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Education Opinion

Don’t Leave Responsible Parents Behind

By Rick Hess — October 21, 2013 8 min read
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One of the remarkable things about contemporary education reform may be its lack of interest in responsible parenting. In recent years, an intense focus on closing racial and economic achievement gaps has resulted in policies and practices that can sometimes come at the expense of families that work hard and play by the rules.

Don’t misunderstand: Parents get plenty of lip service. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sounded all the right platitudes when he told USA Today, “Parents are always going to be our students’ first teachers. The most important thing I can do is to read to my children every night, to not have them watching TV and to really be a partner with that teacher. Parents have to step up.” Presidents, governors, and civic leaders are always saying things like this.

Yet school reformers have done little or nothing to encourage, support, or honor responsible parenting, and have seemed remarkably unconcerned with the possibility that their reforms might harm those parents who are trying to do the right thing.

Take the hotly discussed issue of college affordability. Proposals to rethink college loans and grants are plentiful right now, but hardly any see fit even to mention that families that struggle to save are today penalized by being asked to pay more so that colleges can offer bigger aid packages to students whose parents didn’t save.

In September, the Brookings Institution touted a new analysis that argued that state financial-aid systems “undermine” federal financial aid (because merit-based state aid is insufficiently redistributive). Utterly absent was even a pro forma reference to how these systems affect incentives for families to save. This simply reflected standard practice. Collegiate financial aid is driven by an “expected family contribution.” This figure, based on a family’s income, assets, debts, and future obligations, is an estimate of what a family can be expected to pay for college. Basically, people who save more are eligible for less aid. Yet this penalty for savers seems to bother none of the nation’s experts on higher-education policy.

For instance, of 15 major financial-aid white papers that were funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and released in 2013, just one (a College Board discussion of education savings accounts) makes any reference to encouraging savings. The rest are silent on this topic--including papers by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Alliance for Excellent Education, Association of Public Land Grant Universities, and Institute for College Access and Success.

While most states have created so-called 529 plans to encourage families to save for college, economists Roberto Ifill and Michael McPherson have found that saving money in 529 plans can reduce the amount of financial aid a family receives. For a middle-income family, the researchers estimated that an additional $100 in 529 savings would reduce the amount of aid they’d receive over four years by $15. They noted that families that use prepaid tuition plans or save in another manner thereby “reduce their eligibility for need-based aid.” Policy proposals start, reasonably enough, by asking how to help low-income students attend college, but they too often fail to consider how doing so might undermine desirable norms such as encouraging working families to save aggressively for college.

In K-12 schooling, most of the nation’s schools and systems avidly encourage teachers to “differentiate instruction.” In plain English, this means tailoring instruction to individual students. In theory, this makes terrific sense. In practice, it’s really hard to do for everyone. Today, given education’s monomaniacal emphasis on basic proficiency rates and closing “achievement gaps,” teachers tend to devote less attention to students whose parents have already equipped them to learn. For instance, pollsters Steve Farkas and Anne Duffett have reported that teachers believe their students are all entitled to equal attention but that, when asked who is most likely to get one-on-one attention, 80 percent said academically struggling students and just 5 percent said academically advanced students.

The “Teacher’s Guide to Success,” published by Pearson, lists 15 techniques to differentiate instruction for struggling learners, but less than half as many for gifted learners -- and many of those for the latter group amount to euphemisms for benign neglect. Teachers are advised to “encourage the reading of library books” and “provid[e] opportunities to sit in on special unit activities in other classes.” In June, the nonprofit literacy organization Reading Is Fundamental reported that just one in three parents read bedtime stories to their young children daily. The same report noted that children in families with an annual household income below $35,000 are more likely to watch TV (40 percent) than read books (35 percent). Reformers horrified by such statistics nonetheless promote policies and practices that effectively neglect the children of those parents who read to their kids, turn off the television, and focus on academic success. State accountability systems that emphasize minimum proficiency and teacher evaluation systems that focus monomaniacally on improving reading and math scores have the effect of marginalizing those students whose families have taken care to read to them and do math problems with them -- and who look to schools for more.

When it comes to school choice, it’s striking how quickly an admirable concern with the right of low-income families to exercise choice can turn into contempt for middle-class and affluent families who exercised the choice to pay a premium to buy a home in a high-performing suburban school system, and who resent the idea that families from outside the community who don’t pay local taxes have a right to attend their schools. The fact that parents may have worked hard, saved responsibly, and then bought a house in order to ensure their child a seat in a good neighborhood school is often treated as suspect. Adam Emerson, the “school-choice czar” at the conservative Fordham Institute, last year acidly attacked the residents of Zachary, La., for not choosing to throw open their schools to children who didn’t live in the district. Emerson blasted the community for “erect[ing] a fence around its public schools” and thundered at “those who make ‘sacrifices’ for the best [but] want to keep their investment exclusive.”

Choice advocates are right to argue that low-income children ought to be free to escape awful schools. But parents and homeowners who have paid dearly to purchase homes in desirable school districts also deserve some consideration. Rhetoric like Emerson’s turns school choice into class warfare, with reformers questioning the decency of parents who have worked hard to do right by their kids. Given that, it’s not hard to see why vouchers and charter schooling have played so poorly with suburban parents and homeowners.

All of this helps convince working-class and professional families that much of the education-reform agenda has no interest in or is hostile to their concerns. The result is that reform is tolerated rather than embraced. Gallup has reported that only about one in five respondents think “improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools” is the most important of the nation’s education challenges--yet it seems that five out of five education reformers think just that. This disconnect makes it hard to build broad, sustained support for reform.

In an era in which reformers have pledged to “leave no child behind,” raising such concerns can seem off-putting. After all, policies that reward responsible parenting will tend to magnify the advantages of kids born to educated, responsible parents. The consequence of our inattention on this score, though, is that education reform has steered around the role of parental responsibility and given short shrift to the policies and practices that can foster it.

Three ideas might help for a start. One is that savings ought not to reduce eligibility for college aid, at least not for professional and working-class families with accumulated assets of less than $1 million (the very wealthy may be another matter). This would permit need-based aid formulas to still factor into account earnings and substantial wealth, but would reduce the current penalty for savings.

A second is that school districts should adopt formal policies making it clear that accountability systems and established practices should not be taken as an excuse to short-change students whose families have helped them master basic skills. They should devise metrics and evaluate principals and teachers with an eye to ensuring that the focus on “closing achievement gaps” does not serve as an excuse to ask more-prepared students to babysit themselves for large portions of the academic day.

A third might be a pledge by school choice advocates that they will cease any and all attacks upon parents of means who have chosen to pay a premium for good public schools, and who have reasonable concerns about proposals that would change the terms of the deal by affecting the quality of their schools and harming their property values. Choice advocates should design plans with an eye to win-win solutions, such as aggressively encouraging the emergence and expansion of terrific new private and charter schools, supporting the expansion of choice to schools and systems that want to enroll participating students, and ensuring that incentives reward suburban districts that do choose to open their doors to students from outside their boundaries.

As usual, the penalties for parents who read to their children nightly or who save assiduously for college have little impact on the truly wealthy, who can insulate themselves in ritzy private schools and easily afford even Ivy League tuition. Instead, the costs fall most heavily on responsible working-class and professional families.

Education policy can and should help level the playing field. It’s admirable to put a thumb on the scale towards equalizing opportunity, but the aftermath of the Great Society should have taught us that nothing good is accomplished when technocratic reforms are allowed to displace responsible familial norms. A good place for reformers to start might be by taking their own version of medicine’s Hippocratic oath. They should pledge to at least ask whether their bright ideas are poised to weaken or impugn the very filial behaviors that they purport to uphold.

A version of this article ran previously here at National Review Online.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.