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Family Matters

By Robert Evans — May 22, 2002 8 min read
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The truth is, America doesn't have a crisis in schooling, it has something much worse: a crisis in child-rearing.

Outside the conference center, the air was crisp and clear, the vistas long and lovely. Inside, the atmosphere was thick with frustration, the views bleak and bitter. Executives and staff members from foundations that underwrite education reform had gathered with consultants and trainers funded by their grants to assess progress in the participating schools. The results were deeply discouraging. Test scores weren’t rising, the achievement gap wasn’t closing. Almost unanimously, those attending blamed the educators who were the beneficiaries (and targets) of their generosity and expertise. Principals were out of their depth and lacked vision; how could we improve their “skill sets”? Teachers were resistant and didn’t care about kids; how could we get them to “reinvest”?

Listening, I thought of the educators I had met earlier that week: a 4th grade teacher whose urban school has a 60 percent turnover among students each year; a middle school guidance counselor coping with an outbreak of oral sex among 7th graders; a high school principal berated and sued by parents whose son he had expelled for selling drugs at school. I had a palpable sense of the disconnect between those outside schools who press accountability and innovation and those inside who must deliver results, and I realized, yet again, that this disconnect—and the core dilemmas of school improvement—begin not at school, but at home.

When it was my turn to speak, I asked how many of us in the room were former teachers. Barely half, including me. How many would want to be a career teacher or administrator right now? None, including me. Why not? The answers were predictable. They were the same ones educators give when asked why they’re leaving the field, retiring early, or not applying for principalships; the same ones the participants had dismissed earlier as “excuses for inaction": the endless parade of changes that don’t last; the constant criticism; the relentless focus on test scores; the excesses of special education; and—repeatedly, as we went around the room—the sharp declines in the behavior, attitudes, and values of both students and their parents.

Whenever I hear this list, I marvel that the criticism for failed innovation always falls on practitioners, never on outsiders, even the most naive and arrogant, and never on parents. Again and again, the outsiders have promoted unreasonable expectations for schools and, when their prescriptions have failed, attacked the patient for refusing to get better. The rationale for much of the mandated educational change of the past 20 years derives from A Nation at Risk, the famous 1983 report that blamed schools for “a rising tide of mediocrity” and an inevitable economic decline. Its premises and predictions proved dead wrong, but paved the way, under the first President Bush, for America 2000 (later Goals 2000), with its wildly unrealistic objectives (within 11 years, U.S. students would surpass the world in math and science, and so on). From there it was a short step to the accountability frenzy that has now peaked under another President Bush with a new mantra, “no child left untested.” Even more time will be shifted from instruction to assessment. Even more schools can be threatened with takeover. And even more of our best educators will opt out of school leadership.

I marvel that the criticism for failed innovation in schools always falls on practitioners, never on outsiders, even the most naive and arrogant, and never on parents.

To be sure, many schools are in great difficulty. The worst, including many with the lowest test scores, have dilapidated buildings, ancient textbooks, teachers and administrators who are unqualified or burnt out, and a resistant union. Even the best, say many critics, offer much mediocre teaching. Reformers have long argued about what’s gone wrong and how to fix it, but their arguments have focused almost exclusively on the educational system, seeing the school as both the cause and the cure. Educators have been widely blamed not just for their legitimate shortcomings, but for others well beyond their reach.

The truth is, America doesn’t have a crisis in schooling, it has something much worse: a crisis in child-rearing. What has deteriorated most over 30 years is not the skills of our teachers but the lives of our students. The supports vital to good development (and hence to schooling) are in free fall. The symptoms of the crisis—a continuing deterioration in the academic achievement, work ethic, and civility of many of our young people—appear vividly at school, but they begin well before it and extend well beyond it. Schools, in fact, are victims of the crisis more than its perpetrators. They can never overcome fundamental problems that start at home.

Ten years ago, in America’s Smallest School: The Family, Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley forecast the failure of America 2000 (later to be Goals 2000), if it ignored the obvious: that the family is the cradle of learning, the essential socializing institution. It was already clear, they pointed out, that student achievement improves when there are two parents in the home; when children are well cared for and feel secure; when the family environment is intellectually stimulating; when parents encourage self-regulation and perseverance; when they limit TV, monitor homework, and ensure regular school attendance. All of these are vital to producing and sustaining a school-ready, motivated student. And the evidence was already strong that in most of these areas the family was failing.

Everyone advocates a strong partnership between home and school, but its burden usually rests heavily on the school. Goals 2000 began on a fabulous note: All children would arrive at school ready to learn. This, too, would mostly be up to the school.

In 2002, the evidence is ubiquitous, and not just in our worst schools. More and more children arrive at school less ready to learn. Not less intelligent— less ready to be students. Even as teachers are pressed to accelerate achievement, they have to cope with the decline of the fundamentals they used to take for granted: attendance, attention, courtesy, industry, responsibility. At the ordinary, everyday end of today’s spectrum, students are more difficult to reach and teach, their concentration and perseverance more fragile, their language and behavior more provocative. At the catastrophic end lie the Columbines.

The sources of family failure are no secret. Millions of students are growing up in single-parent households. Many of these children are essentially fatherless; many live in poverty. In low-income districts, family mobility is often high, parents are often disengaged from their children’s school life, and student attendance is often inconsistent.

In communities of all kinds, including the wealthiest, and in families of all kinds, including the intact, parents are spending less time with their children, providing less guidance and structure, setting fewer limits. For example, despite conclusive evidence that heavy TV viewing fosters aggression and depresses academic performance, parents everywhere allow their children to devote much more time to television than to school and homework combined. In fact, three-quarters of the nation’s 6th graders have TVs in their bedrooms; some studies suggest that a third of elementary children are still watching at 11 p.m.

None of this is news, but critics routinely omit most of it when they bemoan low scores or mandate change. Of course, everyone advocates a strong partnership between home and school, but its burden usually rests heavily on the school. Plans for building partnership, like those for raising achievement, rarely expect much of the family. Hopeless and utopian though it was, Goals 2000 began on a fabulous note: All children would arrive at school ready to learn. (Imagine how this, by itself, would affect learning and test scores!) Of course, Goals 2000 assumed that this, too, would mostly be up to the school.

I make this case not to demean caring parents or defend poor schools. Most parents want only the best for their children, but are struggling with challenges of their own. As changes of all kind—social, technological, economic—accelerate, so do uncertainty about the future and pressure to be at work. These and other factors, such as the decline of community, combine to disempower parents, making them less able to be with their children and less confident and competent when they are. As for schools, there is no question that most could be better, many need dramatic change, and all should be held accountable for their performance. Much needs to be done. But school improvement, alone, will never be enough.

If we are serious about leaving no child behind, we must broaden our notion of accountability, accepting that the school’s impact is more modest than we wish, the family’s more robust than we have acknowledged. Paul Barton and Richard Coley concluded that meaningful progress in schools would require a change in the fundamental attitude of American society, beginning with a national commitment to “improve the family as an educational institution.” This, of course, vastly enlarges the task. It is hard enough to envisage changing schools, but the family, too? Society at large? No wonder reformers rarely look beyond the school.

We must broaden our notion of accountability, accepting that the school's impact is more modest than we wish, the family's more robust than we have acknowledged.

But there is no avoiding this necessity, as Harold Howe II, the former U.S. commissioner of education, saw years ago: “It sounds simpler,” he noted, “to focus narrowly on fixing the schools so the schools can fix the children. But no amount of school reform will turn children into enthusiastic and successful young scholars if they come to school already badly damaged by family circumstances.” How can we truly imagine any broad, significant, enduring improvement in school outcomes without a corresponding improvement in the family as a “readier” and “sustainer” of students?

Situating school improvement in this larger context is sobering. But it is also liberating. It invites realism and offers relief for the rampant demoralization that pervades education. What the conference participants I spoke of earlier shared most closely with the practitioners they criticized was a profound sense of frustration and futility. At every level, from the classroom through the district office to the state and federal hierarchies, one can find people working longer and harder and often better, but feeling chronically thwarted, blamed, and inadequate. They criticize one another, but their distress is mutual—and inevitable, so long as our national crisis in child-rearing is oversimplified as a crisis in schooling.

It would help everyone in the educational family to consider that although our schools need lots of improving, the real surprise, given what they’re up against, is not how bad so many of them are, but how good.

Robert Evans, a psychologist and consultant to schools, is the director of the Human Relations Service in Wellesley, Mass. He is the author of The Human Side of School Change (Jossey- Bass), and can be reached at (781) 235-4950 or www.robevans.org .

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A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Family Matters

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