Opinion
Families & the Community Commentary

The Rise of the ‘Parentariat’

By Irving H. Buchen — October 08, 2004 4 min read
Although they may be valued as strategic partners and allies, parents are not easy followers.

Although education, like the economy, is cyclical, that does not, alas, mean that it is knowable, rational, or manageable. Thus, the last decade of the 20th century was characterized by almost-heady curricula expansion. But that was followed unexpectedly by the constraints of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Does any relationship exist between the two trends except that of supplanting? And will that federal dominance remain beyond the next election? Above all, what is next? The impacts of change on education so far have been so pervasive and invasive that anticipating and even speculating about the future has become a strategic imperative. Toward that end, what is being argued here is the emergence of parents as the newest and perhaps the most major pivotal players of education in the future.

The signs of that happening are obvious and subtle, individual and collective, many and deep. What’s more, parents embody multiple impacts: They can make the difference in their kids’ performance. They are local taxpayers and can make or break school budgets. And their national vote can determine whether the “No Child” law remains or folds. But although they may be valued as strategic partners and allies, parents are not easy followers. They resemble independent voters in that they are not obediently or predictably in any one camp. Indeed, as an emerging force, the absence of a single ideology imparts an eclectic diversity to the movement. But at least five common factors seem to be driving the rise of the parentariat and its new centrality.

Demographically, they are the best-educated generation of parents we have ever had. As a correlation, they are also the most independent. In a recent survey in Ohio, the approval rate of schools went from 65 percent to 85 percent when parental involvement was factored in. In other words, parental support has become conditional. Their acceptance or rejection of the No Child Left Behind law will not be determined by teachers or administrators, but by whether it helps and benefits their kids or does not. In fact, many parents are already up in arms with districts that have failed to notify and provide the No Child Left Behind-mandated tutoring.

They are also becoming the most “communicated to” generation of parents. The requirement for the official dissemination of district report cards pales beside the electronic links increasingly being wired in place between schools and parents, often personalized and sustained individually by each teacher and parent. The comprehensive information-sharing has imparted new force to homework completion and attendance. Hard pressed for mutually convenient times to meet and talk, teachers and parents even have held electronic parent-teacher conferences, often supplemented by the phone, sometimes simultaneously. Lately, many of the linkage companies are providing research-based information and/or hot links for ways parents can guide children to school success. In short, current parents are much more school-savvy than their own parents ever were.

And research on the value of parental involvement is no longer tentative or hidden. It has established a direct correlation with the higher performance of individual students, classes, schools, and even districts. Highly interventionist programs, such as the homework project at Johns Hopkins University, in which parents are trained to be homework facilitators, have produced outstanding gains. And none of this research is unheeded. Parents know how important they are.

The parentariat: the newest and perhaps the most major pivotal players of education in the future.

Perhaps the most dramatic new factor driving greater parental involvement has been school choice, including for many the radical decision to undertake home schooling. Never before have so many parents been forced, sometimes reluctantly, to occupy the educational driver’s seat. The range of options is often as bewildering as it is heady: magnet, specialty, charter, and, where vouchers exist, private and parochial schools. Moreover, choices are not made “once and for all time,” but often involve multiple branchpoints. The net result is that traditional college planning by parents now has become total K-16 planning. There are signs that some enlightened school districts in fact are offering parents planning assistance in the form of academic road maps.

Finally, the new centrality of parents is beginning to leave its mark on school reform. An excellent summary of parents’ serving not only as the objects but also the agents of reform can be found in the books of California State University-Hayward professor Linda Lambert on leadership sharing. The critical issue here is whether administrators will recognize and seize parental partnerships as one of the most critical leadership options available to them and to their schools.

Although the intense impact of the commercial products and services on families also can be cited, what is perhaps clear by now is that parents are already a force to be reckoned with in every educational area. Happily, however, they are potentially educational allies, not enemies, but only as long as educators give them their legitimate due and input, on the one hand, and parents in turn can be persuaded to be advocates of all, not just their own kids, on the other hand. The latter is where the role of negotiating leadership is required, if the new centrality of parents is to bear fruit for the future of education and their kids.

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