Commentary

Parents Have Failed in Their Responsibility

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Since the National Commission on Excellence in Education roundly indicted the public schools for failing to meet students' educational needs, individuals and communities have scrambled to discover how to improve education. For example, state and local school boards have rushed pell-mell to introduce new requirements in the schools in order to resolve their deficiencies. Meanwhile, those sending their children to parochial schools have renewed their efforts to seek tuition tax credits, for they have given up on the public schools. The advocates of competition between private and public schools and the proponents of vouchers usable at any school have also become more vocal and effusive in their claims. And at the same time, there are those who contend that requiring students to pray in school will reinvigorate the schools' moral climate, a prerequisite for well-mannered and well-educated students.

Despite their conviction about the measures and/or means they champion, the emphases of the first three groups--public-school supporters, parochial-school adherents, and free-enterprise advocates--are tragically misplaced. All firmly cling to the dubious assumption that institutional improvements alone will boost student educational achievement to its level of two decades ago, before the "great SAT decline." Therefore, improving the quality of teachers, curricula, and related matters is now enshrined as an article of faith by all (and they are many) who hold the schools exclusively or predominantly responsible for students' educational underachievement, regardless of whether they attend schools in low-income communities or affluent suburbs.

It follows, then, for those who trust that student improvement depends on institutional upgrading, that state and local governments should assign the highest priority to providing the funds for these improvements. It is no surprise that the politics of public-school funding is now the central issue in the effort to improve public education.

But while some of the measures adopted for institutional improvement will unquestionably be useful, it is not cavilling to say that most seem to have been inspired more by a sense of an urgent need to revive the educational process than by hard evidence of their efficacy as remedial measures. And although the approach of school-prayer advocates rests on the conviction that a sound moral climate will result from prayer and thus inexorably lead to higher achievement, there is some irony in the fact that this position comes closer to pointing up the factor most responsible for the marked decline in students' academic achievement--their inadequate motivation to learn and to be well-behaved in school. Indeed, it is a modern-day paradox that so remarkably few of those who have written about the plight of the public schools and/or the means for resolving their problems have considered, even referred to, students' under-motivation as being chiefly responsible for their educational shortcomings.

Yet, if the observations of the secondary-school teachers I have interviewed are correct, the disturbing decline in students' learning is largely the result of their dwindling motivation to learn, study, and behave properly in school. This has been the most consistent and emphatic comment that I have heard from the more than 150 teachers and school administrators I have surveyed over the past six years. And this conclusion is shared by many college faculty members who themselves have witnessed the increase in educational under-performance on their campuses since the late 1960's.

Understanding the impact of an affluent economy is central to any attempt to explain why students are educationally under-motivated. Affluence fosters habits of self-indulgence and the tendency to be self-centered, while weakening habits of self-discipline and the willingness to defer present gratifications for future ones. Why work if not to use one's income to enjoy--in the present--the host of goods and services that the rewards can purchase? Why not share them with one's children? Money is for survival in an economy of scarcity; in an economy of abundance, it is for consumption and pleasure.

Those who have grown up since the mid-1950's have increasingly enjoyed and taken for granted the comforts that their parents provided. Middle-class adolescents--the children of college-educated parents earning more than $30,000 annually who enjoy affluent lifestyles--whose sat scores have tumbled, receive ample allowances, often supplemented by income from part-time work, that have enabled them to cater to their entertainment, recreational, and social pleasures. Few have had to earn the things they've acquired .

As parents showered their offspring with this material bounty, they also tended to demand much less of them. Parents' leniency, permissiveness, neglect, and even indifference to their children has followed from the former's preoccupation with their own interests, and from the lack of time spent with the children when both parents work. Many believe that providing their children with ample material satisfactions adequately substitutes for the attention, love, and discipline they need. Yet, if adolescents watch television for an average of 22 hours a week, as surveys estimate, and listen to music for approximately 10 to 15 hours a week, when can parents supervise them properly or teach them to be self-disciplined--or self-respecting and respectful of others?

Accompanying and furthering this trend has been the steady erosion of traditional standards upholding parents' status and authority, which once assured them the respect of their progeny. In turn, this erosion of standards has considerably weakened parents' ability and willingness to establish and enforce rules. Consequently, children's and adolescents' independence, and their propensity to be pleasure-seeking, has greatly increased, at the same time augmenting the influence of their peers. The pervasiveness of drugs in secondary schools alone evidences how little effective authority adults exercise over students.

Realizing that they can freely question, challenge, and even ignore their parents' requests and orders, many adolescents have turned this psychic armament against their teachers. Since parents have largely withdrawn their active support from teachers and school administrators, a teacher's word in disciplinary cases now generally carries no more weight than that of the student involved.

Concomitantly, school administrators and school boards have become increasingly less willing to support teachers' authority because they, too, have lost much of theirs to parental apathy and antagonism. These changes, in conjunction with the decreasing influence of traditional academic and comportment standards, adolescents' intoxicating sense of equality with adults, and court decisions that greatly eroded the authority of school administrators, have drastically narrowed the schools' authority to command students' respect. Consequently, students unhesitantly take liberties with classroom requirements and school regulations, knowing that those are but weakly or inconsistently enforced, and are lax about learning and studying.

And why should that not be so? The profusion of undemanding elective courses (most graded by an undemanding pass/fail system also used by institutions of higher education, if for more challenging courses), the plague of grade inflation (unmasked by SAT and ACT scores), teachers demoralized by student misbehavior, drug use, and indifference to learning--all reflect the enfeeblement of those standards that motivate students to be dignified, respectful of others (including fellow students), and industrious in their studies. When parents do not uphold them, the schools cannot, and students will not. And no one is responsible.

Institutional improvements will do little for students who are disinterested in learning. Those improvements will, of course, benefit those who are committed to becoming educated, as numbers of them are. Therefore, those who continue to stress institutional improvements without placing at least as much emphasis on increasing student motivation may well be responsible for perpetuating the very conditions that have so undermined the educational process.

The responsibility for teaching students to be properly motivated, as teachers well know, rests entirely with parents. Day-care and after-school-care personnel cannot and must not be expected to assume so fundamentally important a responsibility. Since teachers and administrators can only reinforce and lend greater meaning to the values and habits that parents instill in their children, the latter's educational prospects depend almost completely on the quality of the parenting they experience today and in the future.

Thus, the ultimate issue confronting those who are concerned about improving the quality of education--from elementary school through college and beyond--is whether parents will not only fulfill their child-rearing responsibilities but also provide the support they owe teachers and school authorities. Parents' dereliction in rearing their children has been responsible for a generation of extremely self-indulgent youths who cannot be compared with any previous generation. This is most true, of course, of middle- and upper-middle-class students, who are generally overlooked by researchers and critics of public education. But it also applies to less affluent students.

Given the pervasive inadequacies of parenting today, a massive improvement in child-rearing is nothing less than imperative. More than anything else, the quality of parenting will determine the attitudes and behavior of children and, thus, the future of our educational system. After all, you can send a student to school, but you can't make him or her think.

Vol. 04, Issue 29, Page 24, 18

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