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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Parents Aren't Necessary for Students to Learn

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

In teachers' lounges nationwide, parents are a favorite topic of complaint: Now I know why Bertha behaves as she does -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree! or, If parents would do their jobs and raise their children right, then I wouldn't have any trouble getting students to learn.

In these lounges you can regularly hear chat about parents, I know that child's parent, you will never see her and she never answers the phone. Don't parents think their children's schooling is important? I even heard a teacher disparaging the quality of parents in the school in this way, In our school, we judge a parents intelligence by the number of teeth they still have.

Yet schools are required to work with parents. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires that schools reach out to parents and try to engage them in a learning partnership or compacts. When schools do not meet the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or state standards, parents are required to be invited to needs assessment meetings, school improvement meetings, and performance based monitoring meetings. Each teacher is required to call home to parents when their students' misbehave, and also prepare for a parent/teacher conference at least once year. How can we complain so viciously about the people we are supposed to be working with?

Endemic to this attitude towards parents is the unspoken blame deflection in which some teachers and schools engage: It's not our fault Albert is not learning, it is his parents' fault. I believe that there is too much looking through the window and not at the mirror. The fact is, that the parents send us the very best students that they have. Yeah, sure, parents can do more with their children's learning at home, whether it be reading with them, helping them do their homework, or taking them on field trips.

But we have to come to grips with the fact that we are the professionals and we do not need parents to help students learn in our classrooms. Let me explain why.

Changing Perspectives

I was privileged to attend probably the most outstanding professional learning event of my career: The Professional Learning Community Institute here in San Antonio this summer. (I even got to have lunch with the DuFours and other dignitaries; but that is another blog.) During the closing keynote session, Mike Mattos, a former elementary principal, forcefully explained why we shouldn't depend on parents in this way (paraphrasing). "Parents haven't gone to seven years of college, they haven't passed competency tests, and they have full time jobs of their own, so we cannot expect them to do our job of teaching. Kids don't get to choose where they are born. They spend 15,000 hours in our schools, how can we blame the parents?

If we truly believe that every student can learn, then we also have to truly believe that as professionals, we can make that happen, regardless of whether we have parent support or not. If we truly believe we can help all students can learn, then we have to stop worrying (complaining) about the external forces we can't control and focus on what do control: all the learning that happens in our classrooms. We have absolutely no control over what happens at home, therefore, parent involvement is not essential to student learning.

Think about the body: Is your hand essential? No it is not. You can cut it off and still survive and thrive. How about the heart? Yes! If the heart stops then the whole body ceases to function. The human hand is nice to have, just like parent support is appreciated and welcomed, but they are not critical elements. The definition being that if we do not have them, we cannot function.

What is at the heart of student learning? A teacher that is willing to do whatever it takes to help them learn, a teacher that accepts the responsibility to ensure high levels of learning for every child, and a teacher that collaborates with other teachers that also believe that together, in professional learning communities, they can overcome any societal or economic obstacle to learning.

Of course we want and encourage parents to be partners in school but we first have to eliminate the habit of parent bashing. If we agree with Mike Mattos' take on what is the heart of student learning, then we only have one course of action: Improve our teaching to such a degree so that when students come home from school and parents ask them, What did you learn today? the students don't say, Nothing! and so the parents can never say, Those no good, dirty-rotten teachers! If they would just teach my children like they are supposed to, then I wouldn't have any problems raising my children!

What are your thoughts on how to improve the way we think and talk about parents and what are some reflective ways to improve our craft as teachers? Please share in the comment section below.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Allison Gohn's picture
Allison Gohn
Third grade teacher from Knoxville, TN

While I appreciate the notion to stop parent bashing, I disagree wholeheartedly. Parents are crucial to a child's education. You have to look at the whole child to be able to successfully educate them. It's up to the parents to make sure their child continues growing and learning by supporting the teachers and the school. Too many times we are left with children whose parents have completely given the job to the teacher. It's a joint effort that cannot be done without all hands on deck. If the parents do not care about education, they pass that mindset down to their child, which in turn slows their success. Parents + teachers = success!

Eileen Gale Kugler's picture
Eileen Gale Kugler
Global speaker, author, consultant strengthening diverse schools

I think we need to be careful about some of the assumptions that are being made about parents in comments. Of course parents should read books to their kids - We have a photo of my husband reading to our granddaughter when she was 3 days old! But what about a family that didn't grow up with a culture of books, or doesn't read English, or didn't even have the privilege of learning to read in another language. Shouldn't there be outreach programs to these parents to support them, rather than hold them to an unreasonable expectation of what a good parent "should" do?

Or the comment that "Too many times we are left with children whose parents have completely given the job to the teacher." Let's consider a few reasons that might happen. 1) The parent feels intimidated because he/she wasn't a good student; 2) The parent is an immigrant who believes it would be disrespectful to be involved in school because that was the rule in the home country; 3) The parents feel the ARE doing their job because they are working to provide food, shelter and clothing for their children and are talking to their children about school at home.

There are ways to connect with and support families that are currently disconnected from schools. These are the families of students who most need them to be involved. I've been working with schools all over the country and seen great things happening. They have made it a priority, starting with the principal. The look for parents' strengths, not deficits. They try creative approaches, sometimes outside the school walls. Parents matter!

Harold Kassel's picture
Harold Kassel
Retired clinical psychologist and college teacher, Chicago

My parents were from Russia. My father could read and write Hebrew but not English and my mother could not read or write at all. In high school I was president of the Honors Society and editor of the school paper. I was accepted to the Univ of Chicago.
If the U.S. were not so anti-intellectual parents would not need to be involved.

Martha Infante's picture
Martha Infante
Middle School history teacher in South Central Los Angeles

Are we saying that teachers can overcome all the challenges of students who do not get the support they need at home?

I am a teacher. Not a superhero.

Not even the greatest of teachers (Rafe Esquith comes to mind) will tell you he reaches 100% of his students every year.

While I think it is unfair for teachers to bash parents who are working 2 jobs to put food on the table (and who probably mow their lawn and cook their food in restaurants or are their own children's sitters/nannies) we cannot take away the responsibilities that every parent should bear when they choose to have a child.

Should we be accommodating and understanding? Yes. Respectful? Always. But I give my students' parents a hard time when they cannot attend a single parent conference in a year yet are readily available to challenge their child's non-grad status.

If they want their child to be successful in the school system they need to know exactly what that entails on their part. And I tell them. Firmly.

Sel's picture
Information Technology, Northern Virginia

Parent bashing is not a solution. With the emphasis on learning communities and school communities and such, I do believe parents are crucial in certain aspects such as: getting their child to attend school regularly, providing an appropriate and responsible contact to help monitor the child's progress, and basic needs so that teachers can teach.

Janet's picture
Algebra Teacher NYC

There are deeper problems in public education that are easier to ignore than address. It is easier to seek quick blame, whether it is politicians blaming teachers or teachers blaming students and/or parents.

I would prefer not to use a chalkboard, I would love my students to have access to computers in the classroom....

I don't blame my students or their parents, but surely someone is to blame.
I know that the teacher has the greatest impact on student achievement(at least research says), but we need all the help- parents, students, resources.

Laura Semba's picture
Laura Semba
Japanese/English Teacher

I currently teach only Japanese, but previously taught both English and Japanese.

Putting ALL the responsibility for students' success on the backs of teachers is demoralizing, unfair, and unrealistic. Believe me, we classroom teachers know all too well where legislators and education-reform types are focusing their ideas of accountability and control. We understand that is the ONLY area over which they think they have control. But have you been a TEACHER in a classroom lately? Have you worked hard to give your students the information to succeed in an engaging way, using meaningful technology, providing field trips, guest speakers, cultural events, etc. but then had students return to class unprepared, having ignored the important practice homework you assigned in order to play the Xbox 360 mom and dad installed in their bedroom? (And you know this is the case because they actually tell you this!) As the previous post by Martha Infante mentioned, we aren't superheroes. As teachers we have a certain locus of control. Parents have another locus of control. Students have the remaining locus of control. Teachers don't and can't control everything. Other factors are hugely significant.

If you haven't read this sadly hilarious Kafkaesque take on the accountability craziness, please read "No Dentist Left Behind" for an examination of the wrong-headed thinking leading us nowhere. (Another gem I discovered thanks to Jim Trelease.). It's from 2002, but still so relevant.


I think Geoffrey Canada has the best idea I've seen lately, engaging the whole community to improve the lives and education of children. That includes things like "Baby College" where parents learn about effective parenting methods. His book "Whatever It Takes" is a good hard look at what it actually does take to attempt to turn things around and bring up students' scores. The sad thing about the overall picture is that he has to focus on state testing as his ultimate goal, rather than being able to focus on a solid well-rounded curriculum for the students.

Believe me, I get it that we can't control what parents do with their time and with their kids. But we can attempt to educate them about what we and their children need from them. I think many parents are hungry for that kind of information. It's not easy, but nothing good is. I will continue to do my best to light the spark in all of my students, but I would really appreciate a realistic look at what teachers are up against and a removal of the laser-focus on teachers as the only ones who need to pull their weight. My classroom will continue to be a place of information and learning and I will keep sending my students out into the world as prepared as possible. The rest is up to them (and their parents).

Celeste's picture
4th grade teacher from Florida

After reading the comments and article I guess I'm not seeing what everyone else is. To me, the article 100% agrees with having parents involved and does not down play that fact. I don't believe the article is saying that parents are not important. We all know that they are. The question is what do you do when parents are not involved? You still teach of course! Probably harder than you ever have before. You still give your all to every child with or without parent support. I believe in building community and getting parents involved at school. I have some involved parents that I see all the time and parents that I have never seen at all. In light of this, what do I do to reach every student regardless of the over abundance of parent involvement or the lack their of... teach of course.

L. Conaway's picture

I think it's important to remember that it's the parent's responsibility to train their child, not the teacher. Teachers have a very important role, but the teacher isn't the parent.

Although I get your point about teachers being the professionals, to suggest that parents are irrelevant devalues the role of parents.

I think if we communicate and promote the importance of parents and teachers working together as the best model for student development, we can eliminate some of the bashing- teachers bashing parents and vice versa.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Celeste: Spot on!

Thanks for reading my message and following my drift all the way through. What I am talking about, though, is changing the mindset that students who come from parents that don't, can't or won't participate in school, are doomed to fail. They aren't. Great teachers won't let them fail, regardless of how little support they get at home.
I am sure that on the other end of the scale, it is possible to overburden parents with meetings, volunteer work, committees and "at home to-do" lists. We have to be careful to share what the needs and expectations are right up front, so parents can be prepared, or can negotiate alternatives to match their situation.

I would be interested to be a part of a conversation as to exactly what we should expect from parents, and ideas on how to invite them to engage.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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