I’m not so sure my colleague Mike Petrilli is right that “we have a parenting problem, not a poverty problem,” and I’m even less sure that he is right that educators should “start talking about the problem.”
I know this may sound heretical, since anyone who has spent more than a minute in an inner city school or neighborhood (see my Ed Next story on two Chicago charters) knows the intensity of the social dysfunction — and no school is immune to its effects. But parenting is not a problem that educators are equipped to handle — they have a hard enough time agreeing on curriculum. I think of a sixth-grade teacher in our small district who, on meet-the teacher-night, passed out no “parent contracts” and no “student contracts” — both were then the rage — and gave no lectures about student behavior and the role of the parent. He described what he was going to teach that year, what books the kids would be reading and then said to the assembled parents, “You don’t have to worry about a thing; I’ll take care of your kids.” And he did. He had the same kids from the same bad families that every other teacher had, but he didn’t complain about them — and his classroom was quiet and orderly. And because of that, his students will be better parents.
None of this is to say that parents don’t make a difference in a student’s life. Or that schools should pretend that it doesn’t make a difference. It is to say that schools and parents have different responsibilities — and we need to appreciate the differences.
My own rule of thumb, as a member of a school board, is a variation on the Kati Haycock “no excuses” motto: “We can talk about parents after we get the buses to run on time.” We can tell parents what to do after the school’s drinking fountains are fixed and the potholes in the school driveway are plugged. We can teach parenting classes after we get our teachers to show up on time and our aides to stop yelling at children. We should instruct parents about being better parents after we start returning their phone calls — and after school board members stop bullying one another. We can tell parents what to read to their kids after we get a written, taught, and tested curriculum.
In other words, once schools are doing what they should be doing, then they can start telling parents what they should do. This sounds harsh and it doesn’t mean that schools shouldn’t encourage parent participation, but when you’ve seen school dysfunction up close and personal, you know you can’t afford to allow the “bad parent” problem into your school! It will be used as a crutch or an excuse — or worse.
Sure, parents have problems; one of them is bad schools.
The irony here, with all due respect to the fine work of our sociologists who tell us how doomed kids from bad backgrounds and uneducated parents are, is that we have somehow turned public schools inside out.
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