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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

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
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
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
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
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
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

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 'I Need You to Wear a Mask to Protect My Child.' A Mom Fights for Vulnerable Students
Some parents see a tension between their medically vulnerable children's safety and their educational needs during the pandemic.
8 min read
Julia Longoria has joined a federal lawsuit by Disability Rights Texas against Texas Governor Greg Abbott over his ban on mask mandates in public schools. Longoria argues that the executive order prevents her child, Juliana, who is medically at-risk, from being able to attend school safely. Juliana Ramirez, 8, a third grader at James Bonham Academy in San Antonio, Texas, has ADHD and severe asthma which puts her at risk of complications from COVID-19.
Julia Longoria has joined a federal lawsuit by Disability Rights Texas against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over his ban on mask mandates in public schools. Longoria argues that the executive order prevents her child, Juliana, 8, who is medically at risk, from being able to attend school safely.
Julia Robinson for Education Week
Families & the Community Reported Essay Pandemic Parents Are More Engaged. How Can Schools Keep It Going?
Families have a better sense of what their child is learning, but schools will have to make some structural shifts to build on what they started.
6 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Families & the Community Opinion How to Preserve the Good Parts of Pandemic Schooling
Yes, there have been a few silver linings for student well-being in the pandemic. Let’s not lose them now, write two researchers.
Laura Clary & Tamar Mendelson
4 min read
A student and teacher communicate through a screen.
iStock/Getty
Families & the Community COVID Protocols Keep Changing. Here's How Schools Can Keep Parents in the Know
Parents and educators shared best practices for effective communication related to the pandemic. It all centers on transparency.
6 min read
communication information network 1264145800 b
cagkansayin/iStock/Getty