School Reformers Must Stop Giving Parents a Pass
Kudos to state representative Gregory Holloway. The black Mississippi Democrat, a veteran legislator, has proposed a bill asking schools to grade parental involvement in their children's education. Called the Parental Involvement and Accountability Act, the bill addresses a crucial issue that has become too hot to touch for most politicians.
The case for responsible parenting may seem too obvious to merit discussion, but it's the elephant in the room that no one is talking about when it comes to schooling. This has hurt children, undermined efforts to improve schools, and embittered educators.
Not so long ago, American education-reform discussions were full of talk about parental responsibility and had too little mention of holding schools and teachers accountable. How times have changed. Today, there is an intense and generally healthy focus on ensuring that schools and teachers are doing their part. Along the way, though, the insistence that parents also do their part has been lost. We've worked so hard to avoid blaming parents that it's become controversial to even acknowledge that some parents aren't holding up their end of the bargain.
We got to this point by following a path of good intentions. In the No Child Left Behind era of school accountability, talk of parental responsibility sounded to many reformers and civil-rights leaders like an attempt to excuse bad schools and lousy educators. The resulting overcorrection has led to a careful-not-to-offend tolerance of the kind of parental behavior that would once have been roundly condemned. Today, we're loath to say much about parental responsibility when children skip school or don't do their homework. There are far too many cases where only a handful of parents attend PTA meetings — even when educators rearrange their schedules to accommodate parents. The status quo is especially destructive because it disproportionately affects schools with the most at-risk students.
Those who dare to talk about parental responsibility, Republican or Democrat, risk being attacked for doing so, sometimes in the most vitriolic terms. Indeed, some of President Obama's harshest criticism on the left has come when he has challenged black fathers on parenting. Indeed, Ta-Nehisi Coates, winner of 2016 National Book Award and a leading light of the contemporary left, denounced the president's stance in a 2013 commencement speech at Morehouse College, saying, "It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else."
Research echoes common sense when it comes to the profound effect that parents have on their children's academic outcomes. Children who are read to, talked to, and taught patience and self-discipline are far more likely than those who are not to succeed in school. As a study published in the journal Pediatrics demonstrates, whether and how a parent monitors his child's exposure to television has an impact on everything from school performance to obesity. Common Sense Media, which provides information about children's entertainment media and television habits, reports that nearly two-thirds of preteens watch television every day — most of them for many hours, and that half of all teens regularly watch television or use social media while doing homework.
Parenting is hard, demanding, unrelenting, and sometimes exasperating work, especially for an overworked, struggling mother or father. But that's where clear public expectations can help. While American society has grown quite comfortable using social pressure to discourage smoking and excessive drinking, we're reluctant to be equally assertive about encouraging parents to read to their kids, treat teachers with respect, and make sure that their children get to school on time.
Today, educators are increasingly being asked to be accountable for how much a student learns. Yet, what a pupil retains is a multifaceted product that depends, in part, on how much they study at home and whether they take their studies seriously. This is an important reality to remember. Teachers should not be blamed for things that are beyond their control. Recent debates about teachers who feel accused this way have been fraught with distrust and ill will. It will be far easier to forge trust and find common ground if we acknowledge that successful students require the help of responsible parents as well as accountable educators.
We are not sure that Representative Holloway's bill is the best way to tackle this thorny challenge. We're inclined to think that a better way to start might be with local school boards' adopting a parental bill of rights and responsibilities that more clearly articulates shared expectations for both parents and educators. Still, Holloway deserves great credit for his willingness to put a tough issue front and center, and we hope that his example will find imitators and fuel healthy debate.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Common Sense School Reform. Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow at AEI, former president of the Black Alliance for Education Options, and former schools chief in Florida and secretary of education in Virginia.