As a New York City teacher in the middle of the first marking period, I've been swamped this week by schoolwork -- grading, planning, tutoring kids for the SATs they took this past Saturday, etc. This apparently has not been true of either Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, as they had time to formulate the following mess of propaganda and buzz words, which came out in the Washington Post Monday morning.
The article regurgitates most of the main arguments of Davis Guggenheim's myopic and manipulative documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman' " (in which Rhee is featured prominently.) Both film and article purport 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.
The second of these assets, the parent base, is the one I'd like to talk about here. About three weeks from now, I'll be attending parent-teacher conferences. From the 120-plus students on all the rosters of my classes, I'll expect to see somewhere between 20 and 30 parent/guardian representatives. The same will be true of most of my faculty colleagues. And of the parents who come to see us at either the Thursday evening or Friday midday conferences, most will have children who are doing well in our classes. It is an ongoing frustration to teachers, counselors, and administrators alike that the parents we *really* need to speak to can never be tracked down -- either because they skip conferences, fail to return calls or acknowledge mailings or do not provide up-to-date contact information to begin with.
Of the ones we do speak to, we get limited support. I call parents to tell them that their children have been regularly absent to my class, only to have them give me excuses like "I needed him at home because I just had a baby" or "he needed to take care of his grandmother." Certainly family difficulties occur, but in situations where education is prioritized, other arrangements will be made to allow for school attendance -- particularly when the family issue is an ongoing one. I talked to a father whose kid was chronically truant, and when asked if he knew that his son was failing every class, he responded, "I work long hours -- I don't have time to check his report card." The mother of a girl who plagiarized a paper for my class (she copied an entire Wikipedia entry, and didn't even bother to remove hyper-links) told me, "Well, what did you want her to do? You said she had to turn in the paper the next day." In fact, the paper had been assigned a month prior, and the child had never asked me for any extension -- let alone the obvious issue of deadlines not being justification for academic dishonesty.
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.
Later that month, our principal sent out approximately 60 letters by USPS Delivery Confirmation to parents of students who were "Promotion in Doubt" (PiD), i.e., who were in danger of not graduating because they were missing credits. She spent approximately $5 per letter to make SURE that these parents would receive this information. Only two to three parents ever contacted the school in reference to the PiD letters.
Time and time again, I'm told that a child's failure to complete homework, show up to my class, or behave himself is not his or her fault -- and not the parent's fault, either -- because of some difficult home or family situation; certainly, many of these families encounter significant difficulties that my own parents never faced, but education cannot happen without serious, sometimes onerous investments from all involved parties. If parents want to view education as a "way out" of a tough neighborhood -- and I know many of the parents we deal with do, in fact, view education this way -- then they need to hold themselves and their children accountable as well as teachers. They need to stop asking me, when I call their homes, "How come you gave my child this grade?" Instead of abdicating responsibility, they need to foster a home environment in which attendance at school is expected, homework is supervised (even by a simple check to see if it's been completed), literacy is promoted (through regular library visits and regular access to a variety of print materials), and good marks are not only acknowledged but praised.
One of the classes I teach is AP English Literature and Composition. The students in this class are a pleasure -- they are engaged, diligent, and strive for success. These kids are no more affluent than their non-AP peers, and their home lives are no less difficult -- but their parents show up for conferences, and hold them accountable for good behavior and grades. And if you think I'm hard on the families and students who goof around and don't take school seriously, you should hear my AP students talk. Particularly after years of being forced into group-work with kids who are totally and unabashedly unprepared for class, they have some choice comments to describe these uncommitted students and families, the tamest of which include "mad stupid" and "going nowhere," but most of which are unprintable here. As students who have struggled in a problem-ridden school system and seen their hard work pay off, they (and their families) are insulted by any insinuation that they are limited, or would have done anything other than succeed.
Yes, good teachers can afford their students monumental gains (and bad ones, monumental losses.) Yes, there are some lousy teachers in the system who should be replaced. Yes, every child should have a chance to go to a high-performing school. But at the end of the day, parental involvement and support are equally (if not more) important factors. And ignoring this -- as Klein, Rhee, Guggenheim, and their peers are wont to do -- will prevent even the most sweeping system-wide reforms from ever having a meaningful effect.
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