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

While I agree that teachers need to stop blaming or bashing parents, the answer is not to say parents aren't important. They are critical as mentors and supporters and advocates. While many middle-class parents serve in those roles, parents from low-income backgrounds or immigrant families often don't have the tools or knowledge about the school system to navigate it. They feel disconnected and disrespected. If we want to do everything possible to reduce the achievement gap, we can't negate the role of parents. Educators need to reach out to families in new ways, with respect for the skills and knowledge the parents DO have, even if they don't have formal education. For more reasons why parents don't come to school and what to do about it, see my blogpost http://bit.ly/qHIu89

Laura Semba's picture
Laura Semba
Japanese/English Teacher

"A child spends 900 hours a year in school and 7,800 outside school. Which teacher has the bigger influence? Where is more time available for change?" - Jim Trelease "The Read-Aloud Handbook". I suggest that we not bury our heads in the sand and say parents aren't important (and then use that to blame teachers for students' learning difficulties). Rather, let's work on ways to communicate the urgency of parental involvement to the parents themselves. We're educators, right? We need to make sure they are part of the conversation. Education has to be a team effort. Teachers, parents, and students are like the legs of a tripod. Take away one or more of those supports and the structure cannot stand. Of course a great teacher can make a difference. But imagine the power of that difference if parents (and students) were fully involved as well. I suggest reading Jim Trelease's newest edition of "The Read-Aloud Handbook" for examples of the power parents have, regardless of their years in college and lack of competency tests. For all of you who like to use sports analogies when discussing education, how is your team going to do if everyone isn't on board and pulling their weight? Does a coach tell a team that he/she as the coach is the only one who needs to do any work? Let's get real about what it really takes for students to succeed in school - a "team" consisting of teachers, parents, and students. EACH ONE has accountability.

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

Eileen:
Thanks for reading this post. You make some great comments. I don't disagree with you. Parents are important. Educators could really use the help of all the parents. The "team" concept is wonderful.

My point, however is that parents aren't and cannot be a required part of the "school" learning equation. As Mike Mattos said, students don't choose where they are born and which parents they get. We cannot hold the parents accountable, and we cannot require anything from them. In short, we have no control over what a parent does or does not do with their child's learning at home.

Yes we should reach out to parents, but what learning happens at school has nothing to do with parents, or should not depend on them. We should be able, as professionals, to take a student from wherever he or she is and get them up to grade level. If the parent can and is able and willing to help, so much the better... cream on top of the cake. So I reiterate, parents aren't necessary for students to learn at school.
Thanks for the post!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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

Laura:

Just curious, are you Japanese and teach English, or do you teach Japanese and English?...

Thanks for the insightful comments. You hit the nail on the head by recommending that we read the "The Read-Aloud Handbook." The best thing a parent can do to help their child succeed in school is to first read to them. Mem Fox recommends 1000 books before they turn five years old. Wouldn't that be great if all parents did that?

My point with this article is that we cannot depend on parents to read 1000 books to their children before they go to school. Unlike a coach, we have no control over parent behaviors and whether they accept the "Accountablity" you describe is not up to us. If parents don't do it, like a coach, can we kick them off the team? The only thing we can do is invite and encourage.

Wait... that is not the only thing we can do. We, as trained and prepared educators can find interesting, engaging, and exciting ways to get our students to learn, regardless and sometimes in spite of what the parents do or not do. We can focus our attention on inspiring the student to take the protagonist role in their learning. Yes, our job is easier when parents help and cooperate at home, but let's get real... we cannot depend on them to do so. The only person we have complete control over is ourselves-- and there is a lot WE can do to make things better. So, let parents know how they can help, but work as if the parent will not be helping at all.
Great discussion.
Never lose your passion!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Kesler Tanner's picture

Parents make a huge difference in a child's education. I did, however, appreciate the comment:
[Kids] spend 15,000 hours in our schools, how can we blame the parents?
With that understanding, teachers have a huge opportunity to make a difference.

-Kesler

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