Monday, November 21, 2011

How About Better Parents?

If you missed it, an editorial in the New York Times yesterday, by Thomas L. Friedman, "uncovered" an ugly truth.  Apparently, parents matter when it comes to education!

As Homer Simpson likes to say, "D'oh!"

If you've been reading my blog you know my intent, in part, is to defend good teachers--by far the majority.  Still, I admit:  I've seen some bad ones.  I once worked with an educator who was so unmotivated, you wondered:  If he died at his desk, would students notice the difference between rigor mortis and his normal level of "activity?"  Or would decomposition have to set in?

Yes.  Let's get rid of bad teachers.  In fact, let's say you could get rid of them all today. 

You'd still have the same Continental Divide in education.  You can't make the Rocky Mountains disappear, no matter how hard you flog America's public school teachers.  You can take away their tenure, if you like, and have all the vouchers and charter schools you want.  But you still have good parents and you still have bad ones----and more than a few terrible ones--and therein lies the problem which NONE of our education experts ever address.  Michelle Rhee?  She says it's all teachers.  Arne Duncan?  Same.  Joel I. Klein in New York City?  Yep:  teachers.  Davis Guggenheim in his movie, Waiting for Superman?  In his celluloid world only good parents and grandparents exist. 

So, sure, the problem must be crappy teachers. 

Who'd have imagined?
Parents who read to children at home
or make sure they have books
have children who score higher on
PISA tests.
Friedman, however, cites evidence to prove that--yes--the world is round.  A just-released study by the Program for International Student Assesssment finds that even accounting for variables like race and economic status, children of parents who read to them regularly when they are young, who ask questions about what school was like every day, who check on homework and talk up the idea of getting into college score significantly higher on the PISA tests.

As Friedman notes, in recent years "we've been treated to reams of op-ed articles about how we need better teachers in our public schools and, if only the teachers' unions would go away, our kids would score like Singapore's on the big international tests....But here's what some new studies are showing:  We need better parents.  Parents more focused on their children's education can also make a huge difference in a student's achievement."

Again, we all know good teachers matter.  Still, the evidence has been there all along--and I've been thinking about this issue since 1981, at least, when President Reagan and his advisors first started talking about vouchers and how they would cure all the problems in U. S. education.

In fact, for those who believe vouchers and charter schools are the answer, here's an old bedtime story from that era and you can read it to your children, which will help then when they go to school:

Once upon a time, when the argument for vouchers was new (January 1981) there lived a family in Augusta, Maine. There was no evil stepmother in this story. No mom, either. The father, Willard Radley, was no handsome prince. Mr. Radley had four sons. His problem was not that he required vouchers. His problem was that he produced sperm. 
The boys’ problem wasn’t that they needed vouchers, either. Their problem was that Willard was their dad. 
An investigation began in April 1980, after Ernest Radley, 7, was struck and killed by a car. Ernest’s brothers, ages 5 to 9, laid out a shocking tale for police. Mr. Radley had “induced his children to commit a variety of acts that would allow him to collect insurance money.” 
To be specific:  he ordered them to run into streets and take hits so he could take the profits.

In the real world there are no fairy-tale godmothers and vouchers are not magic wands.  Thirty years later, the argument for vouchers still founders on the same rock.




  1. Basic question. Why should parents strive to be "better" when society has taken the job away from them for most of the day for most of the year? Compulsory education is supposed to do it all for them. Stop blaming parents for believing the lie that schools should and could do their job.

    In the real world of institutional education there are no fairy-tail godmothers either. Some teachers are Mr. Radley, and they feed kids their sperm on a spoon. Now, wouldn't most parents like to have a voucher to get away from that Mr. Radley?

    Scare tactics work both ways, John.

  2. Ah, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, what can I say? I'm not into scare tactics. I wonder if you are a parent or not, based on your first question. Parents should strive to be better for the sake of their children, in all circumstances, regardless of any outside considerations. Nothing I ever thought, heard, or imagined about the role of schools ever influenced my decisions on how I related to my own four kids.

    I've never been one to say there aren't bad teachers out there, either. I simply find the "pro-voucher" argument to be a little thin, when we look at statistics that show not all parents really care about their children. For example, I find it interesting when I see that more than half of all parents who owe child support fail to pay. Or I wonder, how vouchers might help the 1.5 million U. S. children who have a parent in jail at any given point in time. You might not be concerned about helping such boys and girls, but good teachers know these are almost always the children most in need.

    Good teachers deal with good parents most of the time. So, if you are a parent, like most, you are probably good. Such parents rarely send children to school with serious problems.

    Unfortunately, Good teachers also get to see parents like Josh Powell, the father who just set fire to his own home and killed his sons, Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5.

    If you can tell me how a voucher would have changed their lives, had they lived, I'd love to have you share your wisdom.

  3. The point of vouchers is not to save boys and girls in abusive homes, like Powell's children. No one ever said that was the point of vouchers. There are other, failing, gov't organizations to do that, like we saw with the Powell children. That is another issue, and you confuse the school choice issue with it when you bring up abusive parents.

    So let's get back to the point. Why should the parents who do care and who are good parents lose their freedom to make healthy choices for their children because of the criminals who are scary and abusive? We haven’t taken away the parent’s right to send kids off to school because some teachers are dangerous, have we?

    Here is another question. Why should I be coerced into sending my helpless children into an environment that is filled with people, adults and children, who I would never dream of inviting into my home? A place you remind us is filled with children from homes that are dangerous and abusive, making those children much more likely to be abusive and dangerous as well?

    You bring up a lot of individual stories, and I do respect those stories and their implications, I really do. They just have nothing to do with vouchers. And you do not seem very interested in the stories that do not fit your narrative or that others have experienced.

    I doubt you would have any interest in my stories, the ones of cruelty I saw in school or the one about a young woman I know, a teacher, who was systematically sexually abused by an administrator. I doubt you want to hear about how I was ignored as an interested parent. They had already selected their volunteers, and I was not needed or wanted. What about the story of how I ended up home educating my own children? I’m sure you would tell me the standard line that it never works, that all you have ever seen from home schooling is social misfits (they are because highly literate, thoughtful young people generally are social misfits these days).

    Sadly, we can't fix all people using systems and institutions. I admire those who have given it their best for so long. They are all to be commended, not shamed or blamed. But there does come a time to admit that one approach alone is not enough, and alternatives must be given a chance. And you really need to face the fact that no matter how vehemently you argue against school choice because of bad parents, you have no right to restrict everyone’s freedom because of the bad choices made by some. It is anti-freedom straight up, equivalent to saying we should all be incarcerated because some of us commit crimes.

    But wait, that is what you are suggesting. More incarceration for children and no choice for parents. Please, please, think about it. Your input into this dialog matters. Stop being so afraid. There will still be a place for teachers. A better place, perhaps.

  4. I heartily support your right to home school your child; I believe evidence shows it to be a good option.

    I will also say, that since you sound like a concerned parent, your child or children should probably do fine.

    My problem is that all the "experts" in education talk about vouchers as salvation for ALL children; I'm sorry, but I think they are blind.

    I wish you the very best for your children. But as a public school teacher, I had to be concerned about every kind of child.

    That's a different perspective, I think, than yours.