When Schools and Teachers Don't Reach Out to Families, It's Bad for Everyone

There are a few surprises worth noting in Education Post’s recently released poll. One finding reflects the opposite of what one hears from teachers and policy wonks: Parents, of all backgrounds, consider themselves to be primarily responsible for their child’s success in school. According to the poll, we parents are pretty hard on ourselves. We tend to blame ourselves more than a teacher when things are going wrong. Forty-three percent of parents overall hold themselves responsible when a student is making progress, followed by students themselves (35 percent) and only 13 percent of parents consider teachers primarily responsible for their child’s academic success. graph Thirty-nine percent of parents blamed themselves when a student is falling behind, and 37 percent put the responsibility squarely at the feet of their own children. While only 14 percent of parents pointed their fingers at a teacher. Parents’ sense of personal responsibility in education is not exclusive to the white middle class. Education Post’s poll shows that black families hold themselves to an even higher standard of personal accountability than Hispanic or white parents; 53 percent of black parents hold themselves responsible when a student is doing well and 47 percent when a student is falling behind. For Hispanic parents, 46 percent hold themselves responsible when a student is making progress and 42 percent when they are not. These numbers drop even further for white parents: 39 percent said they hold themselves responsible when a student is making progress and 36 percent when students are not achieving. graph I don’t think I’ve ever read a blog post or opinion piece written by a teacher expressing the observations noted in this poll. To the contrary, more often I read complaints from teachers that parents don’t take enough initiative at home or aren’t involved enough in their children’s education. As a parent, however, this aspect of the poll parallels my personal experience. I may know of one or two chronically disengaged parents, but my local community is filled with moms and dads who may be too engaged—the proverbial “helicopter” parents. Friends of mine who are single parents or must take long commutes to work often express guilt that they cannot be more involved. By long commutes, I mean really long. I live in the Sierra Foothills, more than two hours away from the Silicon Valley and San Francisco. It is very common here for working parents to commute by car into Silicon Valley every day. In our modern reality of multiple jobs, single parenthood and long commutes, many of us struggle to give time, money and energy to ensure our children an optimal education. Making a living without an advanced degree is becoming increasingly difficult, and we parents are well aware of the high stakes, which leads me to my next observation in the poll. Despite parents’ focus on personal accountability, 75 percent also said “holding teachers and principals accountable for student achievement” is a top or high priority. Even more parents (84 percent) said “removing ineffective teachers from the classroom” should be a top or high priority to improve schools. And 40 percent cited public schools, not churches or community service organizations, as the first line of defense for students who don’t have enough support at home. Yes, we parents are quick to praise most teachers, and we are practically worshipful of a teacher with a proven track record of excellence; but we know the damage that a sub-par teacher can do. We discuss a dreaded teacher in low, hushed tones: “You don’t want to get saddled with that one.” graph We speak with fear and trepidation of entrenched teachers who, over time, have developed a reputation for disengaging students from learning or a reputation for dismissing parent concerns. Since there is no standard evaluation for teachers in our district, the accountability of record currently relies upon a sort of parents’ “oral tradition.” Which is, of course, bad for everyone. Ever played the gossip game? The kid at the end of the line rarely gets the statement right. Although some may see intellectual contradictions in this poll, I believe they are not seeing the whole picture. From a parent’s view, the poll accurately reflects just how much American parents long to be more engaged in our children’s education and how vital the public school system is today in maintaining the health of the greater community. Not all parents are able to be on campus every week. We need schools and teachers to actively reach out to us, not the other way around.  
Fran Spero is a mother to two boys, ages 7 and 10 in second and sixth grade. She lives in a semi-rural area in northern California, just south of Lake Tahoe.An earlier version of this post appeared on her blog, Education Safari, as New Poll: Parents Do Hold Themselves Accountable in Public Education.
Fran Spero is a mother to two boys, ages 7 and 10 in second and sixth grade. She lives in a semi-rural area in northern California, just south of Lake Tahoe.

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