Changing Expectations

“Education begins at home. Parents are a child’s first teacher and his most important ones.” These statements are so obvious that they are truisms. Yet many parents have abdicated their responsibility regarding their children’s education. While people talk endlessly about strategies to improve public education, they cannot escape the reality that educators cannot make any substantial changes in isolation from the family structure. Throwing money at the problem has not improved the situation. In a recent book, Predictably Irrational, the author mentions that the US already spends more money than any other Western nation on its schools. Yet every year we encounter dismal reports indicating that our children continue to fall behind their European and Asian counterparts. Why?
Wealthy school districts can certainly attract more qualified teachers if they offer better working condition and higher salaries than inner city schools. Yet these perquisites are only part of the story. In the 1970’s, a now-famous study investigated the achievement of the children of Cambodian & Vietnamese “boat people” in the troubled inner schools of Los Angeles. The students had the same daily experiences in school as the rest of their classmates—the same teachers, curriculum, and books. Yet these Asian students were scoring high on national exams and receiving National Merit Scholarships and entrance to competitive universities. The conclusion for the difference was that each night, the Asian students sat around the kitchen table with their families (and often with parents or grandparents who couldn’t speak English) and completed their homework. These families had high expectations and a culture that valued educational success.
As an educator with over thirty years’ experience, I have served in a variety of school settings, from inner city to suburban, parochial and public, large and small. I can say, unequivocally, that the best school-based experience I had as a teacher occurred in the middle of Newark in a poor Catholic high school where the lay teachers were receiving salaries that put them on the verge of qualifying for federal assistance. Yet we had a student body that consistently out-performed the local public schools by a wide margin. Aside from enjoying the services of dedicated professionals, these parochial school students (many of whom were not Catholic) possessed another critical component for success—the commitment of their parents. In some cases, parents worked second or third jobs to afford the tuition. In this situation, the financial commitment translated into higher expectations for their children’s achievement. The parents took time off work to attend teachers’ meetings, and they contacted the school if they suspected that their children were not performing as they expected.
I also know of a tuition-free charter school in New Haven that offers books, uniforms, and three daily meals to its students, along with a school day that runs from 7am until 6 pm. In order to qualify for enrollment, however, the parents must sign a contract promising to volunteer at the school and check their children’s homework every night. This school is enjoying expanded enrollment every year and has a waiting list for students. The students achieve because their parents support them.
Instead of throwing money at the education problem, perhaps educators would be better off to think of some creative strategies for involving parents. After all, school is not day care, so educators should fully expect parents to be partners in their children’s education. Americans parents must accept that they need to value education and transmit this attitude to their children in order to effect any changes in the system.

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