Email From a Reader: Parental Involvement

Let's try a new feature: a weekly response to a comment or email from a reader. A few days ago I got this email from Gabriella:

Hi Dana: Thanks for your thoughtful commentary on the Fenty/Rhee loss in the District of Columbia. My question is why do bloggers, reporters, man-on-the-street types who leave comments etc never talk about the importance parents play in their children's education? The blame is always on teachers and/or the school system. What are your thoughts?

This is an important topic. A frequent charge leveled against charter school proponents, for example, is that they "cream" kids by only agreeing to work with those who have the most involved parents–the moms and dads who will sign a contract agreeing to read to their children an hour each night, check their kids' homework, and get them to school on Saturdays for test prep.

It's true that it takes an extra level of engagement for a parent to enroll their child in a charter school lottery and then agree to keep them in the charter, despite some tough requirements; what about parents who can't or won't do all that? This is a real problem that limits lottery-based schools from reaching some of the neediest kids. But I actually think some high-performing charter (and non-traditional public) schools are not given enough credit for the work they do breaking down the traditional barriers between parents and schools. If you read Work Hard, Be Nice, Jay Matthews' history of the KIPP charter school network, you see lots of scenes of KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin visiting families at home where the parents are most comfortable; convincing one mom to limit her son's TV time, for example, or strategizing with another about how to best tackle a child's behavioral problems.

There are lots of different ways for schools to better work with parents. I recently spoke to a Los Angeles teacher named Alex Caputo-Pearl, who works at Crenshaw High School. He has organized alongside neighborhood parents to bring new computers into the school, and to advocate for alternatives to high-stakes testing. In Alex's words, this activism was motivated by a simple question: What are parents looking for from their kids' schools?

But in general, I agree with Gabriella that parents (and communities) are often missing from the dialogue around school reform. In the new education documentary "Waiting for Superman," we hear a lot about how the Finnish education system is the best in the world, but nothing about how much easier it is to be a parent in Finland, because the government provides universal low-cost daycare, nursery school, and health care.

Why don't we talk about parenting more? Because we American optimists want to believe that kids can overcome the deficits they bring from home without having to wait for the United States to become a social democracy (as if). There's also a long and disturbing history of affluent white people judging the parenting skills of everyone else. But I do think there is a limit to how much transformational education reform we can do in the United States without looking seriously at why raising kids is do damn difficult in our winners-take-all society.

5 thoughts on “Email From a Reader: Parental Involvement

  1. B Witt

    It should be pointed out that while Finland does have consistently excellent test scores, the countries ranking just behind it are more varied in their social structures. Based on the 2006 PISA science surveys, Estonia and Hong Kong were the next best performing countries, while Estonia is quite a bit more social-democratic than the US (public health insurance, parental leave etc) it is quite free market by European standards. (In fairness I am intimately acquainted with the Estonian educational system). And Hong zkong is no-ones idea of social-democracy. Uber social-democratic Norway on the other hand performs quite poorly, on par with the US. So one wonders what aspect of culture, efucaional policy, and political/economic system actually yields the most benefits from a purely educational standpoint.

  2. André Kenji

    Hi Dana

    I´m a great admirer of you and your work(With all due respect, your fiancée must be the happiest man on Earth). But, two points:

    1-) Finland has the big advantage of being a country poor enough to allow competitive teacher´s wages(In Norway, where you have to compete with the oil industry for teachers has poor educational numbers) while on the same time is a country rich enough to have a large and highly educated middle class to provide good teachers.

    2-) Brazil has plenty of public daycare, nursery school and universal health coverage. There are problems, specially because we are talking about a relatively poor country. But there is day care, nursery school and universal health coverage available to everyone, specially in the richer regions.

    But education numbers in Brazil are terribly bad, really horrible. Compare that to India, that has a lower GDP per capita, and mostly none of these services. It´s a matter of culture, as a comparison between rural areas in India and relatively rich areas in Latin America shows.

  3. Dana

    Good points Andre–I’ll try to respond at greater length in a post later in the week.

    (Just a correction–I’m not engaged! Don’t know where ya got that idea! But I’ll tell my boyfriend that he should be extra nice to me today.)

  4. André Kenji

    Well, I saw some pictures of you in Flickr and I imagined that this pretty couple must be engaged. But, in the age of cyber voyeurism when men gets your personal data wrong that´s not a bad thing… ;-)

  5. KL


    A few quick points:

    1. Unless your referencing a different KIPP-parent-TV episode from Jay’s book (and I’m not aware of any), the student involved is female, not male.

    2. If you are, in fact, referring to pages 188-191 of Jays book (a chapter called, “Taking Away the TV”), I’d encourage you to re-read the passage to see how Feinberg “convinc[ed] one mom to limit her son’s TV time”. Rather than “convince” her to limit her daughter’s viewing, Feinberg went to the student’s house and threatened to kick the child out of KIPP unless the mother allowed him to take the TV. That may be one way to “solve” the situation, but it fails to 1) help the parent learn to set limits/boundaries, and 2) doesn’t do anything to get the kid to turn off the TV.

    There are many public and charter schools that actively engage parents and work with them to solve problems. It’s too bad you couldn’t have picked out one of these schools to highlight.


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