Opinion
Families & the Community Opinion

Teaching Low-Income Parents to ‘Work the System’

By Edwin C. Darden — December 26, 2007 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Jerry D. Weast, the schools superintendent in Montgomery County, Md., was recently asked what he was doing to improve low-performing schools. His answer should serve as a wake-up call for school districts throughout the nation.

Weast replied that his public school district spends big bucks every year trying to teach low-income parents “how to kick my butt … how to work the system just like affluent people.”

With that vivid statement, Weast spoke volumes about both the need for involving parents inside their children’s schools, and the reality of making that happen—especially in struggling communities that desperately need engaged parents.

In affluent neighborhoods, parents not only know how to “work the system,” they can afford to get involved. White-collar jobs allow them the flexibility to attend parent-teacher conferences, volunteer in the classroom, and chaperone field trips. Well-heeled parents assume their children are entitled to the best and are quick to maneuver the chain of command, create reform-minded coalitions, or advocate one-on-one for change when the system isn’t working for their families.

It is wrong to assume that an education degree automatically translates into an understanding of how to reach out to parents.

By contrast, few parents living on the edge of poverty believe they have the power to make a difference in the quality of their children’s education. For many, school did not serve them well; as a result, they may be intimidated from trying to engage teachers and administrators. What’s more, inflexible work schedules, language barriers, and child-care needs place formidable obstacles between the school door and the reality of living paycheck to paycheck.

It is wrong to assume that an education degree automatically translates into an understanding of how to reach out to parents. Teachers, principals, and administrators should be trained in effective techniques and held accountable for bringing parents into schools. They should understand that an important piece of their jobs is engaging parents in the task of educating kids.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act has the potential to address these problems and spark greater parental involvement throughout the United States. In fact, that was the original intent of the legislation when it was signed into law six years ago. As Congress contemplates the reauthorization of NCLB, a greater focus on involving parents should not get lost in the debate over other higher-profile issues. The House Education and Labor Committee’s “discussion draft” and subsequent hearings by the committee only skimmed the surface. The Senate has yet to release its recommendations in a single, significant package.

The problem is not the law itself. NCLB has an entire section dedicated to parent involvement. Section 1118 of Title I requires that parents receive academic-performance information, requires parent-involvement policies in underachieving schools, and promotes other sound policies for parent-school relationships.

What is called for is greater compliance, more faithful monitoring, and true consequences for nonconforming school districts that fail to engage parents. The grand battles over testing, adequate yearly progress, and reconstitution of failing schools threaten to swamp efforts to strengthen compliance with NCLB’s parental-involvement provisions. Yet making parents partners in education could be the key to raising test scores and setting kids on a path to success.

For that to happen, a focused effort is needed to draw in increasingly diverse parent populations. A growing number of parents arrive from places on the globe where criticizing any government institution could land them in jail or worse. In many countries, there is simply no tradition of an active, engaged citizenry that participates in public institutions to ensure they deliver for constituents.

As Congress contemplates the reauthorization of NCLB, a greater focus on involving parents should not get lost in the debate over other higher-profile issues.

The situation, however, is far from hopeless. Solutions start by acknowledging that many parents, as Superintendent Weast says, don’t naturally divine how to “work the system.” They need help in learning how to productively engage teachers, principals, and administrators. They need to know that they have both the right and the responsibility to get involved.

Well-off school systems, like Weast’s in Maryland, have begun adopting parent-friendly programs and policies, making the admirable choice to spend precious dollars educating parents residing in poverty-stricken areas. Montgomery County operates a call center to answer questions in Spanish and English, for example, and the system’s “Parent Academy” offers more than 35 free workshops on the home-and-school connection. In addition, important parent information is translated and available online in Chinese, French, Korean, Vietnamese, and other languages.

Sure, engaging some parents can be tough. But let’s not continue to point an accusatory finger at “no-show” moms and dads until we ensure that schools have done everything they can to accommodate schedules, communicate in understandable languages, and help people realize they have the power, the legal right, and the responsibility to get involved in their children’s education.

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Families & the Community Q&A How These District Leaders Turned Family Engagement on Its Head
Two Leaders to Learn From share insights on what family and community engagement entails.
7 min read
Families & the Community Video ‘A Welcoming Place’: Family Engagement Strategies for Schools (Video)
Schools that enlist parents as partners see positive results. Here's how to do it.
1 min read
Families & the Community Bring Back In-Person Field Trips. Here's Why
School field trips took a hit due to the pandemic and are still recovering. Educators and experts explain why they should come back.
4 min read
Students from Piney Branch Elementary School in Bristow, Va. arrive at Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area in the George Washington National Forest in Fort Valley, Va. on Tuesday, April 23, 2024 for an outdoor education field trip. During the field trip, students will release brook trout that they’ve grown from eggs in their classroom into Passage Creek and participate in other outdoor educational activities.
Students from Piney Branch Elementary School in Bristow, Va., arrive at Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area in the George Washington National Forest in Fort Valley, Va., on April 23, 2024, for an outdoor education field trip.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Families & the Community 5 Ways to Get Parents More Involved in Schools
Schools don't need an influx of money and resources to have effective family engagement, experts say.
9 min read
Various school representatives and parent liaisons attend a family and community engagement think tank discussion at Lowery Conference Center on March 13, 2024 in Denver. One of the goals of the meeting was to discuss how schools can better integrate new students and families into the district. Denver Public Schools has six community hubs across the district that have serviced 3,000 new students since October 2023. Each community hub has different resources for families and students catering to what the community needs.
School representatives and parent liaisons attend a family and community engagement think tank discussion at Lowery Conference Center on March 13, 2024 in Denver. One of the goals of the meeting was to discuss how schools can better integrate new students and families into the district.
Rebecca Slezak For Education Week