Parental involvement proves key to educational reform

Sunday, October 10, 1999

Bad parents, like bad kids, get lots of attention. School officials spend much of their time dealing with problems caused by parents who are abusive, neglectful or uncaring. Maybe that's why some administrators and teachers get defensive about campaigns for more “parental rights” in public schools.

We need to keep in mind, however, that the bad parents are vastly outnumbered by the millions of parents who care deeply about their children. Unfortunately it's often these good parents who feel the most alienated from their schools.

Consider this: The home-schooling movement is spreading like wildfire throughout the United States. Charter schools, often initiated by parents, are springing up everywhere. And the exodus to private and religious schools continues to grow. These are caring parents who are no longer happy with the local school.

The root causes of this dissatisfaction are many and complex. But whatever the grievance, the result is the same. Many parents — especially religious parents — don't feel welcome in public schools.

Why? There's plenty of blame to go around. Years of culture-war battles over religion and values have taken their toll. If some school officials resist parental involvement, it's partly because some parents have pushed their agenda in ways that are hostile and disrespectful. And, on the other side, some educators send the message that they know better than parents what's best for kids.

Sometimes it's the courts that heighten the tension. In recent years, a number of lower courts have deferred to educators in ways that have angered many parents. A few years ago, for example, a Massachusetts court ruled that a school may require kids to attend (with no opt out) a sex education program — “Hot, Sexy, and Safer” — that many parents found indecent. In a case now on appeal, a court upheld a teacher who told a first-grader that he couldn't read his favorite story because it was from the Bible, even though the other kids could read their favorite story.

Tragically, these fights continue to drive some of the best parents out of the public schools — a disturbing and dangerous trend. Parents who are concerned about their child's education aren't “troublemakers” — they're the very parents that schools should have on the curriculum committees and baking for the bake sale.

All of the studies agree: Parental involvement is the single most important factor in student success. Where parents are involved, not only do their children do better — all children do better.

What should be done? To date, countless reports have been written calling for more parental involvement in decision-making, more frequent communication from schools, more opportunities for parents to be in the classrooms — in short, more of a real partnership between schools and parents.

But the success of these initiatives will depend in large measure on a fundamental change in attitude on both sides. To cite a simple example: When a parent comes in to complain about a book that's been assigned to her child, the first response from the teacher shouldn't be “How can you possibly object to this great book?” But rather, “What a great parent you must be. You actually read what we send home with your child. Now, let's see if we can accommodate your concerns.”

And what about the attitude of the complaining parent? Resist the temptation to call names or get mad. Acknowledge the crucial role of educators (without abdicating parental duty). And try to limit the request for accommodation to something that the school may be able to do without disrupting the curriculum for other students.

More parental involvement — especially if it's substantive and lasting — may make life more complicated for teachers and administrators. But all the extra effort and work will be handsomely rewarded with better schools and higher academic achievement. Parents — not computers, textbooks or new instructional techniques — are the real key to educational reform.