In a recent column, Thomas Friedman vents his barely contained irritation at what he calls “reams of op-ed articles about how we need better teachers in our public schools.” His solution: “Better parenting.”
Give me a break.
Please don’t misunderstand: I know the educational value of good parenting. Both old and new research show parents and other caregivers can play a critical, productive role in a child’s academic achievement. Throw something like “oh, but parents also matter” into any education conversation and watch the heads nod, even the heads of the many concerned parents whose children don’t get their fair share of resources and opportunity. Nobody is saying parents don’t matter.
I take issue with the high and mighty attitude of the better-parenting mantra, and with Friedman’s sly criticism of parents whose children struggle in school. The whole “we need better parents” argument is just a back-handed way to blame individuals and turn a blind eye to the structure and history of injustice and inequity. It ignores systemic issues in schooling that need urgent fixing. All over the country, our poorest children and our children of color go to schools that teach them less, expect less, assign them the least qualified teachers, and then graduate them less often and less ready for the demands of college and career. Many schools that do right by their white, affluent students do wrong by their low-income ones.
Friedman conveniently fails to acknowledge that parents sometimes cannot engage in ideal ways. They might be working three jobs to put food in their children’s mouths. They might be sick or desperately poor and have no support networks. They might be away on military duty. They might be addicted, gone, or even dead.
We need schools to do their job, providing high expectations and strong instruction, when things fall apart at home. Tellingly, educators in schools that manage to teach kids well despite poverty work around family limitations. Like the principal and teachers at Bethune Elementary School, in New Orleans. “Parental engagement is great,” one of them told me a few weeks ago. “But sometimes, engagement just means getting parents to bring their kids to school every day. You still have to teach the kids.”
If parents are ready, able, and willing to engage with schools, even then, as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a recent Town Hall meeting, “We need schools to engage parents.”
Take Elena (the name has been changed), a Texas mother of two who wants to do right by her kids. Her son, a fifth-grader, is underperforming. “He has a B in math and a C in science. … I only have a sixth-grade education,” she writes, “and so I cannot give him the academic support he needs.” The teachers have asked Elena not to get involved. “His teachers tell me not to worry about it, to let him be, because at his age he should be responsible for his own work and grades,” she says. “Please help me.”
This mother is rightly concerned that her son could be learning more, and the teachers tell her “not to intervene,” for the sake of her 10-year-old’s independence. To save her child from low expectations and help give him a fair chance at college, Elena faces a formidable task: She needs the teachers to meet with her to help figure out what is going on with her son academically. If that doesn’t work, she needs to engage the principal; she probably needs to arrange afterschool services; and if all else fails, she needs to change schools.
Like all parents, Elena needs more knowledge about our education systems. Friedman’s ideal of parental engagement is charming, and undoubtedly useful, but in these dire times, we parents need information about schools, districts, and states in order to truly engage. That means data on test scores, school funding, teachers, and climate — information that could allow us to see our respective troubles as collective rather than individual, as structural instead of personal.
Friedman might have good intentions, but he missed the obvious: It will take more than at-home efforts to ensure a meaningful education for our nation’s children. Parents need information that helps them recognize, discuss, and mobilize for better academic achievement on behalf of the kids schools are leaving behind.
Want a nice, concise pamphlet detailing the types of school information available to parents? Click here to download “Parents Want to Know,” and stay tuned for the Spanish edition, coming soon. Are you a parent, or do you work with parents? Don’t forget to follow @ClosingGaps on Twitter!
RIma Brusi is the author of Ed Trust’s bilingual blog, “Cerrando Brechas/Closing Gaps.”