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The Untouchables in Education Reform

Right now, teachers are under the microscope in an attempt to identify which ones are effective based on the value-added model. There's no question that better ways need to be developed and implemented to make that determination. But what is lost in the debate is the role that other figures play in educational outcomes. Strangely, parents have so far evaded similar scrutiny. This oversight is cause for deep concern as the new school year begins.

Parental involvement in the achievement of students is well supported by a broad body of empirical evidence. The most recent data come from the Harlem Children's Zone under the leadership of Geoffrey Canada. Paul Tough described how and why the strategy works in Whatever It Takes (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). What stands out is the way Canada has made parents partners in the education of their children.

But this emphasis on parental commitment has application to all schools. In its most fundamental form, parents imbue their children from infancy with the importance of education. School is seen as a place where learning is sacrosanct. Because this attitude is largely caught, rather than taught, parents need to show by example that they mean what they say.

Parents can begin by engaging their toddlers in a dialogue when they go to the park or to the market. They ask simple questions with known answers, and then reward the responses with praise or correction. Parents can then read to their children from books that feature stories having relevance to their children. They can frequently stop the reading to ask questions to determine comprehension.

When children enter school, parents need to ask what they learned each day. They should arrange periodic meetings with teachers and attend open house at school. If their schedules permit, they should volunteer. Report cards present a valuable opportunity to review comments made by teachers, whether positive or negative. Grades are important, but they are not the sole criteria of successful learning.

Unfortunately, parental involvement has gotten a bad name recently because it is often associated with parents who overly participate in their children's education. Their hovering has earned them the name helicopter parents. It is seen in their unreasonable demands for high grades and for special treatment of their children. Suburban schools that are populated by students from upper socioeconomic backgrounds are often the scene of pushy parents who drive many teachers up the wall. These monster parents believe their children can do no wrong, and are accustomed to getting their way.

The opposite extreme are parents who are totally disengaged. They ignore teacher requests for conferences, do not sign report cards, pull their children out of school for questionable reasons, and fail to prepare nourishing meals. The message unambiguously sent is that education is not a top priority. How could it be when children witness the disconnect between words and deeds?

Since reformers demand data about student performance, this is a propitious time to consider the hitherto untouchables in student outcomes. Let's not forget that education is a partnership between home and school.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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