Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Stop Blaming Teachers When It’s the Parents’ Fault!

Future High School Dropout? (Image from Flickr by izatrini_com)
In today’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman had an op-ed that seems to bash the Ed Deformers and tell them to get off of teachers’ backs. However, rather than placing the blame for the achievement gap and other problems with public education where it belongs—on the defunding of schools and growing poverty among children—he places the blame on parents, as if they merely need to behave better and become more effective parents.

“Here’s what some new studies are also showing,” he tells us. “We need better parents. Parents more focused on their children’s education can also make a huge difference in a student’s achievement.”

There are several problems with this proposal. First, it conflates correlation with causation. Parents who are more involved in their children’s education tend to be more affluent. There is plenty of data correlating affluence with higher academic achievement. So is it affluence or parental involvement or both?

Secondly, can parents simply be taught, encouraged or forced to be more involved in their children’s education or is this a product of their class backgrounds? And what does parental involvement even mean?

Plenty of studies indeed show that parents who read often to young children and who use larger and more complex vocabularies with their kids end up with kids who have significantly larger vocabularies and pre-literacy skills by the time they are ready for kindergarten, creating an achievement gap before children have even started school. Affluent parents are also more likely to have the time and education to do this with their children. A parent who works two or three jobs or who is barely literate is not going to read to their children or use complex language with them.

Affluent parents are also more likely to be able to make it to after school and evening meetings, open houses and community events. They are more likely to understand how the system works and have the self-confidence (or self-entitlement) necessary to navigate the system, advocate for their children and challenge perceived injustices or inadequacies in their children’s schools and classrooms.

Schools are essentially middle class institutions that have mores, norms and expectations similar to those in middle class families. Middle class children, therefore, come to school with the “cultural capital” necessary to succeed, whereas lower income kids often must learn this culture from scratch.

In short, Friedman is correct that parental involvement is important and parents who do, or who learn to, participate in their children’s education are more likely to see their kids succeed academically. However, his op-ed piece implies that there is something wrong with parents who are not involved with their kids’ education, when in reality it is often not their faults. Furthermore, whether you are blaming teachers or parents, you are still missing the point: the most significant influence on academic achievement is a child’s socioeconomic background. So long as we continue to ignore poverty, as long as we accept a society in which a few have all the wealth and a large minority is desperately poor, neither better teaching, no better parenting, is going to close the achievement gap or ensure that all children succeed academically.


  1. Absolutely. Even when Friedman does not sicken me, which is rare, he still has a flair for missing the point. Laymen to the education system (like Friedman, not to mention the Deformers themselves) want to add their two cents to the education debate with quaint notions of teacher accountability, parental involvement and other bromides. Wrong. Any vision for school reform has to deal with the wealth and class of the students being served. This is the core of the issue. All the changes that have taken place thus far in the name of school reform have either been irrelevant or downright destructive. What should we expect? The reformers do not actually care about poor children. Neither does Friedman. That is why they can so gleefully talk education like something sealed off from the rest of the world, ripe for their reforming since they are socioeconomic betters, and they know best. It is a bunch of sanctimonious horse manure.

  2. Sounds like sanctimonious horse manure, but actually a concerted attempt to deskill teachers, destroy the last vestiges of unionism, and open the wedge wider for profit-making from public education.