Parental Advice To Education Policy Makers

Jeff Bryant

For most children, their first teacher is a parent or primary caregiver. And most teachers will tell you that parent behaviors in the home affect student learning in schools.

So it would make sense to make sure education policy isn’t strongly at odds with what we know about good parenting.

However, a recent spate of new research studies have revealed current education policies – particularly high-stakes assessments, harsh accountability mandates, zero-tolerance discipline policies, and obsessive attention to student testing data – as being dangerously misaligned with parenting and the multiple roles it plays not only in child development and achievement but also in school governance.

Alternative approaches more in tune with the parental role in education attainment are being tried and used successfully in schools. But too little attention and resources are being focused on these potentially more positive policy directions.

Set The Stage And Leave

Of the new perspectives on the role parenting in education and achievement, a recent opinion piece in The New York Times generated the most attention. Under the hyperbolic headline “Parental Involvement Is Overrated,” two sociology professors, Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, wrote, “Most forms of parental involvement … do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.”

The authors based that claim on research they conducted and described in their book, “The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education,” and they note that despite their findings, “increasing parental involvement has been one of the focal points of both President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s Race to the Top.”

The book was also the subject of an article by education journalist Dana Goldstein writing for The Atlantic, who seemed to echo the provocative nature of the research with the title “Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework.”

The writings indeed provoked response, collected by the always-useful classroom teacher Larry Ferlazzo, who directed us to developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D. writing at Psychology Today. Price called the conclusions “inflated” and stated, “Let’s not be so quick to reject several decades of scholarly wisdom.”

And in a letter to the Times, parent researcher Wendy S. Grolick noted that a negative correlation between increased parental involvement to a student’s low academic attainment may just be an obvious outcome of a child having trouble with school. Correlation, after all, isn’t causation.

Yet hyperbole aside, Price-Mitchell noted there are “kernels of learning” in this research. As Robinson-Harris stated in their Times op-ed, “There are some forms of parental involvement that do appear to have a positive impact on children academically,” specifically, that parents “communicate the value of schooling, a message that parents should be sending early in their children’s lives and that needs to be reinforced over time.”

Goldstein noted “a handful of habits that make a difference, such as reading aloud to young kids (fewer than half of whom are read to daily) and talking with teenagers about college plans.” What also helped is having greater financial and educational resources that “allow some parents to embed their children in neighborhoods and social settings in which they meet many college-educated adults with interesting careers. Upper-middle-class kids aren’t just told a good education will help them succeed in life.” (Emphasis original.)

Mostly, what parents should do, the researchers recommended, is to “set the stage and then leave it.”

Be Who You Want Children To Become

Also in The New York Times, an opinion piece by Adam Grant on “Raising a Moral Child” looked at survey data and found that, much more so than academic success, parents “are concerned about our children becoming kind, compassionate and helpful.”

Grant looked at recent research studies on the relationship of child development and parenting and found that “for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbs.” For instance, rather than inviting children “to help,” it was more effective to encourage them to “’be a helper.” And cheating was cut in half when instead of, ‘Please don’t cheat,’ participants were told, ‘Please don’t be a cheater.’” Grant concluded, “When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.”

Another conclusion gleaned from the research: “The most effective response to bad behavior is to express disappointment.” Far worse, but often more prevalent, is to communicate shame. “Shame is a negative judgment about the core self, which is devastating: Shame makes children feel small and worthless, and they respond either by lashing out at the target or escaping the situation altogether.”

In contrast, “expressing disappointment and explaining why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation” is more effective because it “enables children to develop standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others.”

So, yes, make actions a reflection of character and make wrongdoing and mistakes obstacles to overcome. But most important, parents can’t just tell children to be good, they have to model what good looks like.

As Grant explained, research studies have shown, “Actions spoke louder than words. When the adult behaved selfishly, children followed suit. The words didn’t make much difference … When the adult acted generously, students gave … whether generosity was preached or not.”

In short, adults may want children to develop good morals, but what they do, far more than what they say, can undermine that goal.

We’re Turning Parents Off To Schools

Finally, another study, this one written up in Science Daily, found that if we want education policy to engage parents in helping the academic and moral development of children, we’re going about it the wrong way.

Drawing from new research from a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the article explained that current education pushed by No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration have negative effects on the role we say we want parents to play in schools.

The research found, “Parents of public school students in states with more extensive and stringent student assessment systems express lower trust in government, less confidence in government efficacy, and more negative views of their children’s schools, thereby threatening civic engagement and the potential for future education reform.”

“Standards-based reform policies may be further threatening the foundation of public support that government needs to function effectively,” the researcher, Jesse Rhodes concluded.

According to the article, Rhodes found that increased negative views of governance and schools “is stimulated by anger and dissatisfaction with the perceived negative consequences of state assessments … these policies tend to depress civic engagement among parents because they provide few opportunities for parental input and can introduce undesirable changes into schools.”

Rhodes concluded, “At a minimum, standards-based reforms must be redesigned so that they engage parents more directly in the process of policy design and administration and allay parental concerns about counter-productive consequences.”

In short, current school policies are turning parents off.

Lessons From Good Parenting

Conclusions drawn from these three areas of research are directly at odds with current school policies that promote high-stakes testing, competition, “zero tolerance-no excuses” teaching, and standard-based judgments about schools and students.

Instead of “setting the stage” for our children’s academic success, we are clearing the stage by increasingly cutting resources to schools and abandoning programs like the arts, science, history, and vocational studies that give children reasons to want to excel. In place of a well-appointed stage, we substitute an obsession with the end results – such as standards, test scores, and graduation rates – that are mere proxies for achievement.

Instead of helping students develop moral character, we shame them with higher out-of-school suspension rates, harsh accountabilities for deviating from the norm, and test scores that are imposed to purposefully increase failure rates. We claim current education policies are all in the name of equity, while we continue to underfund schools that need money the most and allow wealthy foundations and big business leaders to call the shots.

Instead of empowering parents to feel they are part of their children’s education and engaging them in school governance, we are making parents feel that their input doesn’t matter and their children’s education destinies are no longer in their control.

We know there is a better way forward.

In Cincinnati, the school district has followed a “community school” policy that helps set the stage for children’s learning by providing essential supports and resources that low-income and high-needs students need and by removing barriers to learning, so that disadvantaged children can thrive.

School districts from Oregon to Tennessee, from Maine to California, have turned away from harsh no-tolerance discipline policies and rigid behavior norms to embrace a “partnership model” that helps students develop self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

In Milwaukee, New York City, and St. Paul, teachers’ unions are working with parents and community leaders to weave schools into the fabric of the community by partnering in projects to provide early childhood education, wraparound services for needy kids, and teacher home visits to parents.

Current education policies have forgotten the parenting part of schools. We need to get that back.

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