Thursday, November 08, 2012

Where Our Focus Ought To Be

My early years were spent in public schools in South Carolina, a state with a school system that has always been ranked as among the worst. Yes, this is measured largely by the results on standardized tests, so I suppose it's possible the state's schools are excelling by some other calculation, but the people in our neighborhood who could afford it were opting for private schools out of both racism and concern for their children's educational prospects.

Despite that reputation, I got a great education. We talk a lot about curriculum and environment and tests and text books and teachers, but those are largely secondary to parents when it comes to educational outcomes. Families that value education, parents who pay more than lip service to education, tend to have children who thrive in school.

My parents were always involved in my school, Mom volunteering at every opportunity, Dad always available to help with homework. When we switched to "new math," Dad, an engineer and quite proficient in mathematics, confronted with algorithms with which he was unfamiliar, read through several chapters as I waited, then walked me through a few problems until I understood. I was, and still am, very impressed by that. Mom encouraged me to read aloud to her and my younger brother as she cooked and ironed. By the time he hit kindergarten he was already reading. 

Education, my education, was a family affair, at least as important as anyone else's job in the family. This is why I got a good education.

We have struggling schools in America, most of which largely serve populations that are poor or comprised of recent immigrants or both. There are some, and in particular those who call for unproven and draconian "solutions" such as charter schools, who cry racism or classism when I point this out, asserting that I'm painting these children as incapable. It's not the children I find incapable, but rather the parents. Not all of them, of course, but when you're poor, when you're working 2 and 3 minimum wage jobs to put food on the table, it's often an insurmountable challenge to become involved in your child's education. It's impossible to make it to that bake sale or PTA meeting, let alone volunteer in the classroom, when the trade off is lost income due to missing a shift. For many that missed shift might mean losing the job entirely. How can you help your child with her homework or consult with a teacher when you don't speak the language or are so tired at the end of the day all you want to do is sleep? You can have the best curriculum in the world, the best buildings, the best books, and the best teachers, and perhaps some individual students will find a way to make that work for them, but most of us need our parents.

If you put me in charge of education budgets, I wouldn't prioritize pay increases for teachers, the latest technology, or new books, and I definitely wouldn't spend a dime more on new curricula or standardized tests. No, I would use my limited resources to encourage more parental involvement, and for those who can't afford it, I'd pay them to be involved. There is no single thing we could do that would improve our schools more. 

I was asked recently what we do at Woodland Park to prepare our children for the "next level," what we do for "kindergarten readiness." I answered that we do nothing special to prepare them. We don't need to because we are a cooperative preschool, a self-selected population of children with actively involved parents, "privileged" children, not necessarily in an economic sense, but rather in that they have parents with at least enough income and enough time to invest several hours a week into their child's education. 

Parent involvement: this is where the focus of education reform ought to be.

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Anonymous said...

This may be the first of your posts I've read that made me feel better about my child's prospects instead of worse, so thanks. ;)

Unknown said...

Thank you Tom!
This is by far the most important thing I distilled after 11 years of running a small school... Parent involvement is everything! Thank you for putting it so eloquently!
Last year, for our elementary grades, we developed what we called a CSE (Community Supported Education) model based on a CSA, where parents became integral to the running of the school and most significantly, to the educating of our children. check it out:
It was the best year we had! Sadly we had to close our doors in June due to lack of funds :(
I have always dreamed of creating a kind of foundation that would enable parents to stay at home with their children and get directly involved with their education. I actually have the whole model worked out. Maybe it is possible????
All the best,

Gabrielle said...

Spot on!

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Hi Teacher Tom,
I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama, and have been assigned to your blog this week.
I could not have stated this any better myself!! I completely agree. To this day, I give my mom complete ownership for where I am in my academics today. I have a twin brother, and we both have excelled in school. This is not because we just have that "brainiac" gene or because we attended the best schools. It is because my mom took her time to get involved in our schooling and encourage us to achieve at high levels. My mom had to work and my family was not extremely well off, but we were blessed and enjoyed everything we did have. My mom was not able to come to every function because of her work schedule, but she came to what she could and helped in every way possible. This post is right on target. I say let's put you in charge of the education budget!