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Parental Responsibility for Learning

Trying to explain why too many high schools in this country post lackluster results is seen as making excuses. I suppose that charge will also be leveled at Laurence Steinberg, who nearly two decades ago wrote in Beyond the Classroom (Simon & Schuster, 1996) that nothing will significantly change unless parents send their children to school ready and able to learn.  His views are now the subject of the latest Teachers College Record ("Failings of American High Schools," Feb. 16).

Education should be a partnership between teachers, family and community.  Unfortunately, the last two have been given a pass, leaving the entire burden on teachers.  During the 28 years that I taught English in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I saw how impossible it is for teachers alone to do their job.  No matter how much time and effort I put into preparing lessons, without the support of parents it didn't matter.  That's why I've written before in this column that so much of any teacher's effectiveness depends on the students the teacher happens to inherit.

Give me a class of Talmudic scholars and I guarantee that they will make me look like the best teacher in the school.  Conversely, give me a class of future felons and I guarantee that they will make me look totally incompetent.  Before Evan Hunter, the author of Blackboard Jungle, became famous, he briefly taught in a tough vocational high school in New York City.  In looking back at his experience, he said: "I was trying, but they weren't buying."  I doubt that anyone would have been able to engage those students.  

None of this means that teachers should give up.  But I think it's important to be realistic about the possibilities.  I don't know of any other country where so much emphasis is placed on the rights of students and so little emphasis is placed on their responsibilities. High-school students in Asia and Europe are expected to do their share of work and not leave it all on the shoulders of their teachers. It's largely a question of attitude about learning. Unless parents raise their children to respect teachers and revere learning, I see little hope for change.

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