Friday, October 22, 2010

The Parent-Gap

"The First Family", Jean-Marie-François-Xavier, 1864

The basic assumption underlying modern education reform is that teachers can make every student successful.  Anything less is the "soft bigotry of low expectations".  The obvious implication is that if you are teaching children who are not successful, then you at best have low-expectations, at worst are bigoted.  Well, OK maybe you just plain suck.

Unfortunately, this is a bunch of hooey.  No matter how high your standards, not all children will be successful.  Amazing teachers will do amazing things, but I call this the "Rambo Teacher Fallacy".  Just because some teachers are able to help more of their kids succeed, against all odds, it doesn't mean that all - or even most - will be able to.  Just like you wouldn't expect all your soldiers to be little Rambos, so to with education.

So why is this?  Why can't teachers simply do their job and have every child succeed?

Because we live in the real world.  I know that sounds trite, but here goes.  Generational poverty and property values pool citizens in ghettos.  Those in society most lacking in knowledge of how to be successful in life, and the resources to do it, are pooled together in neighborhoods.  Add in crime, drugs, failed marriages and a toxic, dystopian brew develops that can drive any kid straight into disobedience and hostility towards an authority he sees no reason to believe in.

I asked one of my students today why he felt his life was so terrible.  He told me he couldn't trust anyone.  Even his parents?  Especially them, he said.  "They kicked me out!"  I told him he must have done something to provoke them.  He admitted that he had gotten into a fight with his father and punched him in the face.  I hear stories like this over and over.  Sex, fights and drugs - lots of drugs.  The parents don't know what to do.

But let's back up a bit.  (We could go forward too, as many of them have already either fathered or given birth to their own children.  But let's keep things simpler.)  The disadvantage starts at birth, with socio-economic factors putting children at risk in numerous ways.  This blog has detailed many of them.  But suffice it to say that kids are coming into the education system severely handicapped.  This of course handicaps the educator, for whom it is often the best they can do to help the child simply be less unsuccessful.  There is only so much one teacher can do in a classroom of kids who need serious intervention. 

So what we're talking about here is a deceptively simple word: parenting.  One is reminded of Nanny 911, the reality television series that ran a few years back in which a professional nanny was brought in to cure a family's rotten kids.  The irony of course was always that in the end the real problem was with the parents, who were failing to provide clear boundaries, set expectations, be consistent, etc. with their children.  The parents always wanted what was best for their children, yet were at wit's end trying to understand how to achieve it.  It's easy to point a finger and say well, you should be doing this, or that.  But to the parents it wasn't.  And no, parenting doesn't come with an instruction manual.  A mother-in-law maybe, and those evil strangers who mistakenly think they have any business offering their advice.

But parenting it is.  And the strangest thing about the contemporary conversation on education is that parenting rarely comes into it.  Either parents are perfect angels whose children are victims of a dysfunctional system corrupted by lazy teachers and their unions, or parents may be complete monsters but there is "no excuse" and the only thing these kids need is "good teaching" and high-standards.

But parents aren't angels.  Poor children often come from homes with a lot of problems.  And while the parents are doing their best, their children are getting a lousy upbringing.  To deny this is to deny our collective responsibility in intervening and lending a helping hand to our fellow citizens.

And teachers can't make all these kids be successful.  A few might, under the right circumstances, with the right staff and leadership and support, and extra hours worked, extra yoga and meditation exercises, etc.  But the current model is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.  It is fundamentally ill-equipped to do the type of massive socio-economic restructuring required.

I have not seen the film Waiting for Superman.  And therefore I know I should not speak of it.  But it is such a distillation of the current thinking in education reform, and so successful in driving the discussion, (and literally drove donations to my specific class project funding request on, which just bought my classroom a new LCD projector!).  But I can't watch that movie.  I've listened to the debates, watched the promos, followed the director's publicity.  But I just can't watch that movie.  I'm sorry for the dirty reference, but I feel like it would be like asking a Jew to see the new Leni Riefenstahl flick.  Or sitting through an hour of Glenn Beck.  There are only certain lengths to which one can go in life.

Fortunately Lanna Garon, a New York public school teacher went for me, and wrote about it in the Huffington Post.  She says it:
purport[s] to investigate the reasons for the failing American school system, but in fact ignore all social or economic factors but one: bad teachers. Furthermore, they tout charter schools as the holy grail of education reform, completely glossing over the fact that the vast majority of charter schools are not only no more successful (and in some cases less so) than their public counter-parts, but have at their disposal both more funding and a more active/supportive parent base.
 She goes on to explain the one big thing the film left out.  That's right, parenting.  In excruciating detail, she goes about explaining what exactly school teachers in poor schools are faced with from incompetent parents.  From their lack of presentation at parent-teacher conferences or back-to-school nights, lack of consequences for their children's behavior, failure to bring children to school on time or make sure they are adequately prepared for class, or - in the worst cases - to actively support their children's violent behavior.
Last spring, the principal of our school brought in 30 sets of parents to discuss a rash of fights in our corridors. She was told by several of the parents that the students SHOULD be fighting it out on school grounds, because then it's a "controlled environment" wherein security can break up the fight, as opposed to if it were to take place unsupervised off-campus. (No recognition of the fact that these fights waste students' and teachers' time, distracting everyone from learning, as well as the inherent problems of school violence.) We eventually found out that some of the parents had actually been driving their children around the neighborhood to beat up their rivals, even after pledging to work with the school to put an end to the conflict.
I had a student tell me this morning about the time she and her father drove out looking for the security guard who she felt had "disrespected" her, so as to exact justice.

Garon doesn't say any of this with any seeming glee or accusatory tone, as far as I can tell.  As a teacher of similar populations I can relate to everything she says.  And I know that these parents are all struggling with their own battles as well.  I can only imagine Garon feels the same.  I don't expect parents to behave any better.  I understand that there are very serious structural reasons as to why they do not. It is not a simple "choice".  My job is an educator is to take their children in and do my very best to educate and love them as best I can before they leave at the end of the day.

But I can't do it alone.  Very few teachers can.  And the longer we continue to ignore the real problems plaguing the broken corners of society, sweeping them under the rug of "teacher reform" and union-busting, they will only fester.  I don't know what all the answers are.  And asking me to have them all solved by 3pm every day when the bell rings is a bit God-damned too much.  When the children exit the building, off to who-knows-what, who-knows-why or who-knows-how, they are for all intents and purposes lost and forgotten.  At least until they show up at my door at 8am the next day.

I don't want to interfere into anyone's life.  I'd love to think that all parents can do right by their children.  But many can't.  And that's a problem for the rest of us - Lord knows it is one for them.  Not least the children themselves.  So when we look to leave not one child behind, let us look as well to the parents.  As a wise former principal of mine once illustrated with a powerpoint slide, a child's education is a triangle between the teacher, the school and the parent.  Leave one out and the whole system collapses.

Films like Superman can glorify the charters that take in the families fleeing the despair of the ghetto in which they live.  But more of a concern to me is the families left behind, whose parents never sign up for the lottery in the first place, and who seem to make their child's education a low priority.  These are the parents whose children are making our classrooms unbearable, whose children are taking up everyone's time because their problems are too big for one teacher to solve alone.

1 comment:

  1. One of the prevailing attitudes in this country says "I take care of myself, other people should do the same." I think most Americans would put that aside for "the sake of the children", but to take on responsibility (ie, increased taxes to fund parent ed. projects) for the parents of those underserved children is to become Socialist/Communist/Satan-worshippers!!!!! But I think you make an excellent case, and I hope more people read this.