Don’t Just Blame the Parents
Schools can have an impact on a child’s success, no matter how low the student’s family income.
Perhaps the greatest divide in the educational debate in Milwaukee is not between supporters of traditional public schools versus supporters of options like choice or charter schools, but between those who believe the socio-economic circumstances of students dictate their success in school versus those who believe schools can significantly impact any child’s success.
These are weighty times for K-12 education in Milwaukee. The national shift toward a more rigorous set of academic standards may represent the greatest shift in educational policy in our lifetimes. Schools are expected to do more, with fewer resources, than ever before. Administrators and educators are subject to increasingly complex systems of accountability and evaluation. This complex milieu has given rise to heated public debate over many issues, including the role of parents.
And there I have noticed a marked divide between the public discourse over Milwaukee education and the private conversations that occur in backyards and barber shops throughout the city. Publicly, our leaders debate the delivery of education, accountability and teacher and administrator evaluation, and the most appropriate use of test scores and other assessments. Privately, so much of the conversation around education — from average folks to veteran educators — points to parenting. Without better parents, the saying goes, no educational innovation or reform will work. Poor parenting always leads to poor academic outcomes. End of story.
This idea has become a shortcut in thinking that truncates meaningful debate over how to improve schools. After all, if educational outcomes lie solely on the backs of parents, then schools that fail to produce good outcomes must be the kinds of schools that parents want, or deserve.
And, yet, throughout Milwaukee, there are schools that serve predominantly low-income students from tough neighborhoods and succeed in helping students achieve to their highest potential. By focusing on high quality instruction, and creating a culture within the school that encourages high expectations and high achievement, these schools, within MPS and among the Charter and Choice sectors, ensure that all students learn.
These schools can build parental trust and involvement through regular communication, and extending expectations onto not only students but also parents. Schools may require that parents attend parent-teacher conferences or sign off on homework. These expectations can be made explicit, and while not enforceable in a formal sense, can guide parent-school interactions. Oftentimes, peer pressure among parents can bring others into the fold to become more involved in the school.
Any steps schools take to involve parents in their children’s learning must be done in a spirit of openness and respect in order to be successful. Schools must approach parents as assets to be built upon, not deficits to be overcome. Almost every parent brings something to the table, and clear, regular communication, trust, and sense of community are key. Successful schools invite parents in through both formal and informal means, building positive, productive relationships.
All of this requires time and lots of hard work. But efforts to include parents must be made a priority by schools’ leadership, from the board of directors down, in order for the school to be successful overall.
Ultimately, quality can engage parents. If the work going on in a school is of the highest quality, if teachers are well prepared and supported to ensure that every child learns, if the school is orderly and clean, and the staff friendly and welcoming, then most parents, including those living in poverty, will respond. They may not transform overnight into the idealized parent who reads to their kids every night, but they may support the school as best they can, perhaps by providing a quiet place for a child to do homework, or by ensuring that kids are at school on time.
Parents are unquestionably their child’s first teacher, and must be included in some meaningful way in order for the student to succeed. But parents living in intergenerational poverty should not be the only ones blamed when schools don’t succeed. Too many of us fall into the trap of blaming parents alone. To do so not only misses the difference that great schools and teachers can make, but also makes these spirited and important debates about the future of education in our city less productive.
As Director of School Partnerships for PAVE, Dave Steele leads its assessment of school quality and works with over 50 independent charter and private schools. He also serves on the Data Task Force with Milwaukee Succeeds, a citywide initiative to improve educational outcomes in all schools.