I read the headline of Gene I. Maeroff’s Commentary (“‘School Smart’ Parents Strengthen Education,” Oct. 25, 1989) with enthusiasm. I share the outlook it seemed to suggest, and since I’m always eager to read the opinions of someone who agrees with me, I started right in. By the end of the essay, however, Mr. Maeroff and I had parted ways--he having estimated too conservatively the role of parents in their children’s education.
Mr. Maeroff is correct to remind us of the great trust parents place in teachers and schools. His comparison of selecting a school with purchasing an automobile is apt: We “buy” our children’s education, he suggests, by taking the first car we come to on the lot, without even looking under the hood.
And once we’ve purchased our children’s educational vehicle, I might add, many of us fail to care for it properly. Plenty of parents drive into the self-service gas station as needed--in response to requests for conferences, signatures, and our presence at meetings--and we try to fix things when they’re not working right. But how many have plans for routine maintenance and upkeep?
Before he begins delineating his advice for parents, Mr. Maeroff warns that they “can take for granted nothing about the future of their children--including the quality and outcome of their schooling.” I agree wholeheartedly with his suggestion that they “observe classes and read themes, tests, and homework assignments"--and would further recommend that they do so throughout the school years, even though children will complain, scream, and accuse their parents of treating them like babies or not trusting them.
Mr. Maeroff is on the right course when he writes, “A wise parent gets to know a child’s teacher and establishes a dialogue with the teacher that lasts the entire school year.” But when he concludes that "[t]he teacher is the expert, and parents should be prepared to defer to him on many judgments,” he and I part company.
Most teachers are dedicated professionals who draw on their expertise in content and instructional methods to make schooling work for children; they often are more knowledgeable than parents about their subject areas, teaching strategies, and the ways children learn. Parents should seek and strongly consider their views. But teachers are not the only “experts” among us.
Parents are the experts on their children. We have known them longer and we know them better than anyone else. We are their first and most important teachers. And when we are being totally honest with ourselves, there is hardly anything anyone can tell us about our children that we don’t already know or couldn’t have suspected.
Many of the problems education faces stem from the fact that parents, schools, and society will not acknowledge this simple reality. The kinds of advice parents and schools might follow if they accepted the notion that parents are the experts on their children may suggest just how revolutionary this idea is.
Parents might participate in their children’s education in the following ways:
Put themselves inside the child’s formal educational process. They should review assignments regularly, even when work is being completed successfully and independently. Such involvement enables parents to see the kind of challenges the child is facing; to assess his ability to manage assigned tasks; to enrich or expand on the child’s studies; and to judge how he is performing without having to wait for a report card every nine weeks.
Catch their child doing well. When he comes home particularly excited, pleased, or motivated by something that has happened at school, parents might let the school know. A phone call or note will be appreciated and will alert a teacher to what works for a child.
Talk to the child about school; even interrogate him if they must. Parents should not just accept “fine” and “O.K.” One piece of information each evening adds up over time.
Trust their instincts. Whenever they feel uncomfortable about something they see in school or hear from the child, parents should ask about it--not in an aggressive, accusatory way, but in a responsible, inquiring manner, much as they might consult a mechanic about a whirring sound in their car’s engine.
They shouldn’t worry that they will become a bother. Each time they inquire, they’ll learn a little more about the school, the principal, the teacher.
After a while, all that learning will lead to trust--a trust based on knowledge, not one that masks ignorance.
Be advocates for their child. While backing the goals and expectations of the school, they should also support the child by helping him understand problems, find solutions, and avoid difficult or unacceptable situations. In such circumstances, parents should let the school know what they are doing and might suggest ways in which teachers and staff members can help the child.
Take their concern to the next level, if, after weighing the school’s point of view and after seeking compromise or agreement, they still have a problem with a policy, practice, or decision.
Other parents may have the same concerns. An unsatisfactory situation can go unchecked for months--even years--if no one speaks up. And even if no one else complains, the parents’ job is to ensure their child’s success in school; they must not let embarrassment or intimidation prevent them from fulfilling this responsibility.
To promote the constructive involvement of parents, schools might consider the following steps:
Acknowledge that parents are the experts on their children. Schools can learn something from all parents, even those who are neglectful, unresponsive, abusive, aggressive, or uninformed, and they should do whatever is necessary to incorporate parental expertise.
Be “proactive.” Parents who have been conditioned to think that their role in school is limited to joining parent-teacher associations, serving on advisory councils, or selling candy bars, magazines, and seasonal fruits will need to be encouraged to become partners in their children’s education.
Establish administrative procedures that ease access to staff members. Schools should ensure that phones are answered quickly by people who can direct calls and take messages accurately. Staff members should be urged to respond promptly, and parents should be invited to visit the school. Schools should provide for translators and guides as needed.
Make it part of the school ethos that parents’ concerns are considered legitimate and addressed. Staff members should be discouraged from categorizing, patronizing, or judging parents.
Recognizing that an important part of a teacher’s job is to communicate with parents on a regular basis. Schools should require parent-teacher conferences at all levels.
This position will require rethinking teachers’ schedules and accommodations.
Be prepared to forge true partnerships with parents--collaborations based on mutual respect and compromise.
The fact that parents depend on schools has sometimes given schools the upper hand when disagreements arise and provided parents an excuse for not speaking up. But schools depend on involved parents, too, if they are to do their job well.
In suggesting approaches for parental intervention, Mr. Maeroff writes that a savvy parent “should have a sense of just how far to push without jeopardizing the teacher-student relationship” and that “a school-smart parent uses intervention gingerly, not unlike a member of the police bomb-squad assigned to disassemble a device of unknown explosive power.” These views, with their misleading implications for teachers and parents, are unacceptable.
Rather, as professionals, teachers should be willing to gather and consider information from all relevant sources when making decisions regarding their students. One of their most important sources of information, solicited or unsolicited, is parents.
If parents are afraid that their children will suffer should parents make their wishes or concerns known, then something is wrong. Whether in a classroom, school, or district, such a situation is indefensible, and parents must complain--all the way to the top, if necessary.
A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as Parents Are ‘Experts’ on Their Children