On my various nerdy listservs, I saw a lot of snickering over the weekend about Tom Friedman's "Better Parents" column, which explained international research findings linking higher student achievement to parenting practices like reading aloud, checking homework, and asking kids about their school day.
The reaction was a collective "duh," followed by "so what?" After all, schools and governments can't possibly do anything about bad parents, right? Over at Flypaper, Peter Meyer has a much more thoughtful version of the critique:
What does a teacher – or a school – do in the face of the reality that parents make a difference? The answer: teach the kids. Schools can’t fix parents. They can — and should — educate (fix) kids.
I agree with Meyer that all too often, schools are expected to "fix" problems that aren't their fault and that they aren't well enough resourced or equipped to solve. This is a big problem with the entire poverty conversation in America. That said, some of the most dedicated school reformers have concluded that if they want to reach kids, they ought to do what they can to influence parents, too.
In Jay Matthews' book Work Hard, Be Nice you can read about KIPP charter school founder Mike Feinberg visiting the home of Abby, a student who never does her homework. Feinberg chats with Abby's mom, who explains that she can't pry her daughter away from the television. Here's what Feinberg does next:
Feinberg decided to go for broke, play his last available card. "I don't want to do this, but you give me the TV, or your daughter is not in KIPP anymore."… The woman did not react at first. She was quiet for a few seconds. She did not seem upset, just thoughtful. Then she said, "Take the TV."
Abby, who had been listening intently, began to cry. Feinberg unplugged the set and reached down to pick it up. He stopped for a moment to talk to his student. "Abby, you can earn this back. You do your homework great for three weeks straight, and I will bring the TV back."
Abby does indeed get her TV back.
Once before when I wrote about this episode, a number of commenters called Feinberg's approach parochial and said it epitomized one problem with charter schools: that they can use strongarm tactics to pressure students and families, because they have the power to revoke admission. But regardless what you think of this particular anecdote, all kinds of schools have decided over the last decade to amp up their outreach to parents. In 2007 I reported on the suburban town of Ossining, New York, which is dealing with a huge influx of immigrants from rural Ecuador. The school district was hosting literacy classes for young parents, in the hope that it would increase the odds that immigrant children entered school with some reading experience, in either Spanish or English.
In 2009 I wrote about Mayor Bloomberg's experimental Opportunity NYC program, which actually paid poor single moms for getting their kids to school on time, signing them up for library cards, and other "good" educational behaviors.
In Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough describes the Harlem Children Zone's myriad efforts to educate poor parents about the kinds of parenting practices college-educated parents already know about, from reading daily to their kids to constantly asking them questions about their feelings and observations.
And this fall some New York City neighborhood public schools borrowed a page from the charter school movement and required teachers to make home visits, asking students and parents to sign a "contract" on behavior and academic commitment.
This kind of work is time-consuming and sometimes expensive, but it isn't at all self-evident that schools are helpless in the face of "bad" parenting practices. (And by the way, middle-class and rich parents mess up, too, as any teacher or principal can tell you–whether by coddling, spoiling, emphasizing sports over academics, or a million other things that make schools' jobs harder.)