Better Parents?

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.) 

Read more: The "Parenting Problem" is a "Poverty Problem"

19 thoughts on “Better Parents?

  1. Caitlin

    You have some good points but overall your arguments seem a little naive. Let’s focus on public schools, which can’t revoke admission and don’t have a large base of funds to draw from. I agree that home visits and parent-education nights can be helpful, but how can a school district ask teachers to put in all this extra work without increasing their pay? And there certainly isn’t a lot of extra money out there for that. Additionally, I have held many parent events at my school and unfortunately, the parents who really need to come usually don’t. You raise some good points but there are a lot of potential problems you are not addressing.

  2. Dana Goldstein

    Thanks for your comment, Caitlin. You’re right that these efforts can be expensive, as I point out. But just FYI, in the districts/schools I describe, it isn’t usually classroom teachers doing this work. The Harlem Children’s Zone uses its private philanthropic contributions to hire many non-teacher professionals to work with parents. The Opportunity NYC program took place totally outside of school, but used school data on attendance and test scores to “reward” single moms. Of course, not every parent is going to be receptive to these efforts.

  3. Adam Grumbach

    It seems to me there are several problems with this “Abby” model.

    First, while there may be some parenting deficits that can be overcome with school intervention, there are many that cannot — when the life circumstances in poverty become too extreme, there is little anyone in any school can do. If a student is in several different foster homes over the course of a year, for example; or if her family has been evicted and is now homeless; or if a parent is a substance abuser; and so on — it is difficult to imagine the fixes that will be effective in such situations. Of course, as the economy grows worse, these situations will be more and more common (all “hypos” drawn from one of my classrooms).

    Second, the model itself is suspect, at least to me, in its condescension towards Abby’s mother. Was there no “card” Feinberg could have played before threatening the mother? Could he not have suggested removal of the TV by the mother instead of taking that action himself? Or a timer (you have 60 minutes of TV)? Or making a deal (homework before TV)? There is a tone of “thank goodness the middle class principal taught that poor woman how to parent” in the story, a certain level of satisfaction that he had to threaten to kick her daughter out. And, of course, it is complete with a happy ending; did this approach work everytime? Were their no parents so offended by his presumption they told him to get the hell out of their house? What happens to those children? (Oh, well, of course, they were doomed to fail anyway, without KIPP, so no harm done, I suppose.)

    Third, this example in this context suggests that the effects of poverty are relatively easy to solve. Just take the TV away and all problems will be solved! (There is a certain resonance in this story with Republicans grousing about how people can’t really be poor in America if they have a smart phone or a flat screen TV.)

    Lastly, this model, to the extent that it does work, is not practical for all schools in poor neighborhoods. Like KIPP itself, it requires teachers who are willing to work 60-70 hour weeks. You can find a few teachers willing to put in those hours, but they tend to be in their mid-twenties and without families of their own. The model depends on people quitting after 5 years, in other words.

    So much for career educators. As a simple mathematical matter, I’d be curious whether there are enough college educated people 23-28 years old to even staff the available positions. On another level, however, I hope that teaching is seen as a profession worth entering and staying in. I do believe that veteran teachers bring tremendous benefits to their schools, even if their in-school hours shrink when they have children. And I would assume that the 5-years-and-burn-out model is unlikely to attract the best and brightest.

  4. Dana Goldstein

    Adam, I agree with you that the “Abby” story is both provocative and problematic. Just FYI, the book does describe several previous efforts Feinberg made to improve Abby’s homework completion, including simply talking to her mom about it. He only took the TV away after those less extreme tactics didn’t work.

    I resolve not to write about this incident anymore, because the other examples I cite in the post are actually far more typical and probably more effective ways to do parent engagement — literacy support, beginning-of-the-year home visits — but most readers seem to responding to the Feinberg stuff.

  5. D

    I have a truly radical idea. Rather than trying to invent a perpetual motion machine…

    Why not limit immigration from countries whose children fail in our schools?

    What possible sense does it make for America to import poverty, unemployment, and education failure from the third world?

    Do he have a shortage of poverty, unemployment, and failed schools? Do we really need to import more?

  6. Brian Roberts

    I think it’s obvious that parental involvement helps. There are also many individual schools and districts that are making an effort. Montgomery County Public Schools, where I live in Maryland has made significant effort with some success in this area. However, I see a big problem when trying to apply these ideas en masse as public policy. How are most schools and districts, increasingly cash strapped, going to budget for truly effective parental involvement programs? We could do it if we decided this was more important to our national security than drones in Yemen, but we’re not there yet. Instead we have to re-think the assembly line model of school that disgards the parts that don’t optimize the model. Differentiated Instruction and other tools are available to create a more inclusive and effective school model for all students.

  7. lemmy caution

    “D, we do need immigrants, in part because native-born Americans won’t do much of the hard labor that needs to get done to run our economy and food system. ”

    So people would starve without immigrants? I find that hard to believe. You can always find workers if you pay people enough.

  8. D

    Immigrants in Ossining are doing farm work? Who knew?

    A few obvious points. First, 96% of illegals don’t work in agriculture. Second, According to the Pew Hispanic Center 47% of crop workers in the U.S. are legal. Perhaps more relevantly, 71% of Midwestern crop workers are legal. Somehow America manages to produce food, even in the bleak, barren, and unproductive Midwest. Third, illegals are the cliche example of privitising profits and socializnig losses. A quote from a recent article by Ron Unz should suffice.

    “Most immigrants, especially illegal ones, work at relatively low paid jobs, and the various taxes they pay simply cannot cover their share of the (extremely inflated) costs of America’s governmental structure, notably schooling. Furthermore, for exactly this same reason of relative poverty, they receive a disproportionate share of those government programs aimed at benefiting the working poor, ranging from tax credits to food stamps to rental subsidies. Immigration critics have persuasively argued that the current system amounts to the classic case of economic special interests managing to privatize profits while socializing costs, wherein immigrant employers receive the full benefits of the labor done by their low-wage workforce while pushing many of the costs—including explicit income subsidies—onto the taxpayers.”

    Fourth, the plural of anecdote is not data. Philip Martin (America’s leading agricultural economist) studied “farm labor shortages” a few years ago (2007). He found scant evidence. See “Farm Labor Shortages: How Real? What Response” (link to

    “For several years stories in the media have reported a farm labor shortage. This study examines this question and finds little evidence to support this conclusion. First, fruit and vegetable production is actually rising. Second,wages for farm workers have not risen dramatically. Third, household expenditure on fresh fruits and vegetables has remain relatively constant, averaging about $1 a day for the past decade.”

    That was back in 2007. Have farm wages risen recently? Any marketplace evidence of labor scarcity? Why is that the laws of supply and demand are instantly forgotten whenever the dogma of Open Borders is challenged?

  9. D

    From “Labor Market Effects of Immigration Enforcement at Meatpacking Plants in Seven States” (link to

    Jobs Americans won’t do…

    “Thank you, ranking member Smith and Republican members, for the invitation to testify about two reports on how local labor markets were affected by immigration enforcement at seven meat packing plants in seven states.

    Six of those plants–in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Colorado and Utah– are owned by JBS Swift. In 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conducted raids that resulted in the arrests of some 1300 illegal immigrant workers at the Swift plants. The seventh plant is owned by Smithfield, in North Carolina. ICE agents conducted raids there in 2007, arresting several hundred workers..

    In addition to losing those who were arrested, the companies lost many others who worked on a different shift, but who did not report for work because they feared federal agents would return.

    The companies’ response to the raids provided an opportunity to test the claim, often heard in the immigration debate, that many American businesses have to hire illegal immigrants because Americans are unwilling to do the work.

    First I’ll describe the post-raid situation at Swift. All six facilities resumed work on the day of the raids, though at a reduced pace. To replenish its depleted ranks, Swift launched a campaign to recruit American citizens, green card holders, and refugees. It raised wages, provided bonuses to new workers, and paid relocation expenses. As a result, all the Swift plants were able to resume full production within four or five months.”

    “In conclusion, I would observe that the immigration raids were undoubtedly a profoundly traumatic experience for the families that were affected by them. But it is also clear that enforcement had a profoundly positive effect in the lives of American citizens and permanent residents who needed and wanted these jobs.”

  10. Greg Toppo

    D: That’s a truly radical idea: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … except the ones who tax our school system.”

    Let’s get back to the discussion.

  11. John

    So since the over funded system continues to fail now we need to divert the attention away from the egregious teacher benefits, salaries, job security ..let’s focus on something else.
    The real economy has been squandered with the burden of “education” costs. Taxes are out of control and why would anyone start something new like a business or leave a job for a new venture as they will be taxed out of business to fund legacy costs of teachers.
    Yep the poor school system the most over funded in the world with the lowest output. So teachers are over worked and under paid (ha .. ask the real producers in the real world funding this scam with real labor). If you have the “connections” or in with the right crowd you could be WEALTHY working as a teacher.
    The wealthy protected 1% are teachers on the east coast with a guaranteed jobs for life, huge pensions, gold plated medical benefits all this for life. Six figure salaries working part time regurgitating a script part time. ..Yep if we only had more resources and programs.

  12. Adam Grumbach

    Ms. Goldstein — to respond to your response. I was initially writing about Feinberg, but my final point was a response to the entire post.

    To restate — as you note, these fill in the parenting models require more money and time (“This kind of work is time-consuming and sometimes expensive”). But why is that where we should devote our resources? Whenever someone brings up the study showing that significantly smaller class sizes are incredibly effective at boosting achievement, they are dismissed as too expensive.

    Why isn’t this model too expensive to consider?

  13. D

    Gregg Toppo,

    The line about “huddled masses” was written Emma Lazarus who notably despised working Americans and wanted an unlimited supply of cheap servants. She bemoaned the

    “wretched quality of work performed by the majority of American mechanics and domestic servants”

    as well as the

    “false sense of pride that revolted at the very name of servant”

    The “huddled masses” line wasn’t attached to the Statue of Liberty until 1905 as Open Borders propaganda. By 1905 a majority of Americans were fed up with imported poverty and unemployment and supported tough immigration restrictions.

    As for the “discussion”.

    No one has found (or come anywhere close) a way of enabling the children of the underclass to succeed in our schools (or elsewhere in the world).

    We do know how to control our borders.

    Border control works. Dreaming of a make believe educational system doesn’t.

  14. B

    Great post, Dana! I’m surprised more people don’t make this point–but perhaps they don’t because they automatically gravitate to these intensive and expensive examples? There are a lot of other policy ideas that don’t necessarily involve huge costs and time investments. Private donations to help low-income families build a small library at home; connecting receipt of other government services to children’s attendance and behavior in school; providing bus rides to get parents to the school once a month, or rescheduling those times for shift workers.

    In addition, even if expensive, we have to ask what the costs of not doing these things are. It’s a lot cheaper to make modest investments in a good education for a few critical years than to have to spend a lifetime providing services and help for those that can’t secure and hold a job.

  15. Mike G

    Very good post. And some good comments, too.

    There’s a values/money question.

    a. Should teachers do more parent outreach with new money,
    b. Should teachers do this, but not get paid any more
    c. Is this a bad strategy

    But there’s also a bunch of efficacy question. Technical stuff. I wish this sort of expertise existed in the K-12 field. It does not. (The existing studies look for correlations. Not “what happens when teachers try X or Y or Z?”)

    What exactly is the payoff of a typical home visit by a teacher? Better behavior, more effort?

    Does the payoff matter if 15 minutes versus 60 minutes? Does payoff vary for parents of 5-year-olds versus 12-year-olds?

    Are teacher phone calls to parents more efficient than home visits (among KIPP schools I’d estimate that phone calls are 50x more common than home visits)?

    What do parents and kids think of this outreach?


  16. Greg Toppo


    Closing borders vs. educating the underclass is a silly and false choice.

    And don’t tell Finland that you can’t educate poor immigrant kids. It’s not make-believe, but it is hard.

  17. D

    Gregg Toppo,

    Your kidding right? Finland does vastly worse than the U.S. in educating immigrant kids. See “The amazing truth about PISA scores: USA beats Western Europe, ties with Asia.”. The author is a Swedish PhD student in the U.S.

    Here is what the Finish government says about this…

    “Among the many countries participating in PISA, Finland stands out as comparatively homogeneous in terms of both wealth and culture. In addition, the relatively small share of students with immigrant background undoubtedly plays a role in the Finnish success. Even if the share of students with immigrant background has risen sharply during the past years especially in the bigger cities, their share in PISA 2006 was still only 1.5%, when it was close to or over 10% in many other European countries.”

    Border control works in Finland. We should try it in the U.S.

  18. Texas Aggie

    There are programs in The Valley (along the TX/Mexican border) where the public schools make contact with the parents of children not doing too well. These programs seem to work and not only have the children done better in their schoolwork, but the parents have done better in their own lives.


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