Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Involve me Out!

"Include me out!" — Samuel Goldwyn.

The current emphasis on "parent involvement" started when study after study confirmed that the strongest predictor of a child's performance on standardized tests is the income level of the parents.

To me, the obvious conclusion is that the schools have no effect on student achievement, which means that most of what they do is a waste of time.  This is why we need true school reform (beginning with the curriculum!), not corporate reform.

Of course, this isn't the conclusion that educrats came to.  "Hey, the kids of middle-class parents do better academically.  We should try to make all parents behave like those middle-class parents!"  This is why we have homework in elementary school.  It's not even about the kids — it's about "parent involvement".  The fantasy is that assigning homework will result in educational family time, with Mom and kids sitting around the kitchen table, all doing their approved work — Mom balancing the checkbook, and Daughter writing her rainbow spelling words  (just listen to Janine Bempechat!).

Those of us who are already middle-class parents are rightly insulted by these attempts to strong-arm us into doing what we were already doing, and probably more effectively than the school's way.  For parents in poverty,  they may be actually unable to carry out the school's directives.  Maybe the parents can't read the instructions because they are illiterate, or don't speak English.  Maybe they're too frazzled by working a poorly-paid job that takes two hours of bus time to return home from.  Maybe the kinds of problems they face in their daily lives make the rainbow spelling words look like a cruel joke.

Schools should solve their own problems instead of trying to control parents.


  1. I'm sure I've shared this before, but working at a Title 1 elementary school when I was in college was a major wake-up call for me. It was so obvious that the kids who were doing well were from stable middle-class homes. Many of their parents taught at the university I attended.

    The ones who did poorly were almost all from low-income families. Some of them had parents who just plain didn't care, some had parents who couldn't help them with 3rd grade math or reading because it was too hard for them, too, and some had parents who worked two or three jobs or were otherwise just too busy.

    The school really did little to nothing to acknowledge this, from what I could see. The struggling kids rarely finished their classwork, and what wasn't finished was homework. I didn't think the homework volume was unreasonable for the kids who were already doing well (though they probably didn't need it), but what happens when you add classwork to it and the kid is reading and writing two or three grade levels down? Of course it wasn't going to get done. The notion that an 8-year-old who doesn't know his addition and subtraction facts is going to sit himself down at the kitchen table and spend 3 hours working through fractions problems is ridiculous.

    When homework wasn't completed, the punishment was usually no recess. Yes, taking away the one time during the day when the kid can run around and blow off steam is really going to help things! I tried pointing all this out to the teachers and got, "I know his life is hard, but he needs to learn some responsibility" or, "It's not fair to the kids who do their homework if he doesn't get punished."

    Those kids are now in high school. If they're still in school at all. I still worry about them.

  2. Megan, please don't be afraid you might repeat yourself. I do it all the time!

    What a great story, right from the trenches.

    "It's not fair to the kids who do their homework if he doesn't get punished." This is wrong in so many ways. I think it'll have to be a separate post --

  3. PsychMom rejoicing:

    It's letting me in....and now I have no time...ahhhh.

    This parent involvement stuff is really getting to me. Since when are parents that interested in Grade 1 (and up) school work anyway? I'm almost suggesting we need to adopt the benign neglect that Lorna from free range kids supports. Is it such a sign of neglect if a parent doesn't attend every parent teacher meeting for K to Grade 8?

  4. PsychMom -- I'm so glad you're back!

    Yes, why does the school get to define what it looks like to be an involved parent?

  5. Hear, hear. Not micromanaging your kids doesn't mean you're an uninvolved parent.

  6. Oh, there's way more where that came from! I loved that job, I really did, but I could write a book on all the things that disturbed me.

  7. Brava, FedUp. Couldn't have said it better.

  8. You know, I am what you'd call an uber-involved parent. But my definition of involvement isn't what their definition of involvement. "Involvement" means, bake cookies and chaperone field trips. And do what I say when I send a mountain home.

    You know what? I did the cookies (no, I don't bake. I brought in store bought sushi) and the chaperoning. But when I would tell them (politely. And why do I have to justify our home existence in the first place?) that homework was getting in the way of family time, do you think they jumped for joy?

    By family time, I meant "homeschool on the side" time. Museums, libraries, bookstores, field trips, hikes, free ballet, free classical concerts, art of my daughter's choosing, leggos, k'nex, walks, history discussions, telescopes, lectures, chemistry experiments, and I could go on for pages.

    Did they jump for joy at how involved, caring and really amazing parents we are? Yea, right...

  9. ** isn't what their definition of involvement looks like ** it should have read.

  10. I completely agree. My parents were "univolved", and I learned some independence, much more than my younger sister, who went to school after the push for micromanagement started.

    I still maintain that a good school should be able to teach the basics with NO parental involvement, otherwise it is not fair to kids from less fortunate backgrounds. Just have a basic standard of competence that you are going for, and don't worry that some kids will know more than that. The disadvantaged kids will still be able to be more educated parents for their kids.

    And Megan, I was a Title I tutor in college. I know what you're talking about.

  11. PsychMom says:

    I was at another curriculum night at school the other night and the message you get as a parent is "this is what we're doing in school and now, this is what you should be doing at home", as if on Sept 1 your whole life now revolves around the children and what they're doing in school. It's very strange.

    While I am interested to know what the teacher is trying to teach my child, I do not necessarily see myself as a part of the plan. But there are people around the table that do see themselves as involved, and they are keen to know how to be good teachers to their children.

    "Should I be buying these same manipulatives the school has so we can practice at home?"

    "What if I don't know how to answer one of the questions the same way you teach it...can you show me how you want me to do it?"

    If teachers get that, it's no wonder they start including parent in the plan. I go to these evenings so that I see what the goals are..from an accountability standpoint.

  12. I work with teachers and math curriculum and I have a variation of this discussion every time I visit a new school:

    So, what is the purpose of home enjoyment? I say it should be practice of the skill taught in the lesson that day. It should be an assessment of the lesson. If a student can't do it by themselves, then I'd rather they brought it back to me, the teacher and I will reteach the concept.

    What happens if you grade home enjoyment? It comes back perfect because parents want their kids to get a good grade, so they'll help the student.

    What about the students whose parents work nights? Or don't remember 5th grade math? Is it fair to grade them against the kids who have parents at home helping them? Google "Order of Operations"?

    "Gee, I never thought about it that way?"
    Well start thinking about it.

  13. "Home enjoyment"? Is that the latest euphemism for "homework"?

  14. LOL -- Not only do you have to do it, but you have to enjoy it, too!

  15. If it makes you feel any better, I'm actually getting the exact opposite message in my graduate program in education. There are many chapters of each of my books dedicated to how research shows that the number one factor of student achievement is teacher efficacy- more than race/gender/socio-economic status/etc.

    On the one hand, this can be encouraging as a teacher to think that you are making a difference. On the other hand, when you're in the trenches of a Title I school, I can tell you it just makes me feel like sh*t because, as Megan said, it's so clear that home life has a huge impact on the kids when it's all the white, middle-class kids with involved parents who are doing well at school. Then, I start feeling like a parent failing 150 kids. Because I'm being told I'm the single greatest factor in student achievement. Frankly, I'm not willing to be that cocky.

    The school I'm working in gives very little homework- as in, suggesting 5 math problems max a night, just to reinforce concepts learned and to practice, no required reading at home save AP Lit classes, and all things that need a computer are required to be completed in school, during class time (such as research projects)- and they are un-endingly lenient when it comes to taking late assignments. Kids can turn in work several weeks late. And I'm not talking homework- I'm talking work that was supposed to be done in class, either individually or in a group. This is work they are capable of doing on their own, they just have total apathy about school and refuse to do it. As teachers, we try everything we can think of to counteract it, we have meetings about it and trainings about it, we differentiate and differentiate again and try and have a mix of group work, of discussions, of hands on projects, and keep the homework to a minimum- less homework, by far, than anyone else I know is giving as a teacher, or seeing their own children receive. We have a supportive environment where the students can ask for help, get tutoring during lunch/after school, and do make-up or alternative assignments. Yet the apathy remains, to the point where basic work is just not turned in because they just don't care. Right now, half of our school is failing. Half. Student work- in the form of papers, or projects, or reflections, or journals- is almost completely done in class, and kept to a bare minimum. Yet even that is not being done/turned in, and so they are failing.

    They brag that their parents don't care. Their parents don't return calls. They don't come to parent teacher nights. Kids are failing and skipping class and coming tardy and there are no consequences or concern. But at the bottom of it all, I'm being told *I'm* making or breaking them. More so than their parents. More so than the fact that their dad is in prison, or they are homeless, or their mom left them. *I'm* the one that's responsible. When each teachers sees them about 4 1/2 hours a week on a block schedule. It's hard to counter act home life and parenting when each teacher has about 4 1/2 hours of time to impact a child, while they are also teaching and mentoring 25 other kids at the same time.

    I have no illusions of being some Dangerous Minds/Freedom Writers hero- as I said, I'm just not that cocky. What concerns me is that other people have those illusions about me. I have more than enough self loathing and blame without being given more when I fail to revolutionize a child's life.

  16. Anonymous -- do you know how the research your book is referring to is measuring "student achievement"? Is it by short-term test score increases, or by some measure of the students' ability years later as an adult? I could imagine two very different conclusions about "teacher efficacy" depending on which type of measure you use.

  17. Anonymous -- since you mention AP classes, I take it you work in a high school? I feel for you. You're seeing the result of years of bad school experiences. If a kid is apathetic and unwilling at that late stage, there's not a whole lot you can do about it.

    I have a question for you -- do you have any way to separate out "unwilling" from "unable"? When a kid can't do the work, they will often refuse to try (I know this from experience!). Does your school have ample remedial math and reading classes?

    Good luck to you.

  18. Wow, so much to think about-I think that the concept of parental involvement has been grossly misdefined and misread by the powers that be. It's not that everyone should be forced to copy middle class parents-that's not going to help anyone, and it's not possible in most circumstances either. (Sure, if all parents have middle class jobs and upbringings, they can act like middle class parents. But that's not the case). The issue of parental involvement for low income kids is really more about forging bonds between the world of school and the world of home, because there's a disjunct there that just doesn't happen for middle class kids. School is a middle class world. It emphasizes middle class values, books, narratives, you name it. The issue for lower class kids in terms of parental involvement is about making a way for parents to feel comfortable being involved, and for kids to be able to feel like they can succeed in school without having to betray or give up the world of their families and home. Homework definitely does not do this job unless it's of a very specific type. And shaming the parents by putting them in a position where the kid's success rests on their own level of education or free time is just a terrible idea.
    I agree with FedUpMom that Anonymous is seeing the result of years worth of bad school experiences...I get a lot of the same thing. It's definitely not your fault, anonymous, and it's a major cop-out on the part of policy makers that they're saying that it is. I kind of wonder if not expecting class work to be turned in might be making things worse, though-not giving homework and not having computer projects be done at home sounds smart. (Most of my students don't have computers at home either). It's a delicate balance-on the one hand, you have to be realistic about what your students can and can't do (i.e., doing homework in a homeless shelter or a house where parents are throwing things, not so realistic). On the other hand, you have to expect them to do what they realistically can do-like do work in class most of the time. Otherwise I imagine they get the message that no one cares whether they do it or not, even if that's not the intended message (and teenagers of all social classes are known for avoiding school work if they can). I think it's also hard because poor kids have trouble seeing what an education is going to get them. They look around at their community and they see people who made it through high school but have no jobs. They probably see people who made it through college but have no jobs. They see people working their tails off for non-living wages. Getting them out of apathy means showing them why doing schoolwork would be to their advantage, which is not easy to do, especially as the class barriers get higher. (Honestly, I can't tell my students that getting them a college degree will get them a living wage at this point. I do tell them that having a GED will give them access to jobs they might not qualify for otherwise, since i still think that's true).

  19. FedUp Mom- Yes, my school is thankfully very good about giving kids remedial classes in both math and reading. Two of the classes I teach are for struggling readers/writers, and most of those kids are also in the math classes. On a block schedule, they are getting an extra 4/12 hours of contact time. Usually, we divide the class in half- one part hands one, interactive reading/writing, class discussions, etc. The other half is *totally* devoted to assisting them in completing the in class work they do not finish during their regular Language Arts class. There is also a 30 minute study hall every day during which all students in the school have in school time to do assignments and get help from teachers. All of the support has to happen at school, and we know that, but it's so hard that it's still not helping.

    Democracy's Edge, Chris- I've looked into the research and it is *all* based on short term measures- which, to me is infuriating and misleading. What's strange is that my program is simultaneously pretty progressive and thoughtful, but at the same time they bank on research like that. Here is one excellent video they had us watch, that addresses the fact that we can no longer sell education to children by telling them "it will get you a job". I was, frankly, happily surprised that they endorsed the video. But then it's in conjunction with the other statements, which is confusing and crazy making.