when they're struggling, they still need support from the adults in their lives.

  8. Kids have the best parents they can find. Having said that, we must never forget that the parent is the customer. It is our job to serve them not their job to serve us. It is important to first empower all parents not through having 4 or 5 on a committee but having those committee members continuously survey all parents to assure every voice is heard.

    No longer may we use the few to speak for all. Connecting with every parent, especially those who have been disenfranchised, is extremely important. This also gives validity to neighborhood schools where all parents are nearby and community learning centers resources bringing parents and community members into the school for their support or educational services.

    Every parent is part of the educational team because every parent knows their child better than anyone.


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