School Reform: Test and Punish Parents

This Sunday another salvo in the school reform battle hit The New York Times in the form of an article the title of which was, “Whose Failing Grade Is it?” by Lisa Belkin. The piece discusses new state-based efforts to punish parents if their kids don’t show up at school and perform certain tasks. But, is this the form of accountability we really want and need? During the 2000 presidential race, I wrote an op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor entitled,“Putting Parents to the Test ” (some of which I am reusing below).  At the time, I was so disgusted with all the talk of student and teacher testing, that I proposed a test for parents and community members. My goal was to refocus the debate on what we all know is pivotal to a child’s education and development: the community.

Like so many articles and debates, the Times piece is framed around “whether parents, teachers or children are most to blame when a child fails to learn.” Such discussions inevitably lead to finger pointing, acrimony and a mad rush to quick legislative fixes.  But none of these alone will lead to what we want for our children. I doubt any single silver bullet is the answer.

Instead, it’s time to focus on our aspirations for our kids and what it will take to get there. So, let me propose a test that does not seek to punish parents, or teachers or kids, but actually calls us to engage in a way that gives all kids a fighting chance to succeed. And let me be clear upfront – achieving passing grades on this test is not the final step, but helps us get ready for the conversation and action we need.

1. Do you seek to act as part of a larger community, or just as an individual? To strengthen public education, we must act as a community. It is not enough for parents simply to lodge a complaint, answer a survey, or show up at a PTA meeting and voice concerns. Education is a common community enterprise; we must find our common interests and purpose for public education. Everyone acting as an individual will only create more gridlock and frustration, and a challenge that seems beyond our control.

2. When you talk about education, whom do you talk about? Americans tell me that people tend to focus obsessively on their own child at PTA meetings, when speaking with an educator, or across the fence with a neighbor. All this endless talk eventually crowds out other critical conversations about all children and what is important for their education. Yes, put your kid first; but it is only when we are willing to take part in conversation about “all children” that we can even see shared aspirations and build the public will to address larger issues at hand.

3. How do you actually put your child first? Each of us loves our own child and want the best for them, but just how engaged are we really, for instance, in their homework? Do you often hope that they’ll finish up quickly so you can do something else, like watch TV? What kinds of questions do you ask that truly make your child think, rather than the old stand-by, “How was school today?” Many Americans have told me that too often we give lip service to supporting our kids’ education and don’t come through for them.

4. How are you acting as an educator? There is no teacher or school that can ensure that magazines are in a home for young children to flip through even before they can read; that can help a child learn to look both ways before chasing a loose ball in the street; that can wrap their arm around a lonely child who sorely lacks adult attention and affection. These things are critical to raising our children and to their education. To what extent is each of us – are all of us – doing this in our daily lives?

Take the “test” yourself. Then post it on your refrigerator and take it again every so often. Pass it along to others so they can take it too. Because it is only by each of us stepping forward that we can help all kids achieve and grow, and it is only by coming together that we can make this happen.