Part 1 of this 5-part series addressed the importance of four interdependent components in building a culture of education in the United States: School; Parents/Family; Government; and Community. Today, Part 2 focuses on parents and family.
Public discussion of education overwhelmingly focuses on teachers — finding and keeping the good ones, firing the bad ones, or generally making them more accountable. The problem is that this perspective neglects a more important factor, that of the role of parents and the family. This is not a new perspective, so why are all reform policies aimed squarely at schools and teachers? The broader picture is being missed.
Especially in major metropolitan areas as New York and Washington, DC, the debate has recently emphasized merit pay, where teacher salaries and bonuses are tied to student achievement. How did this come to be? In essence, substantial research had found that teacher quality was the single biggest school-based influence on student achievement, which implied that student scores would naturally go up if schools were filled with great teachers. This belief became one of the major initiatives for the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), where public schools had to work towards having 100% of their teachers certified. Though this development is admirable, the bigger elephant in the room is the one rarely addressed — the accountability of parents.
The importance of family and parent involvement in their child’s education has been documented just as extensively, but so far, solutions in the public forum are few and far between. For a child, the family is the smallest and, arguably, the most influential unit. The seminal 1966 Coleman Report, which was the largest social science study ever conducted on education and achievement, concluded that no other variable – not classroom size, nor the amount of school resources and money, nor culture — significantly impacts a student’s achievement more than family life and its processes, which include parental participation in education, creating an intellectually stimulating environment, and support. The results of that report stirred political and social controversy precisely because of the implications: that minorities, with their various social pathologies, needed to look within their own families as the source of educational deficiency — something no amount of schooling can overcome. It has always been easier to focus reform efforts on the institution of school or on teachers, as opposed to the family.
Based on the current trend, it appears that teachers will bear the brunt of the responsibility for academic improvement, but not if the powerful New York teacher’s union have anything to say about it. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has steadfastly refused to reveal its teachers’ grades to the public. One the one hand, shouldn’t parents be aware of the quality of their child’s teacher? Yes, but it’s not that simple. Part of this reticence stems from a bigger issue: that although teachers are accountable for student learning and achievement, parents are not put under a similar spotlight. Put differently, what would happen if parents were publicly graded? Would they be so quick to reveal their scores to the public? Understandably there is an issue of privacy, but children growth in learning and achievement is as much the province of parents as teachers, if not more. Character development, attitude, persistence, and self control are inner qualities that highly influence learning and achievement, and are mostly developed within the confines of the family. This is the fundamental problem that is ignored in public discourse, and by critics of teacher’s unions. Politicians can help to eliminate inadequate teachers and union bureaucracy as a way to strengthen quality education, but focusing on teacher accountability exclusively is not addressing the underlying problem of student deficiency.
How many teachers have had children from broken homes put into their classroom, with little support provided? How many of these teachers have had to chase after neglectful parents to come to parent-teacher conferences, because their child has not turned in one homework? How many parents simply do not provide a stable and rich environment? Unlike parents, public school teachers average more than 25 students in a class; should they have the Herculean responsibility of raising every students’ score? At best, a difficult challenge; at worst, an insuperable task, depending on the students they inherit. It’s no wonder one-third of new teachers quit after three years and almost half after five years, with even more in high poverty areas. Such high turnover, coupled with their provisional status as students are promoted year after year, do not allow for any reliable measure of improvement.
When educators, reformers, and politicians begin to realize and address the family as the root of educational pathology or success, then they will have made a difficult first step towards understanding how to improve student learning and achievement. Only when reform expands outside of schooling to include family support (as well as government and community support), can there be a culture of education in the United States.