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.