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The Problem is Parents: Teacher says debate has ignored a crucial issue

Ohanian Comment: This reader is correct in calling this blame game a "contrived issue." This is the corporate-politico game plan: Play the blame game. Get teachers blaming parents and vice versa.

Reader Comment: At the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference last year one of Secretary Arne Duncan's minions -- Peter Cunningham, a member of the "Chicago Team" as this young man called himself -- began the session on policy by blaming parents. I was honored enough to be the last word in the question and answer session and said "Stop the blame game."

It is not the parents' fault OR the teachers' fault. It is a contrived issue pushed by people in power who want to keep our society from growing into the democracy our forefathers envisioned and move beyond it. Statements like this poem do more harm than good for the profession and the students entrusted to the care of teachers. Many questions swirling around right now. Many, many questions.

1) Really, it is the responsibility of parents to talk to you about their kids?
2) What about you? Did you go their home?
3) Do you tell them something positive and not only the problems you see in their child?
4) Do you accept them as loving, caring concerned people who love their child?

I don't see that in this poem... rather this cop out to get pressure off of themselves and onto people who can't defend themselves - especially if they aren't of the teacher's socioeconomic status.

5) Parents -- many of whom do not have an education -- must go to you? Many of whom work two and three jobs just to put a roof over their head HAVE to go to you?

6) Many parents do not have the time to come to you during the day... why? Because like you, they work. They think schools will serve their smart, intelligent children and do what they can to provide food and shelter... no mention of healthcare because it just isn't available to most.

The problem is NOT parents. The problem in our educational system is poverty. The eradication of poverty in our affluent country would eliminate any need for criticism. If we want to compare apples to apples in education systems look at the poverty levels of nations like Norway to ours.

by Robert Kings

Evan Camp's frustration had built up to the point where he couldn't shed it even by feverishly cleaning his house.

To him, all the talk about education reform seemed to be about punishing teachers, especially the part about tying teacher pay to test scores.

So Camp, a middle school science teacher in Greenwood, started jotting down thoughts as he cleaned one Saturday afternoon. Soon, he had enough material to write a tome for beleaguered teachers that would become an open letter to Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

The crux of the problem, Camp wrote, isn't really teachers. But when it comes to talking about the problem, "teachers often bite their tongues and often have to portray Zen-like patience."

"The problem," Camp wrote, "is parents. There. I said it. Parents."

He then went on to share all-too-frequent tales of parents who don't show up for teacher conferences, parents who never ask to speak to teachers about their children's failing grades, and children who fail and laugh it off, saying, "I won't get in trouble. My parents don't care."

Camp managed to give the letter to Bennett and received a friendly e-mail in return that left it unclear whether the superintendent had read the lengthy manifesto. It's unclear whether Daniels has seen it.

But the letter, shared with a teachers union rep, then put on the Support Indiana Teachers Facebook page, seemed to take on a life of its own. Hundreds of supportive e-mail and Facebook comments later, it was clear that Camp had tapped into something that education experts agree is an issue, yet has received little attention in the education reform debate.

In the pending legislation and the surrounding debate, parents have been cast as the frustrated victims of a failed school industry who are in need of an escape hatch.

A new voucher program would give parents the ability to pay for private school tuition with tax dollars. An expansion of the charter school movement would give parents the option to try more nontraditional schools than ever before.

But what Camp -- and, it would appear, plenty of other teachers can't fathom -- is why there hasn't been a peep about demanding more from parents.

The concept is not as outlandish as it might sound.

Already, magnet schools in Indianapolis -- public schools with special niche programs -- can and often do require parents to come to teacher conferences and volunteer a certain number of hours. Failure to do so can mean the child is booted back to a traditional neighborhood school.

Elsewhere, Colorado law requires parents of children in preschool to be actively involved or risk dismissal from the programs.

Tennessee passed a law last year that requires parents or relatives receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to participate in a parent education training class or to volunteer in their child's school.

And Georgia has a law that says courts may order parents to attend conferences at school and to participate in programs designed to improve the student's behavior. Failure to comply can result in fines of up to $500.

Camp suggests in his letter that the much-ballyhooed charter schools are successful because they can require parents to be involved. He suggests that traditional public schools should do the same.

"Legislate parent involvement like this," Camp wrote, "and all schools -- public, private, charter -- will succeed."

It's a provocative notion, though not one that's gained much traction in Indiana.

In recent years, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White and state Rep. Phil Hinkle have sought legislation that would refer parents of truant students to the state's social service agency, with the threat that welfare benefits could be reduced.

Under the proposal, parents seeking to keep their benefits intact would have to attend parent conferences and volunteer in their child's school.

Each time Hinkle has offered a bill to such an end, he says, it has failed to even get a hearing.

"How do we go about making parents totally responsible," Hinkle asks, "if we don't hit them in the pocketbook?"

"I think they don't want to be seen as insensitive to a poor mother," White said. "However, if the government is supporting you in raising your child, then you have an obligation to support the government in making sure your kid goes and gets an education."

Part of the problem, as White alluded, is that tapping welfare benefits would only punish parents of the poor. Parents who are rich but inattentive to their child's school would still be beyond reach.

Department of Child Services Director James Payne said that, as a juvenile court judge, he made parents of truants ride the school bus with their children if that's what it took to get the student in class. And that approach could be applied to parent involvement.

But White, Hinkle, Payne and many others say a big risk of any such parent accountability plan is that if money is taken out of the home, children might wind up being punished as much or more than parents.

"I think we have to be careful in using a stick approach," John Brandon, president of the Marion County Commission on Youth, said Thursday night during an event promoting parent engagement in schools. "While our target may be the parents, the one who actually gets victimized is the child."

Practically speaking, most educators and scholars agree that it would be difficult to come up with objective ways to legislate or mandate parent involvement.

It is easy to check on whether a parent attends a conference with a teacher or performs volunteer hours at school. But a parent's most valuable contribution typically occurs elsewhere -- in ensuring homework gets done and in making it clear to their children that school is important.

"If I have to choose anything," said Warren Township Schools Superintendent Peggy Hinckley, "all I care about is what they do with their child at home."

There also is the concern by some that shifting blame to parents might too easily let teachers and schools off the hook. Educating children, after all, is a shared responsibility.

Anne T. Henderson, a leading researcher on parental involvement in schools who is a senior consultant with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said good outreach to parents -- along with training that teachers like -- are two of the most important factors in gains in student achievement.

But Henderson said parent involvement couldn't effectively be mandated.

"I think we need to take a proactive, preventive approach, but not a punitive approach," Henderson said. "I don't think that would work, and I don't think there's any research that shows it would work."

But, she said, there are things schools can do that don't involve a big stick.

Teachers must reach out to parents and meet them face-to-face, either by meeting them in the afternoon car pickup line or going to their homes. They must stay in touch with parents when things are going well, not just when there is a problem. And they must send home learning materials that parents can work on with children.

"What's important," she said, "is that the culture of the school is family-friendly."

Indianapolis parent Loren Sprowl, who has 10 children, including five who are adopted, agrees that parents must be involved, but he also doesn't believe a punitive approach would produce good results. Instead, he suggests efforts to better educate parents.

"Most parents, as a rule," he said, "are not aware of what they can do to help the child."

Camp, the Greenwood teacher, said there are many parents who care about education and who instill that value into their children, despite the presence of others who are missing in action. And he said he understands that it is no simple prospect to push parents to care by wielding new laws.

Still, he says, the problem of parental involvement is too crucial to ignore.

"The problem is not in schools," he said. "The problem comes down to the disintegration of the family unit."

— Robert King
Indianapolis Star





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