A week before the holidays, the Norwalk, Connecticut seventh grader whom I mentor announced his New Year's resolution: "I want to get a D in social studies."
For the last three and a half years, I have been after Javier (I've changed his name, as with all the children in this piece) to set and achieve academic goals. This was not the standard I had in mind.
We were seated in the otherwise empty Roton Middle School cafeteria, where we meet each Tuesday morning to discuss the latest on Victor Cruz and the New York Giants, chat about our families, play cards and talk out strategies that will lead to his making good decisions in life. What sparked Javier's wish for a D in social studies was this: His teacher had placed him on warning after he failed the class in fall semester. Earn a passing grade, the teacher had said, or end up in summer school. (The 12-year-old had fared better in his other core subjects, earning one B and the rest Cs and Ds.)
Summer classes were nothing new to Javier. He'd had to take them while in elementary school. But while classes for Norwalk elementary-school K-to-3 students are free, the tariff for middle-school students is $230. His family doesn't have that kind of money. His father is a day laborer, his mother is unemployed. He doesn't want to add to their worries. Otherwise, he wouldn't particularly care about his F.
The shame of it is, Javier is not dumb. Far from it. His social studies teacher says he could earn a B if he buckled down and completed his assignments instead of horsing around, vying for attention from his classmates. Part of his problem is immaturity. Part is lack of motivation. Neither of his parents finished high school, and though they would like him to advance further than they, he has no family roadmap to draw upon to carry him through high school and beyond.
Javier's biggest impediment to learning, though, is a lack of parental involvement. He is far from the only one in his class to suffer this problem, which manifests in a variety of ways. It is particularly damaging in households with elementary-school children, for they are the ones who suffer most dearly. It is well established that kindergarten through second grade are the key building-block years in a child's education. Fall behind in these early grades without proper support, and the struggle to catch up becomes exponentially more difficult.
In some households, parents will ask, "Did you do your required reading? Did you finish your homework?" And if their child answers yes, whether it's the truth or not, they figure they've done due diligence. Many parents -- perhaps because they're tired from a long day of work, perhaps because they'd rather watch a ballgame on TV -- do not read nightly to their children and have their children read to them, or practice addition, subtraction or multiplication with them using flash cards. Other parents, willing to help but unaware of best practices for doing so, correct their child's work without properly explaining the how and the why.
In Javier's case, his parents can't be of help because they don't speak the language. His mother and father emigrated to the U.S. in 1999, from Mexico, and have managed 14 years without learning English. They've found ways to get by. The family settled in a predominantly Hispanic Norwalk neighborhood, where Spanish is the language of choice. The father works an unskilled job in which English isn't necessary. Javier and his 10-year-old sister, both fluent in English and Spanish, do whatever translating is needed at home.
But there is a limit to how much, and whom, this helps. Occasionally, Javier assists his younger sister with her schoolwork. But who is there for him? He has gone midway through seventh grade without once being able to ask: "Mom, Dad, can you help me with my homework?" For however long he remains in school, this is the way it will be.
A few weeks ago, President Obama visited the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, in Decatur, Ga., to promote his State of the Union-speech goal to provide universal access to high-quality preschools for poor and middle-class children. "This works. We know it works. If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it. Right here," he said.
Well, yes, it does work. But not on its own. Javier attended a Head Start preschool program in Norwalk. How much good did it do?
We speak at great length of the education gap -- the wide gulf of achievement that separates the wealthy from the poor, among both school districts and individual students. What we seldom address is the parenting gap.
Last September, as they do at the start of every school year, the kindergarten teachers at Norwalk's Brookside Elementary School -- Javier's alma mater -- issued an academic readiness test to their students. Its purpose was to determine whether the children had entered school with a solid foundation, or if they were already behind. The categories tested were rote counting, counting objects to ten, identifying numerals to ten, identifying upper and lower case letters, writing their first names, copying four basic shapes, drawing a self-portrait and concepts about print. Twenty-seven of their 71 incoming students -- 38 percent -- proved academically unprepared for kindergarten in one or more of these basic skills. Those who failed cross racial and class lines. What they have in common is this: Regarding their education, their parents are insufficiently involved.
Two years ago, when Javier was in fifth grade, his teacher, Keith Morey, conducted a fascinating experiment. One by one, he called his students to him. First, Danny, among his most reluctant students.
"Tell me," Mr. Morey asked. "What responsibilities do you have at home?"
"What?" Danny asked, thrown by the question.
"Responsibilities. What chores do you have?"
"None," the boy replied.
Mr. Morey sent him back to his seat and called for Mitchell, another who often skipped his homework. Mitchell had no chores, either.
Next he called on Sam, his best student, and asked the same question. "I have to do the dishes and sometimes clean my room," the boy replied. Then Gabriella, a good student and his hardest worker -- she made her bed, helped with the laundry and cleaned her room. Finally, DeShondra, an average student who always tried her best. She had the same chores as Gabriella.
"Notice any correlation between chores and those who take their schoolwork seriously?" Mr. Morey asked.
A teacher can't force-feed the importance of early education on disengaged parents, any more than he or she can legislate that parents learn English, or become more involved in their child's schooling. In order to be effective in the classroom, a teacher must be partners with students' parents, not an antagonist. But there is action a principal can take. He can hold a mandatory parents' meeting at the start of each school year and tell them hard truths. He can say this: We will do the best we can to educate your child. We will work with him or her during school, and before and after if necessary, for however long it takes. But we have the children just a small portion of the day. The rest of the time they're with you. You bear a huge responsibility in your child's education. If we work together, I promise your child will make big strides. Without your help, there's less chance he or she will. It's up to you.
In many communities, Norwalk included, there is already a roster of parent-aid programs in place -- English-as-second-language classes, social services assistance, a series of classes offering tips on how best to teach a child to read or learn math. The problem is how to connect disengaged parents to the programs. Too few seek help on their own, meaning school districts must do a better job of reaching them.
Most elementary schools hold biannual parent-teacher conferences. We need to expand the concept into a parent-education day. Following their fifteen-minute session reviewing their child's progress with the teacher, parents would adjourn to a classroom where they'd learn tips on how to teach their children at home. Thereafter, the principal would send parents a weekly e-mail blast containing a new reading or math tip. In another classroom, a bilingual teacher would host an introductory lesson for non-English-speaking parents in English. Anything to get them instantly, unavoidably enmeshed in the education process -- not only in their child's, but their own. In doing so, they might come to appreciate the complex and intimate business that is the sharing of knowledge. If they're lucky, they may experience the magic that occurs when, with the guidance of the teacher, a student grasps a fresh concept or learns a new word. Maybe they'd be inspired to try for that same, shared moment of triumph at home.
It would take effort for school districts to implement such a program, and for parents to make time to return to the classroom -- not just on parent-education day, but for the length of the school year. Yet for the sake of students like Javier, Danny, and Mitchell, they must. For they are among the children left behind.
Ron Berler is the author of Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America's 45,000 Failing Public Schools (Berkley Books).