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Of Schools, Single Parents, and Surrogates

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The statistics are by now familiar: One in every four or five students in school today lives in a home with one parent. And before they celebrate their 18th birthdays, nearly 60 percent of today's children may spend as long as six years in a single-parent home. Schools may need to develop different approaches to serve these children. But what precisely they should do--and what single parents should do--is not clear.

My recent work at the University of Wisconsin with middle-school parents indicates that schools should mind their own business. They should do what they can do and do it well. They should provide single-parent children, as well as other children, with a sound education. But they should forget about being surrogate parents to children just because one parent is missing from the home. They should allow parents to mind their own business of being parents to their children.

Schools operate under some misconceived generalizations about the single-parent home. They often feel that it is "broken" and, therefore, in need of outside assistance. They expect these homes to conform to a "Donna Reed" pattern of one parent working outside the home and one parent remaining in the home to care for children. Homes in which one parent fulfills both of these responsibilities are considered somehow deficient. This attitude however, suggests only one thing: Schools don't understand the communities and families they serve.

To understand single-parent families and deliver the services that respond to their needs, schools must address three issues: the nature of the single-parent family, the nature of the school, and what constitutes an effective meeting of the two.

Schools simply need to know what a single-parent family is. It isn't necessarily the stereotypical one adult living with children in a home that is economically, educationally, and culturally disadvantaged. There may or may not be other adults who help the single parent raise children. There may or may not be a high value placed on education and a willingness and the ability to help a child with academic and non-academic problems.

Schools also need to define what a school is in working with the single-parent family. Middle-school parents I have talked with suggest that school is a place where children should be able to talk to sympathetic teachers if they are having emotionally difficult times. It is not, they say, a place where children should be singled out. But despite this, single-parent children often are pulled out of class by well-meaning guidance counselors or social workers to discuss emotional troubles that are only temporary.

Parents also suggest in interviews that school is a place where children should be able to participate in supervised extracurricular activities after school and fulfill home duties. Yet schools usually do not allow for partial participation in such activities, so that students may attend events some days and be home other days.

Most importantly, parents agree with most educators that school is a place where all students should receive a quality educa6tion. For the single-parent child, getting a quality education may mean that the school must provide extra educational services that the parent lacks the time or the skills to provide.

To effectively address the needs of these children, schools need foremost to determine what constitutes an equitable meeting of the single-parent home and the school. And doing this requires that schools ask single-parent families what kinds of assistance they need. Many families do not need or simply do not want the school to assist them with personal problems. Others would appreciate information about resources that are available through other public and private agencies. Still other families do not know how to ask the school for help they need and desire. It is the school's responsibility to establish ways to determine, with input from families, what it should do and what the family should do to help children.

From my work, I have learned that there are specific things schools should and should not be doing to help. Learning when to respond and when not to respond will clarify the role of school and home in providing these children with better educational and family situations.

Schools clearly should not make three kinds of responses. They should:

  • Quit making unrealistic expectations of single parents. Between full-time employment, total responsibility for parenting, and maintenance of a home, many single parents do not have the time and, in many cases, the academic skills to spend significant amounts of time at night assisting with homework and tutoring their children with difficult assignments. They are also unavailable to come to school during work hours to volunteer or to meet with teachers and administrators.
  • Avoid narrow programmatic responses to the complex, varied problems single-parent children may experience. Do not assume a child will have problems just because he or she is being raised by a single parent, and do not try to run a counseling service for those children who do have problems. Many single parents want to take responsibility for these problems and feel that they are "none of the school's business."
  • Stop trying to be surrogate parents. While the school may at times disagree with the values of the single parent, the actual parenting of children should be left to the home.

At the same time, schools should respond to single-parent families in three specific ways to better define the role of school and home in meeting children's needs. They should:

  • Develop "real" communication between home and school. Real communication establishes two-way interaction between home and school that responds in a timely manner to the needs of individual children. Procedures for contacting the school that are accessible and comfortable for parents are an essential part of real communication. Schools need also to develop accurate methods of maintaining up-to-date records of changing family situations as the basis for effective communications.
  • Develop local responses to the needs of single-parent children. Collect information in the local district to determine the unique characteristics and needs of local families and children. Be flexible in modifying local programs to changing local family situations.
  • Strengthen the educational response to single-parent families. Realize that these families may need additional assistance with homework, tutoring for difficult subjects, or simply finding a place to study. These responses clearly fall within the school's primary mission of education.

Single-parent children are coming to school in increasing numbers. They bring with them a set of needs as varied and unique as their individual family situations. Schools clearly need to respond to those needs. But the most appropriate response is that schools mind their own business and do what they're best equipped to do: Provide children with opportunities to get the best education possible. This probably means providing additional educational services. But, after all, that's what schools are in business to do, it's what single parents want them to do, and it's what single-parent children most need.

Carolyn L. Wanat is assistant professor of educational administration at the University of Iowa. This essay is based on research conducted at the University of Wisconsin, a detailed report of which is available by writing her at the Division of Planning, Policy, and Leadership Studies, N495 Lindquist Center, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242.

Four Myths About America's Kindergartens

Education Week
Volume 10, Issue 33, May 8, 1991 p 32

Copyright 1991, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Four Myths About America's Kindergartens

How have we ended up withsuch chaos in the "garden ofchildren?" By assuming that theschool curriculum andorganization is monolithic andunchangeable.Not so many years ago, parents encouraged their children to skip a grade in order to get ahead. Now they keep them back a year to give them an academic edge on their peers. Over the past decade, driven by our national preoccupation with "excellence," "accountability," and "competitiveness," Americans have fallen victim to several myths about how children should begin school, creating unprecedented problems for our nation's kindergartens that may well reverberate into high school and beyond.

Myth 1: Raising the school-entry age produces smarter kindergarten classes.

There is no magic age for starting school. At 5, American kids, on average, enter kindergarten earlier than kids in Japan, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, and the Soviet Union. Variability within groups of children is normal. In any typical group of 5-year-olds, there may be a developmental range of nearly two years.

By moving the entry date earlier, only the relative range is affected. There will always be a youngest child in every class. Moreover, moving back the entry date gives aid and comfort to those who wish to create a more academic, less developmentally appropriate curriculum by encouraging them to consider kindergartners capable of doing 1st-grade work. Besides, older entry ages will require more preschool or child care, a difficult-to-afford, if not unavailable necessity for many middle- or low-income parents.

Myth 2: If kids aren't ready for 1st grade, we do them a favor by holding them back.

Research has shown that children who are retained in a grade perform less well in future academic work and may drop out of school altogether; for kindergartners, retention has been shown to have harmful effects on socioemotional development and self-esteem.

Data from the National Education Longitudinal Study--a survey of more than 20,000 students--has shown that students who were never retained spent less time in remedial class; had higher grades; scored higher on reading, math, and science achievement tests; felt greater control over their lives; and demonstrated a more positive self-concept.

Moreover, the decision to hold a child back may be based more on teachers' subjective judgments of students' learning abilities than on clear-cut poor grades or low achievement. Members of racial minorities, boys, and children from poorer homes are much more likely to be held back than their white or more affluent peers. Although failure rates have increased for all students since 1975, they have increased at nearly twice the rate for blacks as for whites.

Myth 3: Immature kids or slow learners can benefit from two years of kindergarten.

A recent study of "developmental kindergartens"--one of the many names given to extra-year or transitional programs designed to provide children who are academically, socially, emotionally, and/or physically "immature" with more time to grow and develop--showed that by 3rd grade, no differences in reading or math scores were found between developmental-kindergarten graduates and traditional kindergartners.

Even less encouraging, recent findings from a statewide study in Virginia showed that developmental-kindergarten students who spent two years before reaching 1st grade fell behind their peers who had only one year of kindergarten.

Worse, elementary schoolteachers don't seem to distinguish between children who were retained before 1st or 2nd grade and those who attended developmental kindergartens. A study has shown that, although teachers' perceptions of developmental kindergartners were more favorable than those of retained students, there were more similarities in perceptions of the two groups than differences.

Myth 4: Parents can help their children get ahead in school by holding them out from kindergarten until age 6.

Research has shown that being one year too old for a grade level increases a child's risk of dropping out by 40 percent to 50 percent for urban students. In addition to disrupting this delicate age/grade correspondence, the "holdout phenomenon," as it has come to be called, expands the age range in the classroom to 24 months--meaning that the oldest child may be 30 percent older than the youngest when entering kindergarten.

Because of holding out, 1st-graders who are barely 6 years old are being compared with 7-and-a-half-year-olds on standardized tests and must compete with older children for parts in plays and places on sports teams.

As the average age of a kindergarten class climbs, teachers inevitably shift their focus of instruction upward to meet the needs of older students and the expectations of their parents. Ironically, this reinforces the increasingly academic environment that brought parents to recommend holding out in the first place!

The result of these misconceptions is a four-tiered kindergarten class in which about half of the children enter at the developmentally appropriate time, another 15 percent to 20 percent are held back to repeat kindergarten, 10 percent to 15 percent have already been through developmental kindergarten, and an equal number were held out by their parents and are now entering kindergarten for the first time at age 6.

How have we ended up with such chaos in the "garden of children?" By assuming that the school curriculum and organization is monolithic and unchangeable. Rather than tampering with the system, and insisting that the academic curriculum of the later grades be flexible enough to accommodate the varied needs of students developing at different rates, we've tampered with entry ages--and our children's developing psyches.

What's needed is a willingness to reorganize schools in several key ways: by encouraging schools and teachers to adapt to students' varied learning styles rather than always expecting students to conform to school routines; by abandoning traditional elementary-school grade structure in favor of multi-age groupings with individualized programs for different students; by letting students of different ages and abilities tutor each other; and by devising alternative ways to assess what children know that recognize their right to be treated fairly, flexibly, and individually.

Samuel J. Meisels is professor of education and research scientist at the University of Michigan.

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