Education Opinion

‘School Smart’ Parents Strengthen Education

By Gene I. Maeroff — October 25, 1989 6 min read

Think of the degree of trust that most families place in the schools.

For example, despite the talk about “choice,” the fact is that most students still willingly attend schools to which they are assigned by their districts. Principals and teachers are seldom of the family’s choosing; they merely come with the territory. This arrangement is accepted largely without question by most families.

Neither parent nor child is consulted about the books to be studied, and such protests as the 1974 uprising in Kanawha County, W.V., are rare. The curriculum comes from on high, garnered from a source seemingly as distant to the family as the Mount Sinai from which the Ten Commandments were handed down. Again, there is scant objection to this process.

Succored by blind faith, parents hope that all will go well in the education of the children they have turned over to the schools. To be sure, families have opinions about what ought to happen in the course of that education, but relatively few do much to check up on the schools. Parents tend not to know what is being taught in a given subject at a given time; most have only the vaguest feel for how the schools are doing in meeting the needs of their children.

Many parents do not even avail themselves of the limited feedback offered by the schools. All too often, invitations to talk with school officials go unanswered. Parent conferences and open-school nights in some places get as much attendance as a lecture on antelopes at the public library. And when a district tries to draw parents into the schools by requiring them to pick up their children’s report cards in person--as was done in New Orleans, for instance--some report cards go unclaimed for months.

Parents would never behave so cavalierly or remain so aloof if they were buying a new car: Hoods would be lifted, test rides taken, brochures pored over. Adults think nothing of investing more time in selecting an automobile than in choosing and monitoring a school for their children.

Parents need to exercise greater influence in the education of their children. They can increase their impact in two main ways: by reinforcing the mission of the school at home and by monitoring their youngsters’ progress.

The reinforcement should begin in infancy and carry through the school years as parents demonstrate by word and deed that they value education. They should strive to ensure that their children grow rich in language and gain a wealth of experiences promoting healthy emotional, social, and intellectual development. The monitoring depends on parents’ developing some notion both of their children’s performance levels in all subjects and of the appropriateness of that achievement.

The work of researchers at the center for social organization of schools at the Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere underscores the positive effects on achievement when children’s parents are involved in their education.

Families cannot count on the schools to look after the educational needs of every child. It is not that teachers and principals and school-board members are uncaring; they usually do what they can to protect the interests of schoolchildren. But with 45 million students in school, there is just so much that even the most responsive and humane system can do for each child.

After all, parents can take for granted nothing about the future of their children--including the quality and outcome of their schooling--in a society troubled by drugs, aids, violent crime, environmental deterioration, and international economic competition. There are certainly advantages conferred upon some children by virtue of the education, wealth, and social class of their parents. But even those parents who are college graduates cannot safely make assumptions about what is in store for their children. How much can be passed along to children is not as certain as it once was.

Nor is the failure to know what is going on, or not going on, in the schooling of their children by any means limited to less advantaged, less educated parents. Affluent parents, too, leave much to the schools and are often uninformed about the progress of their children. There is a misapprehension that parents of higher socioeconomic standing automatically do what is right for their children at home and that somehow these parents know what is happening in the schools and whether their children are fulfilling their scholastic potential. It just is not so.

It is up to parents to learn how to build a foundation for their children’s language development, find the best child care, make the most of the year leading up to kindergarten, and pick the right school district. They must then strive to arm themselves with the knowledge they need to be satisfied that their children are getting all they should out of school.

Parents should meet with teachers, observe classes, and read themes, tests, and homework assignments that their children bring home. In addition, they ought to gather information about what their children are studying in each subject throughout the year. Thus equipped, parents are better able to discuss schoolwork with their child in ways that are revealing about the child’s academic progress.

The classroom teacher in an elementary school is surely a parent’s most valuable resource for assessing the progress of a child. A wise parent gets to know a child’s teacher and establishes a dialogue with the teacher that lasts the entire school year.

The teacher is the expert, and parents should be prepared to defer to him on many judgments. But they can learn to ask the right questions so that their interaction with teachers can be most productive, just as a patient should learn to do with a physician. A savvy parent who is dissatisfied with a teacher’s response should have a sense of just how far to push without jeopardizing the teacher-student relationship, as well as an idea of the point at which to turn to the principal. 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.

Parents would be better able to reinforce and monitor schools on behalf of their children if the schools made it easier and more convenient for parents to assume those roles. A step in this direction would be for districts to emulate such approaches as the “Parents as Teachers’’ program in Missouri, which provides information and counseling to families with preschool-age children.

Once children are enrolled, schools should offer information about the curriculum in an ongoing manner. If newsletters and conferences aid this effort, then they should be available.

Schools could also help by taking family situations into account when providing information about students. Sometimes, for instance, even when parents would like to do better, divorce robs children of the advantage of having the full-time involvement of two knowledgeable advocates. Schools frequently exacerbate the problem by not duplicating for the absent parent the communications sent to the custodial parent.

Employers could do their part by giving employees time off to visit their children’s schools for conferences and classroom observation--activities no less important than jury service, for which absences from work are excused.

Schools should welcome and cultivate school-smart parents because they are more likely to produce school-smart children.

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 1989 edition of Education Week