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Do Parents Have Diplomatic Immunity in Education?

It's easy to dismiss what transpires in the nation's largest school district as an aberration because of its sheer size. But I believe that the latest remarks by Mayor Michael Bloomberg happen to have relevance to districts across the U.S. For the second time in a year, he suggested that some parents don't understand the value of education ("Mayor Michael Bloomberg says many parents don't know or don't care that their kids skip school," New York Daily News, May 11).

The irate reaction was swift. Critics charged that Bloomberg's cuts to the school budget resulted in fewer guidance counselors and social workers as well as larger class size. I don't doubt for a minute that these factors have made it harder for teachers to do their job. But I wonder whether these conditions would be nearly so catastrophic if parents were doing their job. When parents are involved in their children's education, they can often overcompensate for school shortcomings. Don't forget that even the best schools have students for only a small portion of the day. The rest of the time is spent in the home and in the neighborhood.

How many parents ask their children about what they learned in class on a particular day? How many look over homework assignments? How many bother to ask about the number of absences on a report card? How many respond to requests for a conference with their children's teachers? I know that parents are stressed out as a result of the pressures on them during the Great Recession. I also realize that not all parents speak English or understand this country's system of public education. But having children means accepting responsibility for their growth. Education comes right after food, clothing and shelter.

I remember the frustration I felt when the high school where I taught for my entire career held its annual Open House and almost none of the parents I hoped would attend showed up. The administration had made a concerted effort to publicize the event, and yet it had been for naught. Not surprisingly, the parents who attended were those whose children were already doing extremely well. I tried reaching absentee parents by phone or by mail but to no avail. If they had been working or had been sick, then at least I expected a reply when I requested a conference.

I'm more sympathetic to the plight of impoverished parents who often depend on the oldest child in the family to assume duties at home while they are working two or even three jobs. A new report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that 15 percent of children are chronically absent from school (" 'Chronically Absent' Students Skew School Data, Study Finds, Citing Parents' Role," The New York Times, May 17). Between 5 million and 7.5 million students miss a month of school every year. However, the report did not break down the percentage of the families by socioeconomic status.

Bloomberg has made many ill advised comments about the schools he oversees. But on this particular point, I think he is correct.

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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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