Parents and Schools

John Merrow, a solid education reporter who should stay away from analysis proves me right once more.

If you ask professional educators in a public forum whether they view parents as assets or liabilities, the answers will vary only in decibel level: “Assets,” “Our greatest asset,” “invaluable partners,” and so forth. But what if you caught them off guard, late at night after a few drinks, say?

So I shall start with the mild compliment: he has nicely identified a bit of hypocrisy. Leave aside the vagueness of “professional educators” (he later declares that a 1st grade teacher is not a professional educator. I presume he’s teaching for free?). Without question, school leaders, many teachers, educational policy wonks make big noises about how important a role parents play in their children’s education and they don’t really mean it.

But that’s because we really don’t need parents. Once parents have contributed their genes and produced a child that’s sent to our schools, we’re mostly good, thanks. We don’t need them to do anything other than their jobs. As parents. You know, feed them, potty train them, give them some semblance of understanding of institutionalized behavior, obedience and self-discipline, and most of all, get them to school.

Alas, when it comes to our basic expectations of parents “doing their jobs” as educators define them, low income parents (disproportionately, but not entirely, black and Hispanic) are most likely to fall down on those essential tasks. Moreover, schools are now assessed on student outcomes and the students most likely not to meet the outcomes expected have parents with performance problems on those essential tasks. Many of their kids are absent a great deal, and when they’re present they aren’t on time, aren’t behaving, they aren’t obedient, aren’t really interested in success, and often aren’t fed.

So yeah, educators talk a good line about parental involvement because they are looking for a way to get buy-in from low income, mostly-but-not-all black and Hispanic parents on the school’s expectations—and it’s a bit tacky to say to everyone else no, really, we just mean them.

Schools might be better off without the pretense and speak honestly about the specific behavior they want. But that brings up other issues. Most educators are white females, which means their behavior expectations have been defined by middle class and higher Americans, mostly whites but also blacks, Hispanics, and 3rd plus generation Asians. Most of the time the behavior expectations are reasonable; some of them are probably not. Like many others, I’m dismayed that the feds are enforcing disparate impact regulations on school discipline measures. But somewhere between “black and Hispanic kids misbehave more” (generally true) and “schools and teachers are racist” (generally false) lies the reality: many teachers discipline—or worse, grade—kids of all races, but disproportionately black and Hispanics, for not meeting their own cultural expectations without having really considered the impact on their students.

Public schools can’t require parents or students to comply with behavior norms, and as you see, the feds will step in if their disciplinary attempts are racially skewed. Charters can require both parents and students to meet their cultural and behavioral requirements, and on this count alone, charters should not be called public schools.

It is, of course, a complete coincidence that the No Excuses brand of charters, like KIPP, specialize in working with just that demographic that disproportionately falls down on parental expectations. That the selective “No Excuses” schools are desired by parents from this demographic who want to do their job, but live in districts filled with parents who don’t and can’t afford to move to a district filled with parents who do, is also entirely a matter of random chance.

Also utterly unrelated: “No Excuses” charters can mandate a certain behavior code for their students, as well as a ferocious dress code, and required character traits for promotion.

Parents with real choices would never tolerate this from a school, which is why white kids don’t do KIPP, or any other of the schools requiring absurd behavior. And since whites aren’t there, No Excuses schools can suspend or expel black and Hispanic kids in willful abandon, free from federal intervention, which is why the cities that pride themselves on their charter saturation also have shockingly high expulsion and suspension rates.

So back to John Merrow. Remember Merrow? This is a post about Merrow. (need a cite, o young uns?)

He clearly thinks that schools should think of parents as partners, that they should live up to their rhetoric. Fine. I disagree, but no matter. Merrow didn’t try to make the case for the essential nature of parental involvement. Were he to try and make that case, he’d run smack into the problems I just spend the first thousand words pointing out. If schools can’t require parental involvement—and public schools can’t—then they can’t depend on it.

The rest of his post is insulting, when it isn’t risibly foolish. Here’s the best part:

Suppose the root problem is education’s failure to recognize that parents want their children to succeed but may not know how to contribute? Suppose the real problem is education’s failure to treat parents as assets?

He thinks this is profound. Because it’s never once occurred to “education” that parents want their children to succeed. No, educators’ default assumption is eh, these parents, they just don’t give a damn. They’ve never tried to treat them as partners. They’ve never spent millions of dollars on outreach. For the entire history of American education, no one in policy, teaching, or administration has really given much thought to parents.

Like I said. The man should stay away from opinionating. He’s a hell of a reporter.

So no one asked me, but most people have this backwards. Parents aren’t supposed to support schools. Schools are supposed to support parents.

Teachers aren’t monolithic, on this or any education issue. Some agree with Merrow and blame schools for not seeking ever more input from parents. Some demand an annoying degree of parental involvement. Others blame the parents for not valuing education sufficiently. Still others, like me, think parents largely irrelevant to their job. It often depends—I know you will find this shocking—on their student demographics.

But regardless of these differences, few teachers would deny that their job involves supporting parents. Teachers are the primary adult outsiders in any child’s life from six through eighteen. There’s a reason we’re mandated reporters, why we are legally responsible for our students in our classroom, why you don’t hear stories about teachers running away when the crazed gunman shows up at the door. Most parents have to send their kids to school. Most teachers and the schools they work for take that responsibility seriously. We want your children to be safe and productive, in that order, while in our care. And we have insights and observations about our students—intellectual, social, emotional—that parents might want. Or might not. It’s their call.

Parent interaction isn’t a huge part of the job, thank god. Not that I don’t like parents. I was a parent long before I became a teacher, and my sympathy for the typical suburban parent frustrations is deep and genuine, while my disdain for the usual teacher niceties makes me fairly popular with working class parents of all colors (doesn’t hurt that I came from that strata). But I didn’t get into teaching to be a team player; my quality time is in front of a class and building curriculum. (I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!) So I like my parental interaction to be done via email, with the occasional meeting as needed. No phones, please.

When I mention this view, I invariably get a litany of complaints about the many teachers who don’t return emails within 3 hours, who won’t personally check Sally’s backpack daily because the poor girl has executive function problems and forgets her homework, the principals who didn’t take Bobby’s fear of PE seriously, and, of course, the many stories about teachers and principals who are actually jerks.

We aren’t servants or employees, and you aren’t paying us by the hour. And rare is the teacher who excels at all aspects of communication, while also being a fabulous pedagogue. Just as many teachers and schools (KIPP, I’m looking at you) are unrealistic in their expectations of students, so too are many, many parents absurdly unrealistic in their demands of teachers.

And this information and support is never going to function ideally. Schools are necessarily imperfect, as are parents. All I’m doing is articulating a basic truth: parents need information, feedback, and support from schools.

Perhaps we should frame the discussion that way and discuss reasonable expectations, rather than engage in the pretense that schools need parents.

What, you’re waiting for the ed school insights? Me, too.

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About educationrealist


40 responses to “Parents and Schools

  • Jim

    It’s curious how social conventions control how people think. The most obvious conclusions cannot be seen because they are taboo.

  • JayMan

    Absolutely great post!

  • momof4

    When I was in school, in the 50s-60s, there seemed to be a general agreement between parents and teachers that parents were responsible for making sure that kids did their homework, might need to drill spelling words, math facts and the occasional memorized readings (depending on the kid) and might need to get the kid to the library if they lived beyond biking distance (about 5 miles). That was about it. However, parents did socialize kids appropriately before they entered first grade (no k and no preschool, either public or private).

  • Mark Armistead

    Government Solution to the parent problem: http://http://freebeacon.com/issues/feds-spending-10-million-to-build-robot-companions-for-children/

    I look forward to the blog post the first time a teacher has to deal with this.

    • Lagertha

      OMFG! Just read the article! I am sort of…appalled…I find it so amusing that the pretense is for “special needs” or ESL learners to have…but, I believe it is some sort of bizarre new attempt (notice they mention ‘typically developing children,’ at first, before stating the SN group!) to figure out what to do with the kids living in poverty in urban “food deserts.” Yet another, a very, very strange new attempt to address the ‘achievement gap,’ methinks. hmmmm? am I too cynical this time?

      I am amazed that anyone (and, all those esteemed institutions) would think this is a smart thing. Those robots will be busted in no time. They should have realized much earlier that if Beyonce’s and like, Brad & Angelina’s kids (so not Bill Gates’ !) had a lil’ robot buddy “helper” first, all the great unwashed would have been clamoring to have the next status tech toy asap! I’m not sure parents are gonna like being usurped by a robot…parents are not stupid.

      Sometimes these science guys just don’t understand marketing and “branding,” I know, because my father taught at MIT, he was a major nerd, brilliant, yet he would never create something that he knew a kid would break almost as soon as it was out of the box.

      I can’t wait to see the comments in the next few weeks; derisive jokes by Bill Maher… Yet, in all due respect to the robots, the robots might be very useful for autistic kids…THEY may really like them. I just don’t see typically developing kids of any SEG treating these highly technical gadgets with the care that will be required. Unless of course, the universities will offer a Geek Squad free service for every time a kid wrecks it, or it gets stolen for a bag of dope.

      • Lagertha

        forgot to add: do you remember the Panda robot? My son still has it…still won’t part with it (sell it at a tag sale) because at 15, he is still very sentimental about his pandas….that one set me back $150! But, it did NOT remind him to eat properly or remind him to study, repeat vocabulary words, read, help with homework, take the garbage out…he just chatted about really sweet stuff. He is cute. He’s a dust collector next to the computer my son built himself, 2 other “stand-by” lap-tops, several fans (keep the computers cool) and a giant collection of stuffed animals, tons of trains, and snow-globes, dragon statues & StarWars stuff…and 10 shelves of books. He rarely played with the Panda robot…but it was “THE Christmas present” that was a must see under the tree!

  • DrBill

    But that’s because we really don’t need parents. Once parents have contributed their genes and produced a child that’s sent to our schools, we’re mostly good, thanks.

    I find this somewhat inconsistent with my experience. My kids have needed a fair amount of help with math. I had to teach them the multiplication table since is is simply not taught any more. Under questioning, teachers claim that it has merely been renamed “math facts,” but that does not seem to be true. Also, instead of teaching long division and whatever you call multiple digit multiplication using the standard algorithm, they are instead “taught” (not really) several algorithms. So, I had to fill in there as well. As they have aged into middle school, I have had to spend a fair amount of time teaching them to write. This is perhaps not unrelated to the low quality of the writing in the emails we receive from their teachers . . .

    One of my children had a science assignment which required timing and recoring how long each parent could stand on one foot with hands flat against legs. My wife can do this indefinitely (which, I guess, is unusual), so my child recorded two minutes, following the directions on the assignment. The teacher changed this data point from two minutes to a much lower number because she did not believe that anyone could do this task indefinitely. I bring this up not to randomly complain, but to establish that said teacher does not understand one of the very most basic tenets of western science—that when data disagree with your random personal theories, data win. It was a nice teaching moment for me. I got to explain a bit about science to my child and do it in a way they enjoyed. “Your teacher is a complete idiot” is always a welcome message. But, it did require that I do something.

    Perhaps you and the people you hang out with are significantly brighter and more competent than most teachers? Even most teachers in high-SES, suburban schools? And this distorts your view? I can tell you that you are much brighter than the vast majority of the elementary and middle school teachers I know (and that my similarly situated friends know).

    • educationrealist

      Well, I’m significantly brighter than anyone with an IQ less than 3 SDs from the mean, but that’s not true of the other teachers I know.

      Several different things you bring up. One, you are unhappy with the pedagogy. But that’s irrelevant to my point. Two, the teacher doesn’t know scientific method. Yeah, whatever. Science is the one subject I don’t teach, but the idea that what kids are taught about science in elementary school matters much is one I can’t get behind. Three, the teacher required your personal involvement in the activity. Well, I said as much towards the end. You have one of those teachers who does think getting parents involved is important. But it’s not necessary.

      But all your complaints are mostly about pedagogy and your unhappiness with it. This discussion is a bit more “meta” about parental involvement than whether or not they think their teachers are low IQ.

      For what it’s worth, research shows little influence of teacher IQ on student outcomes, and ES teachers aren’t nearly as stupid as most suburban professionals seem to think.

      • Jim

        According to Linda Gottfredson IQ of public school teachers in the US ranges mostly from about 110 to 140.

      • DrBill

        you are unhappy with the pedagogy. But that’s irrelevant to my point.

        Your point was that parental involvement is unnecessary. But, if I want my children to know the multiplication tables and a reliable method to do arithmetic operations and the rudiments of western science, then I do have to be involved. So, I don’t see how what I am saying is irrelevant to your point.

      • educationrealist

        The *school* doesn’t need *your* involvement. The school has made pedagogical decisions that you disagree with, so in your role as a parent, you are involving yourself. But that’s your choice.

        Again, we are talking in the context of the pretense that schools need parental involvement. They don’t. That doesn’t preclude parental dissatisfaction with schools, but that’s irrelevant. In fact, schools should never pretend that parents’ preferences are relevant to their decisions unless it’s a huge majority, and even then not always.

      • Ben

        I think your point about pedagogy vs. parental curriculum desires is valid but there are some exceptions.

        At least in our district bootstrapping literacy for K and 1st grade is predicated on parents reading with their kids every night for some small amount of time. This is directly required although it obviously can’t be enforced. However, without that practice and given the teacher student ratios the schools
        would never hit their student goals for the year. But that’s more the exception that proves the rule.

      • educationrealist

        Naw. I never read to my son. He didn’t bother learning to read until he was 6, and then he did so to read Carmen San Diego, since I refused.

        If your kid’s bright and doesn’t have any disability, he or she will learn how to read without your read alouds.

    • Jim

      Per Gottfredson average IQ of professionals in the US and other advanced countries is about 125. Average IQ of public school teachers in the US is probably not greatly different.

  • DrBill

    “No Excuses” charters can mandate a certain behavior code for their students, as well as a ferocious dress code, and required character traits for promotion.

    How is that dress code ferocious? On Fridays, boys have to dress in khakis, shirts, ties, and dress shoes. That’s ferocious? Obviously, it’s designed to select out kids with totally useless parents, but so what? Why shouldn’t the non-useless parents have an environment for their children free of the kids with useless parents?

    • educationrealist

      Yes, it’s ferocious. Public schools couldn’t mandate it without parental consent. And public schools aren’t allowed to select out totally useless parents. Which was the point.

      • Lagertha

        sheeesh, this Dr. Bill guy is sooo annoying….for the record, never a good idea to infer that a teacher is stupid/an idiot – especially to your kid who might repeat that at great risk to your reputation! My mother probably should have been doing something else with her high IQ of 185, but she was devoted to teaching and sent grammatically perfect notes in her day (and, in 2 languages)…her cursive was to die for! I find many people (especially if they are not fluent in at least 2 languages) in the USA so ready to dump on teachers right now…they should check their ego and check their grammar!

        Naaa-na-na-naah-naaah! I speak 4 languages and both my parents were teachers, both in the genius level – dad was IQ 200!

        I’ve met plenty of adults who went to elite universities like me who over-estimate their fabulousness…’cause calling any parents useless is just SOOO wrong, not to mention tacky…you may think it, just don’t speak it…certainly don’t print it – because you don’t know the facts about everyone’s parents and home life. Clearly, Dr. Bill needs to just pony-up the big bucks for private school where he doesn’t need to deal with the great unwashed. I would have loved private school but could not afford it.

        I totally agree with Ed that parents are not necessary in the pedagogical process…and, lucky for me, my children have never needed my help in any subject…which kinda’ makes me feel sad, actually! Almost all have been graduated…plus, I would’ve had a tough time helping with AP Comp Sci! – soooo hard!!! and, let me tell you, their teacher, Mrs. F, was fabulous and super smart…the only teacher my son hugged at graduation.

  • Cosmic Tinker

    In my book, a 1st Grade teacher who is not a “professional educator” is typically a young Teach for America (TFA) recruit who gets 5 weeks of training in summer school, makes a commitment to teach for two years and doesn’t plan on becoming a career educator. Usually, TFA has convinced him that he can close the achievement gap and teach genuine professional educators a thing or two. That is who I thought John was referring to when he described this young man.

    Admittedly, I never got the impression that John’s views on TFA take all that into account though, especially since Michelle Rhee is from TFA but he still calls her an “educator,” while many real professional educators do not.

    • educationrealist

      Yeah, I have trouble with that. I see what you mean; I call it “doing your two”. But if you get paid to teach, then for that amount of time, aren’t you still a professional educator? Or is it just people who are credentialed? Not sure.

      • Mark Roulo

        “But if you get paid to teach, then for that amount of time, aren’t you still a professional educator? Or is it just people who are credentialed? Not sure.”

        I’d apply the same “rule” that I’d apply to other jobs. If I program computers for a living, then I’m a professional programmer whether I have the credential (in this case a CS degree) or not. If I *used* to do this, but don’t anymore, then I’d be a former professional programmer.

        I don’t see how the intended or expected future plans change what you are *now*. If the TFA critter stick with it, does she become a professional after the two year TFA commitment is up? Or was she professional before but we didn’t know it?

        From the other direction, does a teacher going the traditional route become a non-professional (retroactively) if she quits after less than two years?

        Keying off of the credential gets very messy very quickly. In my case, I’d be a professional chemist even though I don’t do chemistry professionally (and never have …), but I wouldn’t be a professional programmer even though I’ve been getting paid to program computers for almost 25 years now. That seems very wrong.

      • educationrealist

        “From the other direction, does a teacher going the traditional route become a non-professional (retroactively) if she quits after less than two years?”

        While I basically agree with your post, which is why I demurred, my *personal* answer to this question is “yes”.

        Someone who is a “professional educator” is someone who IN THAT MOMENT is being paid to teach or administer at a school. But if you are not in that moment a professional educator, then you better have a long, extensive history of that in your background.

        And that definition struck me as way too convoluted,, even though it’s how I feel. Hence you go back to “are you paid to do it”.

        I would, however, shred someone who proclaimed themselves a professional educator or a teacher if they taught for just a couple years and then went into business. See upcoming post.

      • Cosmic Tinker

        I don’t think anyone has developed the expertise necessary to warrant being labeled a “professional” after just 5 weeks of summer training. According to reports, TFA training includes only about 20 hours in the classroom, with very few summer school students and several adults. That is often followed by job placements working with completely different ages of students and teaching totally different subjects. If imposters get paid for posing as someone they are not, I think they are still imposters who are just winging it, not professionals. (TFA requires just a two year commitment and most of their recruits do not plan to become career educators.)

      • educationrealist

        I can’t even begin to tell you how tedious it is to read a comment from someone foolish enough to think I need a TFA primer. You’re a bit out of your league here.

      • Cosmic Tinker

        You didn’t sound very knowledgeable when you continued to proffer that being paid to teach qualifies someone to be considered a “professional educator.” I think my multiple degrees and over 45 years experience in education qualify me for the professional league.

      • educationrealist

        I have multiple degrees, too. As for your second, I’m pretty sure that 50 years a surgeon or three seconds after graduation, you’re “doctor”.

      • Cosmic Tinker

        BTW, I would think that your league would be informed by expert-novice comparison research.

      • educationrealist

        I am not interested in what you have to offer. I understand we differ on the meaning of “professional educator”. I’ve explained my reasons, and my dissatisfaction. The simple fact that I disagree with you does not mean that I’m ignorant of TFA.

  • Fake Herzog

    Hello Realist,

    I’m coming to this discussion late, but I don’t think anyone has address the question of homework. I know we (my wife and I) have spent literally hours each week helping out kids out with homework — isn’t this something most teachers would welcome from parents or do I need to get wise to studies that show homework doesn’t help students learn? As always, looking forward to your wisdom.

    • educationrealist

      I’ve written a lot about homework from a public policy standpoint. From a parental standpoint, I’d use some sort of decision tree:

      Is my kid below 8th grade?

      Yes:

      1. Is my kid having trouble doing the homework?

      a. If yes, then don’t sweat the homework itself so far as the grade goes, but find out why there’s trouble.

      b. If no, if you just have a smartass kid who doesn’t like doing homework, then remember that high school is coming, and you want him (it’s usually a him) institutionalized before then. But instead of giving him lectures, just tell him that eventually he’ll run into something he doesn’t understand. For now, it’s just got to be done. Give him an incentive for doing it.

      No, my kid is in high school:

      Different issue, because homework counts directly against grades in a big way and can affect college choices.

      If the kid is genuinely having trouble getting the homework done but trying hard, then college choices aren’t a huge issue but passing is. Talk to the teacher.

      If the kid is just a perfectionist looking for that A, this is a hard call because it *does* make a difference. But at a certain point, you say you aren’t going to help and it’s her choice (and it’s usually a her).

      Last case, usually boys, the bright kid who doesn’t do homework. I can’t stress enough what an important thing it is to put him in top classes and bribe him to get good grades by doing homework, making sure he knows you know it’s a game.

      In all cases, of course, this is about the parents’ choice. If you have a third grade teacher who gives a pile of homework and then lectures you because it’s not done, smile politely and leave the room so you can laugh at her.

      • Fake Herzog

        “In all cases, of course, this is about the parents’ choice. If you have a third grade teacher who gives a pile of homework and then lectures you because it’s not done, smile politely and leave the room so you can laugh at her.”

        This is why I keep coming here 🙂

        Thanks for the feedback!

      • momof4

        In the case of the bright kid, already in real honors courses, who gets high As on tests and quizzes but doesn’t do all of the homework (and obviously doesn’t need to do all of it for learning), the issue of homework weighting for grading often surfaces. In order to create the impression that “all” are learning equally, some school/teacher policies place an inordinate weight on the homework grade. My son experienced this; he was graded down to a B+ in honors algebra 2,for missing homework, but a girl classmate was given an A, despite having no test/quiz grade above C (and had Ds, too) because all her homework was done. That, ‘s outright fraud, in the name of equal outcomes for all. Even in AP calc BC, at a different and very high-performing HS, the teacher counted homework significantly, resulting in another B, even with As on tests/quizzes and an eventual 5 on the AP test.

      • Mark Roulo

        “…remember that high school is coming, and you want him (it’s usually a him) institutionalized before then…”

        Yes, but all the paperwork … 🙂

      • Mark Roulo

        “…remember that high school is coming, and you want him (it’s usually a him) institutionalized before then…”

        Yes, but all the paperwork 🙂

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