Monthly Archive for July, 2007

Teacher Bashing a Myth

Diane Ravitch, long time commentator on education, after attending another conference on the state of school performance in the United States, says, June 14, in the New York Sun :

We have heard all of this before, for at least the past 25 years. When the time comes to talk about solutions, the conversation and the remedies always seem to focus on teachers. The line goes like this: Our students are not learning because our teachers are not smart enough, are lazy, don't care, get paid regardless of their effectiveness, and so on."

I think for Ravitch to accuse people of always blaming teachers for school failures is a grand over statement. What people DO blame are the systems that allow incompetence, neglect, etc. to occur and to continue. Many teachers I know do not want to work alongside a "bad apple" and equally see the system as the obstacle to accountability and reform. After giving many reasons why it is wrong to blame teachers, Ravitch however swings around and seems to blame parents:

I have not met all three million of our nation's teachers, but every one that I have met is hardworking, earnest, and deeply committed to their students. All of them talk about parental lack of support for children…

I find this statement hard to swallow, coming from a person loaded with credentials such as Ravitch. But the comments section responding to this article, while having many teachers grateful for the support, has a number of excellent comments from parents bemoaning their “powerlessness”.

Parents feel powerless Submitted by Debbie Smith, It's not that most parents don't support their children in school and that they don't push their children to work hard and succeed – it's that parents feel powerless in schools. For those parents who have remained involved in their children's education they have found 'tin-ear' schools that lack incentive to improve and school board members who are ineffective in their positions. As long as the monopoly on education exists our public school system will continue with the status quo, fighting every effort of reform along the way.

It is unfortunate, that to this day, many parents still feel excluded or rebuffed from meaningful experiences with their children's schools. The above cartoon really makes me wince,“hearing” the slamming door! Once parental authority and sovereignty has been displaced (usurped) by the system it is hard for individual parents or groups of parents to make a dent at reform or inclusion. Statutory help from government may be needed to restore some balance–either by making provisions for parent involvement in school or widening choice (vouchers, tuition tax credits, scholarships).

In British Columbia Parent Advisory Councils have been legislated since 1989 to provide some parent voice in public schools. See my articles on Parent Advisory Councils.

Choicelessness in Education Contributes to Poverty

One of the most important jobs of families is to ensure their children get an education suitable to their talents and needs. Most parents start out eager to help their children in their schools, but can rapidly lose self confidence if involvement is superficial or rebuffed. What really hurts is if parents are perceived as incompetent in their role in education and told to "leave it to the experts". Choosing a school for their child and staying actively involved has been shown not only to help student performance, but also to contribute to family enhancement and parental efficacy. Parental choice in education, as seen by Berkeley Emeritus professor John E. Coons, can also contribute to family financial health.

There are a lot of benign effects of school choice but, for me, choice is family policy. It is one of the most important things we could possibly do as therapy for the institution of the family, for which we have no substitute. The relationship between the parent and child is very damaged if the parent loses all authority over the child for six hours a day, five days a week, and over the content that is put into the child’s mind. "What must it be like for people who have raised their children until they’re five years old, and suddenly, in this most important decision about their education, they have no say at all? They’re stripped of their sovereignty over their child. "And what must it be like for the child who finds that his parents don’t have any power to help him out if he doesn’t like the school? We are always complaining about the lack of responsibility in low-income families. But, the truth is, we have taken the authority away from them in this most important aspect of their child’s life…. "It’s a shame that there are no social science studies on the effect of choicelessness on the family. If you are stripped of power and kept out of the decision-making loop you are likely to experience degeneration of your own capacity to be effective, because you have nothing to do.If you don’t have any responsibilities, you get flabby. And what we have are flabby families at the bottom end of the income scale."

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly supports parental choice:

Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Note that private and independent schools literature to parents often states things like: "The parents are the primary educators of their children. As your school we are here to help". They are enablers, not disablers.

Choice in Schools Still Widely Resisted

The Economist news magazine (May 5, 2007) reported

New research shows that parental choice raises standards–including for those who stay in public schools. FEW ideas in education are more controversial than vouchers—letting parents choose to educate their children wherever they wish at the taxpayer’s expense…the principle is compellingly simple. The state pays; parents choose; schools compete; standards rise; everybody gains. Simple, perhaps, but it has aroused predictable—and often fatal—opposition from the educational establishment.

Opposition comes from many sources, but mostly from occupations or services related to the near-monopolistic public school systems. Public school systems have bred whole industries and bulging middle management bureacracies where jobs and feelings of self worth depend on keeping their positions — regardless as to whether students get a good education or not. Teacher unions, education professors, researchers, school board officials and trustees and hosts of other dependents have superior skills, tools and finances to fight efforts to bring in parental choice in a marketplace of schools via vouchers, tuition tax credits or scholarships.

Parent Involvement: An Inalienable Right

Parents who feel so helpless and alienated from their schools need to know that they are right to feel upset about being unjustly excluded from their rights and duties regarding their children. Long standing research overwhelmingly points to the positive benefits of parent involvement in schools, and only recently have efforts been directed to apply the research. Parent Advisory Councils are legislated in British Columbia public schools and serious funding is provided to assist parents to have a voice — individually on behalf of their own children and as members of parent groups assisting in decisions regarding their schools. See BC Confederaton of Parent Advisory Councils. It’s been a long haul. In 1976 I attended the First National Conference on Parent Involvement in San Anselmo, California. At the close of the conference, we enunciated a Statement of Principles:

Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children. (Article 26, Sec. 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948)

Universal education of youth is essential to the well-being of the State. The obligation to furnish this education rests primarily upon the parents. (First school laws in America, Massachusetts, 1642)

Basic Principles Guiding Parent Involvement We believe the inalienable right of parent involvement in the education of their children and the community’s children needs to be strengthened and reinforced. Operational Principles Guiding Parent Involvement 1. Information is a basic requirement if parents are to exercise their responsibilities in an informed and rational manner. Information on programs, options, rights of parents and students, etc., shall be readily provided to parents and be available at the schools and pre-schools their children attend. 2. Mutual Support and Encouragement is essential if parents are to gain the strength and skills required to carry out their obligations. Parent and Community groups are urged to provide those vehicles and skills which will promote parent competencies in the home, schools and community. 3. A Sense of Community which values a diversity of cultures, opinions and individual differences is essential to ensure a place and a role for every member of the community. Schools in particular are urged to foster the sense of community by developing programs, skills and opportunities that enable students, parents and other community members to work together in areas of mutual concern and interest. 4. Professional Responsibility must include a devotion to the support and strengthening of parent and family skills. Professionals need to be made aware of their role in assisting parents to serve as their children’s primary educators and advocates. 5. Legislation and Policies are required which will support parent involvement. It must be ensured that parents are involved in the decisions that affect them and their children.