Dave Steele

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.

By - Mar 26th, 2013 10:13 am
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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.

There is no question that involved and engaged parents are a critical element in successful schools. And, as Milwaukee is one of the nation’s most economically segregated metro areas, our city schools see extreme concentrations of poverty that present huge barriers to meaningful parental involvement. Teaching is a demanding job in any environment. In places where poverty is prevalent, where parents are unable to engage in the work of the school, due to economic or other circumstances, teaching is even tougher.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Education: Don’t Just Blame the Parents”

  1. Joyce says:

    I love it when a journalist (or anyone) does an analysis that breaks out of the familiar left-right boxes and provides a new insight.

  2. David Ciepluch says:

    City of Milwaukee schools have about a 20% or one of five children that are cognitively or emotionally disabled. Suburban and outlying schools are at 3-5% or less than one in twenty students. Lack of good nutrition, health care, exposure in old homes with lead paint and soil and mold, endurance and exposure to alcohol, drug, physical abuses, poverty, jobs, and higher violent crime issue, higher percentage of felon release back into a concentrated are, also weigh on the community at large. Private schools will generally refer students with these issues back to the public school system so they do not have deal with them. A charter school is not prepared to deal with these issues and will duck testing and evaluation requirements. A system like MPS is left to blame and that somehow they are not doing a good job.

    All the while, charter schools will continue to siphon off needed funds from the MPS system. This is just another form of sabotage and the old bait and switch.

  3. Kyle says:

    Do you know what else siphon’s off needed funds from MPS? The perception that it’s not a good place to send your kids. At least with Charter schools, there is some reason to not leave Milwaukee as soon as your children reach school age.

    It’s certainly a challenge that MPS deals with more than their share of special needs children and poverty, but families that can afford the suburbs would be foolish to not consider their options. If I could be certain that my children wouldn’t be underserved by MPS, I would have considered remaining in the city. I don’t have the money for University school, but I do have the money to live in the suburbs instead. Now, my property taxes don’t go to support MPS. At least if I lived in Milwaukee and used a Charter school they’d still get that much from me.

  4. David Ciepluch says:

    My problem with charter schools is they do not follow the same rules, evaluation and testing as traditional public schools and siphon funding off from the taxpayer supported system. My children went to private schools and I paid for it out of my pocket as was my choice. I did not receive a voucher although I am not opposed to a voucher system.

    Decision makers and politicians today are expanding voucher, choice, and charter schools at the expense of the existing public school system. For profit schools and home school are being added to the mix. None of these will solve the existing underlying problems that I addressed earlier and these children are left with a crippled public school system.

    I went to Boys’ Tech in the 60s. Today this would be considered a choice school program. Students were tested when they applied. Some were not accepted. If grades were not kept up, students were sent back to the district high school.

    Milwaukee has many very good public grade schools. I know that high school becomes a challenge as the children become older, bolder, tougher, stronger, and gang mentalities take over in some schools. There may be some good options. The existing voucher system is an option or put in for a suburban high school.

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