Education ideally is a partnership between teachers, parents and students, as the best schools readily acknowledge. But reformers give short shrift to the role that parents play, preferring instead to blame teachers when schools underperform.
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.
Let's be frank: No matter how effective teachers are in the classroom, their influence is either positively reinforced or negatively undermined by what transpires when the school day ends. If parents do not inculcate in their children the importance of an education, there is not much even the best teachers can do. Teachers are not miracle workers, despite what Hollywood would have everyone believe.
In recognition of the limitations, California law allows parents to be charged with a misdemeanor if their children's truancy is chronic. As teachers have long complained, they can't teach students who are not in class. By the same token, teachers can't enlist the help of parents if they do not respond to requests for conferences.
When I was teaching in the same high school for my entire 28-year career, there was one night in the fall semester and one night in the spring semester devoted to Open House. For three hours, teachers were available to meet parents and discuss the progress of their children. Predictably, the parents who religiously attended were those whose children were doing well. I don't recall ever seeing parents whose children were persistently tardy, absent or disruptive. Phone calls and letters sent by certified mail were in vain.
Reformers will argue that teachers should persist in their efforts to reach these parents. But there is just so much time in any given day. How likely is it that parents can be convinced of the importance of their involvement, even if they can be contacted? KIPP prides itself on the accessibility of its staff at all hours and the involvement of all parents. But KIPP will not enroll students unless their parents first sign a contract that spells out their responsibility. Traditional public schools have to enroll all students who show up at their door.
It's hard to understand how parents can detach themselves so completely from their children's education. I've always believed that parents have a responsibility to provide their children with a reverence for education, along with food, clothing and shelter. Yet in many homes, what transpires in school is not accorded the same consideration. Parents who are forced to hold two jobs or who do not speak English are at a distinct disadvantage in this regard. But without their help even the best teachers face an uphill battle.