Let’s start with a quiz:
1. A third grader in Florida is often late for class. She tends to forget her homework and is unprepared for tests. The teacher would like to talk to her parents about this, but they fail to attend parent-teacher conferences. The teacher should:
a) fail the student.
b) fail the parents.
2. A middle-school student in Alaska is regularly absent, and his grades are suffering as a result. The district should:
a) fail the student.
b) fine the parents US$500 a day for every day the student is not in school.
3. A California kindergartner has been absent, without a doctor’s note or other “verifiable reason,” 10 times in one semester. The district should:
a) call the parents.
b) call the district attorney and have charges brought against the parents.
The answer, under state laws in the US that have been proposed (No. 1), or recently enacted (No. 2 and No. 3), is “b” on all counts: If a student is behaving badly, punish Mom and Dad.
Teachers are fed up with being blamed for the failures of US education, and legislators are starting to hear them. A spate of bills introduced in various states now takes aim squarely at the parents. If you think you can legislate teaching, the notion goes, why not try legislating parenting?
It is a complicated idea, taking on the controversial question of whether parents, teachers or children are most to blame when a child fails to learn.
But the thinking goes like this: If you look at schools that “work,” as measured by test scores and graduation rates, they all have involved (overinvolved?) parents, who are on top of their children’s homework, in contact with their children’s teachers and invested in their children’s futures. So just require the same of parents in schools that don’t work, and the problem is solved (or, at least, dented), right?
Time was that children’s behavior in the classroom reflected on their “upbringing” and parents were expected to reinforce an accepted truth that “teacher knows best.” But today’s parents are just as likely to see the teacher as the problem — a view that has been reinforced by presidents who accuse teachers of leaving more than a few children behind, governors who want to eliminate their collective bargaining and mayors who want to be rid of laws that protect teachers who have been in their jobs the longest.
It was conversations about what to do with lousy teachers that led to some of the new parental measures. Indiana state Representative Linda Lawson visited a local high school being threatened with closure for poor performance. “Any kind of problem in an academic setting, and people blame the teachers,” she recalled hearing over and over again. “They say things like, ‘If teachers were more responsive ... didn’t have the summers off ... worked an eight-hour day ...’ But no one looks at the parents.”
In Florida, state Representative Kelli Stargel was hearing the same things. “Teachers were telling us: ‘We can only do so much in the classroom. We have no control over what happens with these kids at home,”’ she said.
Lawson’s answer was to introduce a bill requiring parents to spend three hours each semester volunteering either in the school building or at a school-related function. She cast it as an anti-bullying measure, though it would not apply just to parents of bullies. The purpose, she said, was to increase parent-teacher interaction, giving teachers a chance to talk to parents and giving parents a better sense of the rhythms and requirements of the school.