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Tom | September 27, 2011

We Can't Do This Alone


Images By Tom

Wednesday night found me attending my son’s curriculum night. He’s in middle school now, so they had us following our child’s schedule, changing rooms every 10 minutes. As I hustled around the campus, I couldn’t help but notice that the rooms seemed mostly empty, a far cry from the last two years in which we attended the same curriculum night at the same middle school for our older son. Those rooms were packed.

I was trying to figure this out when it suddenly dawned on me my wife pointed out that our older son was in the honors program and our younger son wasn’t. Now, it could be that honors kids have more curious parents. Perhaps. But it’s far more likely that they have parents who care enough about education that they’ll take 90 minutes out of a Wednesday night to find out what their children will be learning in school and how they can help them learn it. And it’s far more likely that these parents have been just as involved since their children were in kindergarten – maybe even earlier – and it was this level of involvement that produced these honors-level middle schoolers in the first place.

I was all set to include this information during my own curriculum presentation the following night. I was going to tell them what a difference it would make for them to take an active role in their child’s education. I was optimistic about the turnout; I had sent home written reminders every night for three weeks and talked it up in class every day, so I was sure the room would be full.

Fifteen people showed up, representing just under half of my 29 students.


Our format involves two separate presentations, one from 6:30 to 7:00 and an identical one from 7:00 to 7:30, so that parents with more than one kid can attend more than one presentation.  I had eight people at each presentation. (If you’re checking my math, you should know that one dad – due to confusion, pity or enthusiasm – sat through both shows.)

I was discouraged. “Your child spends seven hours a day wth me,” I thought, “Aren’t you at least curious?”

There’s a certain disconnect in this country over education. On the one hand, we’re freaked out over the quality of our teachers. We want the bad ones fired and the good ones paid more. On the other hand, we’re unwilling to even show up at important school events in which we can learn how to help our children succeed. We’ve been led to believe by the economists who’ve taken over educational research that the most important factor in a child’s education is teacher quality. But we ignore the fact that teacher quality is cited as the biggest school-based factor. Parent support, it turns out, is far more important.

How do we change this? How do we get more parents to get more involved in their kids’ education? I’ve got three ideas: one’s good, one’s bad, and one’s ugly.

First the ugly idea: have someone in high office use the bully pulpit to extort his fellow Americans to step it up. This sounds good until you remember how polarized we’ve become. The president could tell us to cover our mouths when we sneeze and the 49% of us who didn’t vote for him would automatically vow to never do so as a matter of principle. If you don't believe me, recall what happened to Obama when, during his first year in office, he spoke to our nation’s students in early September, telling them to work hard in school. That was truly ugly.

And the bad idea: compel parents to come to school events. Extend the truancy law to include parental attendance at curriculum nights, conferences and open houses. This probably won’t work. We may get better attendance, but I’m not sure we’d get better results. It turns out that people learning under duress don’t really learn. I’ve seen this phenomenom first-hand. In my early twenties, I got several traffic tickets in one month. My insurance agent ordered me to attend a traffic safety class in order to keep my coverage. As I sat in that room full of bad drivers, I couldn’t help noticing that nobody was paying attention. Not even me. And I'm still a bad driver.

And now for the good idea: parent groups of all stripes should make it their goal to get as many people as possible to attend school events. Forget fund-raisers, skating parties and school dances. The most important thing a PTA can do – in terms of helping the children – is to encourage every parent to get involved with their child’s education.

This applies just as well to groups such as Stand for Children, Students First and the League of Education Voters. They can shake up the system all they want, but as far as I’m concerned, the quickest, most efficient path to better schools is as simple as getting every parent involved with their child’s education. (By the way, charter schools figured this out a long time ago; it’s the secret to much of their success.)

And here’s the best part: if these groups took this cause seriously, they would have 100% cooperation from every teacher in the country, as well as the teacher unions.

We can talk all we want about teacher quality, but not even the best teacher in the country can do it alone.

Parents, we need you.


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At Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO), an American NGO offering non-formal education programs to the most disadvantaged children & youth in the Middle East, we know that engaging parents is essential for supporting our students. However, we struggle to engage them. Our students live in impoverished households with 7 or more siblings, often without a father figure. Just like many teachers in the US, it is difficult for us to get parents to come to our center for “Back to School Night”. Aside from home visits (thanks Tracey) and offering social events with food and babysitting (thanks Tamara) are there any other ideas that you have for incentivizing parents to come to our center to talk about their children? Or can you recommend any techniques for engaging parents more generally? Thanks!

The school I currently work in is 85% free and reduced lunch. For the past three years we have a hosted a free BBQ during the first week of school. Oh and by the way you can chat with your child's teacher while they serve you dinner. Overall turn out has been good. We are meeting what for most is an immediate need. I think if we also offered free childcare through the PTA or Community in Schools we would have even greater turn out. As many of you have pointed out there are multiple barriers for so many of our families. By just meeting a few simple ones-a meal they don't have to worry about, supervision for their children so they can talk to the teacher without distraction-it opens the door for participation. I'm not suggesting schools become a one stop shop social service agency. But meeting a few felt needs goes a long way toward creating access points for the families that most need them.

I'm doing home visits again this year. I figure, why spend an evening filled with a fraction of my class's parents, representing the students who are already showing up to school ready to learn, disappointed that the others didn't show? Instead, I'm going to them. Some are a little stand-offish at first, but they warm up to me. I show them exactly what I need them to do every night to see that their child gets their homework done. It's amazing to me how many will say, "Every day, I ask him if he has any homework. And he always says no." I know it's an excuse. And I know that when the parent says this, they're a little embarrassed. I also know, that deep down, they want their kid to do better. We can always start fresh. Every year is a new year, and every day is a new day.

But, at the same time, I'm tired of all the talk about teacher quality. It really comes down to the other 18 hours a day a child spends outside of school. A parent can't dump their child at school and expect us to perform miracles. It really is a team effort. I think a lot of where that effort starts is just demonstrating an interest.

Rob, I've got news for you: you can't expect 15, 16 and 17 year olds to take full responsibility for their learning outside the classroom, either!

I spend at least an hour every night with my two sons (12 and 15 years old), going through their backpacks, checking their on-line gradebooks and making sure they have their homework finished. Trust me, the work wouldn't get done otherwise.

Travis is spot on: this stool need three legs and each leg is crucial.

We do need parent partnerships, and I've been lucky to have some really great parents to work with over the years... and not always the parents of the kids-who-don't-need-the-support kind. Sure, I hear more from the parents of kids whose A slips to an A- and it is a family disgrace, but I also have many very active and engaged parents from all strata of my gradebook.

I was stuck watching some of the "Education Nation" propaganda this morning on the treadmill, and was dismayed to hear plenty of call to arms against teachers and failing schools. I heard about the need for "arming parents to take action when their schools fail their children" (those are the exact words I saw appear on the screen). I heard Jeb Bush talk about how public schools have a monopoly on education, when what is needed to make all kids succeed is healthy competition and choice (because, yeah, the best way to make sure every kid is a winner is to bring in competition through privatization... that will definitely guarantee impoverished communities have schools as strong as gated ones... to me it can only accelerate the growing gaps between the haves and have-nots in education, but maybe that's what Jeb wants). Sorry, for the digression... but my point is that there is a rallying cry for parents to start treating schools as inept subordinates to be conquered, reformed, and controlled rather than to elevate teachers as equal partners in the important undertaking of educating their children.

I bet even the worst teacher who is handed a classroom full of kids each with a parent-instilled drive to learn and parent-enforced focus on homework time and learning at home will produce fantastic data come state test time. But we all can guess what actually produced that data: capable kids living in a world that values their education, kids who would excel if any stuffed shirt were propped up at the lectern.

Sadly, you can take the best teacher and put them into a room with kids whose only reliable adult is the one standing at the front of the classroom and no matter how hard that teacher tries, the data might not serve to impress...especially if that data does not show growth over time, but rather is a one-shot snap-shot of those kids with no context about just how far they might have come to get a hair's breadth short of passing.

The elephants in the room are parents and poverty--two factors over which schools and teachers have sadly little control, but which over child's success hold tremendous sway. To get our country to where the talking heads want us to go, we don't just need to fix schools, we need to fix poverty and, I'll go ahead and say it, fix parents. To steal Travis' metaphor, there be my three legs of the education stool... and I think if we can fix two of the three, the other will be less of an issue.

Travis A. Wittwer

Tom, great points. I am at a school BBQ right now from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. I took a moment to check email while my sons ran around at the park. I will meet the teacher in a relaxed environment. The principal as well who is currently all over the park, high-fiving kids and talkin with parents. He is a great leader.

I believe in the importance of these events, curriculum night included, because it does three things: (a) allows parents to be informed and part of the school; (b) supports the school and shows that the community cares--there are a great number of hard working people in a school who rarely get thanks; and (c) it shows my son that he is important and I am happy to tkethis time and I am eager to learn about his life.

The last reason is most important. I will attend all events even through HS. Even when my sons wish I would not. I care. They will know whether they are conscious of it or not.

Education is like a stool. A three-legged stool with three important legs: student, parents, teachers. Two legged stools will balance for only so long before toppling. One legged stools do not stand a chance.

A percent of our Title I budget needs to pay for parent outreach. And with that money we've hosted numerous events to increase family engagement around reading and math. For many of the events we've had great turnout. The problem we are finding is we are not reaching the families that need the most support.

Barriers exist. Many families work evenings or long hours and attending a school event is a hardship. We've been creative in our attempts to reach more families but I can't say our attempts have made much of a difference.

While some students manage to rise above the most difficult family circumstances many, most, don't. As a primary grade elementary teacher I'm discouraged that just coming to school (when that happens) isn't enough. To be successful I need students to read at home and they need to complete their math homework. With little help from home it's a lot to ask a 5, 6, or 7 year old to take full responsibility for their learning outside of the classroom.

That being said, some students are able to figure it out on their own. And to do so they need a teacher who'll never give up. So now I'll speak my frustration. Tonight I'll be thinking about these kids. And tomorrow I'll teach them at my level best.

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