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.