Monday, May 5, 2014

Do Schools Fail or Do Homes Fail?

As a veteran teacher (now retired), I’ve long been interested in the role parents play in American education.
I spent 33 years in a classroom. 

So I understand that teachers matter.

What bothers me, particularly in recent years, is the laser-like focus in school reform on those who stand at the front of every class. Our “leaders” in education, various and sundry fools like Arne Duncan, insist that the key to improvement is holding teachers accountable for everything, even inclement weather. These leaders claim that we nust now measure everything teachers do, from respiration to defecation, to raise academic standards. They believe if we create enough charter schools and hand out enough vouchers then critical problems in education will magically fade away.

Call me a skeptic.

I was flipping through the pages of my personal diary last week when I came across a brief mention (in the fall of 1980) of a young New Jersey couple who offered to trade in their 14-month-old son for a used Corvette.

The dealer wanted $8,800 but…hey…these lousy parents had an extra child they didn’t want. How about a swamp: flesh for metal?

I don’t think in this young boy’s life that teachers were going to be the problem. 

In 1998, after spending an evening calling parents at home to inform them their sons or daughters were behind on their work in my class, I again jotted down a few thoughts in my diary (only the names have been changed below):

Spent 1 ½ hours on phone tonight with five parents. Bill Hawley’s mom has him in AA three nights a week and says he’s rated chemically dependent. (Carol [his sister] is also in the program on a limited basis.) Bill’s dad started him drinking at six—Bill got into his father’s cocaine.

Sure. Teachers matter. But parents play a fundamental role in education—shaping their children from the moment they’re born.

In my experience, most parents did a good job—just as did most teachers. But where children were badly warped by life in the home my colleagues and I could only mitigate the harm already inflicted.

My wife (also a retired educator) and I were watching an old CNN documentary about education recently, narrated by Morgan Spurlock. Spurlock, you might not remember, first became famous when he tried to live on McDonald’s food for a month. So his take on education was interesting. First, he visited a school in Finland—because Finland is now supposed to be a leader in education. (I think that’s a bit of a myth; but leave that issue aside.) Spurlock was trying to be fair and even did a little teaching, admitting later it was much harder than expected. Then he returned to visit Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, a successful charter operation in Brooklyn.

I know there are good charter schools out there and based on Spurlock’s story, I think most of us would be happy to send our children to Williamsburg. I visited Discovery Academy in March, myself. This Toledo charter school is run by one of my former students, Mr. Noah Campbell. As expected his school was well-run and I came away impressed. I also talked to his faculty and again came away impressed. Most of his teachers we’re first-year educators but all were clearly serious about their crucial work with children. Good administrators and teachers always make schools better. But even dedicated individuals like those on staff at Discovery Academy can’t do everything.

Near the end of Spurlocks documentary, he makes a bold and erroneous statement. He says every parent wants their child to succeed in school. 

That’s not true. 

Or: in too many cases, it’s only true to this degree sense. All of us who want to lose weight care about losing weight. We just don’t care enough to take real action.

The grim truth is that not all parents are equal—and truly bad parents cripple their children in ways educators find incredibly difficult and sometimes nearly impossible to overcome. All too often this crippling effect begins in the womb, with one in ten American mothers abusing drugs or alcohol during pregnancy. You can’t cure that kind of problem by grading schools as many of our school reform “leaders” insist.

You might as well grade hospitals.

To say all parents really care is absurd. Suppose your dad is Travis Henry, former NFL running back with the Denver Broncos. Dad has trouble finding time to help with your homework because…well…Dad has nine children by nine different women. Dad would like to pay child support, too, but Dad can’t do it, despite millions of dollars earned during his career, because he’s been busted several times for drug possession and finally for cocaine trafficking.

Bad parents come in all colors and can be seen at the top of the economic heap just as often as at the bottom. I taught in an affluent suburban district near Cincinnati and almost all my students were white and from well-to-do families. That didn’t stop one father from repeatedly molesting his seventh grade daughter—and stalling off teachers when we began to home in on root causes of the girl’s depression. I called that son-of-bitch several times and invited him in twice for meetings and he always assured us his daughter was happy at home. She just didn’t like school.

Every teacher comes to understand what Spurlock and all the reformers miss—that every imaginable type of human being can become a parent. You don’t even need to be sane to produce sperm or egg. Remember Ariel Castro, the sociopath who chained up three women in the basement of his home for more than a decade? He had a daughter by one of his victims.

Who in their right mind would argue that the biggest problems a child like that would face in life would be the quality of her elementary teachers?

How about Fred Phelps, who died this April? Phelps headed the Westboro Baptist Church, a hateful religious operation famous for picketing the funerals of American service people.. According to Time magazine one of his sons claimed dad kept all his offspring in line with fists and a club. Nate Phelps spoke of a life “filled with anger, fear and violence.” On one occasion his father used the handle of a mattock to beat his children into good behavior.

If all parents wanted their children to succeed in school or even lead a decent existence stories like that of Megan Huntsman wouldn’t make lurid headlines. The bodies of seven dead newborns, apparently born to Huntsman over the last decade, were found swaddled in rags in cardboard boxes in her garage. Where was her former husband, father of the couple’s three surviving daughters? Oh yes. In 2005 he was sentenced to nine years in prison on drug charges.

You can look at the problem on a case-by-case basis or consider it societally. It’s simple true. Not all parents are equal. Not even close. In 2013 it was reported that 2.7 million U. S. children had one or both parents locked up behind bars.

Most teachers I’ve ever met care deeply about helping every child—but when they can’t save them all, blaming them only makes their job, already hard, much harder. And it does nothing to help the children who most need help. I’m retired. Technically, I don’t have to worry. But if we really cared about every child we’d do far more to help every child. 

Think all parents care? Don’t be so naive. In 2009, for example, CBS reported that one fourth of all mothers and fathers who owed child support paid nothing. Zip. If we’re going to grade schools, as many of our reformers say we must, what do these deadbeat parents earn for a grade?

A ZERO in the gradebook seems appropriate.

In fact, even our greatest school reformers haven’t been able to fix broken families. Arne Duncan couldn’t fix the problem of youths in gangs in the Chicago Public Schools. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had three terms in office to improve schools in New York City? That didn’t help the rising tide of homeless children—22,000 of them. And remember Michelle Rhee? The Broom Queen was going to fix the Washington, D. C. public schools by sweeping out all the bad teachers. According to an article in the Washington Post last week it turns out teachers weren’t the biggest problem where thousands of D. C. students were concerned. Nout unless we’re going to fault teachers for lack of telepathic powers.

Even after all of Rhee’s sweeping, it turns out that one in five D. C. children piled up at least twenty days of unexcused absences last year; and that doesn’t factor in any excused absences. To put it simply: 20% of parents in D. C. allowed children to miss school 20% of the time. Even grading such moms and dads on a curve, they’d earn no better than a D- for ineffective parenting.

I have a good friend, a conservative fan of Fox News, and if you ask him he believes most public school teachers spend their days having sex with children and running to union representatives for protection. We know, of course, that scum bags do occasionally find employment in the classroom—and the faster we get rid of them the better. But one teacher having sex with a student garners more attention than 10,000 parents sexually abusing their children. There are, after all, an estimated three millions cases of child abuse and neglect in this country annually, involving six million children.

On average, four or five youngsters die every twenty-four hours.

Every good teacher and every good administrator I’ve ever known could have told you pretty much the same. These people devote their lives to trying to help the kinds of students who badly need help in school because they get no help (and often harm) at home. But our leaders continue to miss this dilemma. They talk about education as if only teachers factor into results. How would they help a homeless child and that homeless child’s teacher? Grade the school if the child can’t read at grade level. What about that seventh grader who was being molested by her father? How do our leaders help me, if I’m still teaching, help this poor young woman? 

Oh, hell, here’s their bold idea; Let’s have the girl take more and more and more standardized tests.

I’m retired. Maybe I’m just old and crotchety. But, if you ask me, I don’t believe our education “leaders” have any clue what they’re doing.

POSTSCRIPT:  Let me note very clearly that I am not bashing parents. Most of the parents I dealt with over the years were doing a fine job, just as I did with my children, just as most parents across the nation do every day.

In my experience, however, the kids who most needed saving usually came from homes where parents had failed badly. If we want to save ALL children we need to focus on that reality and do more to help teachers.


  1. Eloquent and RIGHT!! The day after I retired from a WEALTHY school district in Pennsylvania, I met with the superintendent to tell him things I had wanted to say for 20 years. I asked him about parent responsibility and he told me,"Once a month, most of us superintendents travel to Harrisburg (PA state capital) to talk to the legislators. Whenever we bring up parent responsibility, their response is, "We don't want to go there." So there it is. Meanwhile, teachers will continue to give their hearts and souls to helping those kids that no one cares about. Thank you, John.

  2. Amen, Arniesmom. Almost all the teachers I knew cared deeply about saving as many kids as possible.

  3. I've been teaching for over 30 years. I could not agree with you more.

    1. If you have been teaching 30 years you have more classroom experience than the following school "leaders" combined: ALL nine U. S. Secretaries of Education, Michelle Rhee, Mayor Bloomberg, his school chancellor Joel I. Klein, Jon Schnur, Chester Finn and Wendy Kopp.

      Yep, combined. COMBINED!