Blaming Parents for Poor Schools

President Obama called for “more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents” in his state of the union address and the NY Times has followed this up with a debate on its pages, Blaming Parents for Poor Schools, which, I think, encapsulate the issues of why schools are so resistant to change. The debate breaks down along the standard lines we’ve seen since compulsory schools were established in law in the mid-nineteenth century.

The parents-are-the-problem side claims:

  1. Poverty isn’t the problem; poor parenting is. “Chinese immigrants, most of whom do not speak English, are thriving in (public) school and the labor market. What explains their success? Families that provide stability and discipline while prizing academic achievement above all.” []
  2. Rich and poor parents need to set more and higher standards for children. Parents need to “get together and expect more from both their children and their schools.” [ and]

The just-fix-the-schools side claims:

  1. “Blaming parents for struggling schools or low student performance is inaccurate, unfair and shifts the responsibility from where it should be: inequitable school funding, high class sizes, soaring poverty and failed leadership.”
  2. Schools can change for the better by devaluing “rote learning and mass testing.” Parents should better appreciate their role and be prepared to respond to teachers to ask, “How are you going to prepare your child’s mind at home before you hand over your most precious creation to me?” []
  3. “If the country wanted them to succeed, it would leverage our tremendous national treasure to support the work and expense of being a parent and create for every child the kind of humane, relaxed, resource-rich, joyful learning environments that wealthy children already enjoy.” []

None of these arguments are new; the Coleman Report (1966) laid out the essential finding that parental background and socio-economic status determine one’s educational outcome more than school and its resources do and its findings have been upheld in subsequent research. Rather than focus on this larger picture on our screen, we have grasped onto the pixel of instruction and determined that it is the key to everything. “Make instructors better, then children will learn better, and all will be better” seems to be the thinking. This is unlikely to change anything, as over 160 years of compulsory schooling, accompanied by nearly 160 years of complaints and reforms of compulsory schooling, have passed and the best educational insight we can offer from this effort is to make parents rally around school and children work harder. The fact that homeschools and alternative schools also produce students who excel in college and work proves that conventional school isn’t the only way to become a good citizen.

Nonetheless, all sides in the NY Times debate assume that school—as it is or as hoped it will be—is the most important institution to help children learn and grow and the only place where they should be during the day. Parents should do their job well then turn their kids over to the schools so they can do their job. We must keep to our roles! This logic is why we are told that it is our duty as parents to be the squeaky wheels and advocates for our children in school. It is odd that some school reformers are asking parents to go beyond being advocates for their own children and act as the local quality control for schools that one expects from accrediting agencies or the Dept. of Education. Indeed, one debater claims in the Times article, “The best solution is to make sure there are pushy middle-class parents in every public schools. These parents have the time and resources to be involved in school affairs, and they know how to the pull the levers of power to raise standards, and to push out mediocre teachers. They can fight for all kids in a school, whether rich or poor.”

Placing the onus of school reform on the dwindling middle-class seems a particularly unfair solution, particularly since many middle-class parents have tried to be forces for positive changes in their local public schools and have been met with indifference, resistance, and sometimes hostility. Further, when working with educators it is not uncommon to hear them make this statement—“If only more parents were involved in their children’s educations . . .” But when you suggest that educators’ work load would become a little more manageable if some of those parents homeschooled their children, thereby giving the classroom teacher more time with fewer students, the message is clear: “We don’t want parents to be that involved!”

Isn’t it possible that we need a new structure and conception of school, not just new curricula and teaching methods? A structure where children and parents who wish to do something besides conventional schooling are viewed as co-creators with teachers and administrators in the education process? Must the relationship always be master to pupil? There are times when such a relationship makes sense, especially when the pupil decides to learn from the master, as in the martial arts, music lessons, and other areas. But in school there is no choice and the power dynamic is always strong and in favor of the “sit down, shut up, and do as I say” approach to learning. However, homeschoolers and alternative schools have lots of literature on the subject of negotiating and discussing issues with children of different ages and with other adults instead of treating them as empty vessels in need of filling. By mingling, conversing, and doing things together, over time, meaningful thoughts and actions emerge from those encounters. There isn’t a textbook or a test in sight, yet people deeply learn in these informal situations, too. The work of Sugata Mitra, Dr. Alan Thomas, Dr. Peter Gray, and John McKnight are four examples of work and research in this area that provide some remarkable evidence about our abilities to learn without formal schools and teaching methods. (Alternatives to School is another; it is an online effort I recommend and that I am part of).

So—what if the problem isn’t, “How do we make kids put their nose to the grindstone of standard schooling with more energy?”, but instead, “How can we reorganize education around modern concepts of active learning, family, and community participation in a fractured, technological world?”

Slowly, by personal choice, and without any public or private institutional funding provided to families, homeschooling has grown to an estimate of more than 2 million children being taught at home in the United States today (about 3% of the U.S. schoolchild population). Homeschoolers get into college, travel independently, or go directly into business, just as nonhomeschoolers do, but often without the same debts of time and money. Wouldn’t these alternative learning routes be of interest to schools, guidance counselors, and teachers for students whose parents don’t want to homeschool, but who know their child wants or needs something different than what school offers? Can’t schools create flexible schedules with willing parents to allow for other activities during the school day? There is a large ecosystem emerging to support independent learners of all stripes. For-profit schools are offering classes, activities, and events for homeschoolers during school hours; learning centers are increasing their offerings to homeschoolers locally and online, and homeschoolers have always formed learning co-operatives to share local information and resources. Innovative nonprofits like North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens enable families to take their children out of bad high school situations and give them a place to hangout, talk, take classes they want, and engage in work or internships they couldn’t do in regular school. North Star provides a model for how other groups can engage parents who aren’t ready or able to homeschool, but who know their children need something more than conventional high school.

There is another way to look at the situation that many parents and teachers (typically, but not always, in alternative schools) have decided to choose, and that involves not looking at the school as a compulsory processing plant for children that morphs them into good citizens, but rather as a tool to be used by citizens throughout their lives as needed, like a library. In fact, many people view the Internet as a huge public library and see its potential as such to be a game-changer for schooling. But there is more needed than distance learning to make the Internet a game changer for education.

Homeschooling didn’t need the Internet in order to become the growing alternative to school it became in the late 20th century; its numbers were increasing well before the Internet took hold of our lives and imaginations. But the Internet has further enabled the growth of homeschooling, if only by showing people that knowledge isn’t trapped in school buildings and teachers and is abundant and accessible in the world outside of school. The Internet not only makes education more transparent, it also makes it more readily available to the public than conventional school classes: education has spilled out of the classroom and is available on YouTube, the public library, your local coffee shop, adult education center, and in various online learning formats on demand. Experiences, such as travel and volunteering, are repackaged as educational experiences, and some can even be taken for academic credit. These changes are happening outside of the public school classroom; why can’t schools adapt them and use them, too? Engaging parents, students, and adults in the community who want to support children and learning can be a much broader and enjoyable effort than telling parents to become cranky consumers who demand that schools do a better job.

Most educators deride such variety as cafeteria-style education, but more and more parents and children are seeing the value of on-demand learning and homeschooling allows them to mix and match ideas, books, and experiences to blend their own schooling formula for each child. Needless to say, such motley curricula frightens those who believe only in the linearity of on-command learning (“Read a book and take a test to prove you learned it.”). However, as many people learn once they leave school to live and work in the real world, learning is much more nonlinear than school makes it and takes place in many different ways—through conversation, personal reflection, at work, or in the course of events in one’s life. Why should this not be true of children, too?

Rather than blame homeschoolers for abandoning public schools (in my experience, there is often a history of attempts to work with the school to make it better before a parent decides to homeschool) it would be more useful to examine how and why homeschoolers teach and learn without the resources and funding their local schools have. Also, since many homeschooled children move in and out of conventional schooling during their school years it is not always an all in or all out of school situation if you homeschool, so stereotypes of isolated homeschoolers and obtuse education bureaucrats fail to describe the reality on the ground. Schools and homeschoolers can form fruitful partnerships, though they are often created under the radar to avoid the wrath of bureaucrats who want to keep school a walled citadel of education, as well as from strident homeschoolers who fear any cooperation with public school diminishes homeschooling freedoms.

By seriously engaging homeschoolers in their communities as partners in learning rather than competitors, schools will find that some homeschoolers choose to use school offerings voluntarily on a part-time basis, thereby placing willing students into a classroom, which can have a positive effect on the other students who are compelled to be there. Further, schools could benefit from the variety of approaches homeschoolers use, learning what sorts of opportunities exist for children outside of school and how they might exploit similar opportunities to open their school curricula more. For instance, with smartphones and clear communication between families and schools, why can’t students in school (whose parents agreed) be allowed to use public resources such as museums, libraries, and parks for their studies during the school day? A teacher could be in charge of such students, using technology to keep track of their activities, mentoring them at various times and locations during the week, shepherding them around town, and documenting their learning. Homeschooling and alternative schooling show that there is much more to learning than seat time in class; schools can explore this notion more fully than they do now by viewing homeschooling as, in the words of teacher and homeschool advocate John Holt, “a laboratory for the intensive and long-rage study of children’s learning and of the ways in which concerned adults can help them learn.”

The Internet’s biggest change was when it went from being a broadcasting medium to a social medium, where users create much of the content and personally engage with one another. Marketers and businesses responded quickly as they saw how much more engaged users became with content when they were asked to be vital participants of websites rather than just consumers, and Internet 2.0 was born and thrives today. School is still broadcasting, telling everyone what to think, demanding participation, and using fear (tests and grades) to motivate students, faculty, and parents. As long as the schools and parents feel schools alone are responsible for education they will continue to push out the same blame and arguments we see above. However, if schools would view themselves as genuine partners to families, open to new ways of learning and improving the old ways for those who prefer to learn in conventional schools, they could be part of the co-creation of other places, people, and opportunities for children and adults to learn that is happening not just in the United States today, but around the world.

As the Coleman Report, the work of John Holt, and others have noted, by providing the conditions for learning to flourish, it will. Teaching and learning are not mysteries to humans; healthy humans learn and share their knowledge and have done so since the beginning of time. Despite the president’s and the NY Times’ persistence, I think it is better that we be more involved with our children and engaged in our communities than it is to be more demanding parents within schools. Schools and teachers don’t need more people demanding they make school better; they need fresh ideas and support for helping their students during a time of dwindling finances and public support.