Parental Negligence: 'Can't We Do Better?'

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Education Week asked a public-school administrator and a parent to watch and reflect on ABC-TV's recent special, "To Save Our Schools, To Save Our Children." Here are their reactions to the three-hour documentary:

Watching "To Save Our Schools" was, to put it in the fine cadences of my generation, a bummer. The program gave an overview of a very imperfect system, aspiring for the most part to "adequacy," resistant to change, expected to work miracles for society, and all the while undergoing a severe crisis of confidence and respect.

Depicted at the root of the system's problems were children (unprepared, unmotivated, or with special needs), teachers (many of the good ones quitting and many of the rest circling their wagons against reform efforts), local school administrators (failing to provide leadership), government (unwilling to supply needed funds), and parents (notable primarily by their absence). As the mother of three teen-agers and two preschoolers, something in me cried out, "Why can't we do better?"

As shocked as I was by the low academic qualifications of many of our teachers and their dwindling numbers, I was even more dismayed by the absence of parents from the educational process--surely not just an oversight of the producer. The effects of the parents' apparent negligence pervaded the entire program, from the plight of the latchkey child who did not know from day to day whether she would be locked out of her own home, to the fragility of children who set off to school each morning without adequate sleep or food, to the dropping test scores of teen-agers who are permitted to give more of their free time to television or part-time jobs than to their schoolwork.

It is small wonder that parents who ignore their children's basic needs appear to eschew participation in parent-teacher associations and other support organizations that can make the difference between a healthy and a stagnant educational environment. Perhaps exceptions must be made for people existing at subsistence level, where choices are illusory. But I think even the busiest parent can, and must, do more.

Adults in our society do not seem to accord the nurturing and education of children a high priority. It should come as no surprise, then, that the quality of our institutions--to which we are gradually shifting responsibility for these activities--is diminishing. While academic reform is obviously necessary--through legislation if need be to fill an apparent vacuum created by timid or indecisive administrators--will that be all our children need? Is it possible that even the best-intentioned bureaucracy, necessarily cumbersome and with limited funds, will find the inspiration and motivation to undertake tasks we apparently do not feel are worth our time?

Some schools will be terrific; these will be the schools where parents take an active role in academic, fundraising, and governance activities. And some will be mediocre or worse, most likely where a substitute for adequate family support is most urgently needed. Even the best teachers cannot engage the enthusiasm of sleepy and malnourished children, help children who have not done their homework progress to higher levels of knowledge, and reverse the influence of anti-intellectualism and anomie at home.

For many parents, full-time availability to their children outside school hours is not possible--whether for sociological or other reasons. Some parents will take steps to ensure meaningful supervision for their children during their absences and concentrated use of available time to reinforce shared values of respect for work and personal achievement. Where this is not done, there is little hope that our schools, even with extended hours and capabilities, can pick up the slack.

Vol. 04, Issue 03, Page 20

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