Setting the Standard in Education

Tuesdays with Arne: And You Thought Mom Just Made Mac ‘n Cheese

In Federal on May 5, 2010 at 1:39 am

Although it’s technically Wednesday, I’m still awake, so I’m considering this my Duncan post for Tuesday. With all of the hullabaloo about teachers’ rights with tenure issues and training questions, one constituency seems to be forgotten in schooling: the parents. There seem to be two unproductive polar opposite views when it comes to improving the education of students. One view is that children can not learn more, because parents are responsible for a child’s upbringing. The other is the Teach For America view that a teacher can mold regardless of what is going on at home. However, there is a third mindset that needs to be instilled in our schooling system if we are ever to fully close the achievement gaps that exist. Schools need to be seen as places that interact with parents, not just students, so that a child’s education can be an integral part of their lives, rather than something that only happens from 7:30 to 2:30 each day. Luckily, my main man Arne has seen the light. Yesterday, May 3rd,  Duncan gave the keynote address at the first annual Mom Congress, a meeting of 51 moms from around the country, representing all 50 states plus DC. The event was held at Georgetown University and was sponsored by Parenting Magazine. I thought perhaps instead of going through the entire speech, I’d simply highlight some important things he said.

First of all, he began by telling a story of Obama asking the equivalent of the Secretary of Education in South Korea what his biggest challenge was and he said that parents are too demanding. He contrasted this with what he sees as the state of parents in the US:

Too many people say, “Schools are bad, but my school is good. Sorry to hear about the low math scores, but my Johnny is doing just fine.”

I thought that his concept of what parents should be doing in connection to their children’s educations were clear and make sense:

I want all parents to be real partners in their children’s educations… Parents can serve in at least one of three roles: partners in learning, advocates and advisors who push for better schools, and decision-makers who choose the best educational options for their children.

I would like for him to have talked a little more about the subject. These sound like wonderful ideas, but how do you get parents to do these things and what is ideal for how much they’re doing them? I would venture the assumption is that all parents should  the first area, but that the other two are a little more hazy. However, I liked the direction he went from there. He talked about what schools need to do in order for parents to feel like they have a stronger connection to the schools their children are in:

Schools should be places that honor and respect families, that meet parents on their own terms, and that may mean teachers giving out their cell phone numbers to field questions at night and calling back that single mom who missed the parent-teacher conference, because she had to work. Unfortunately, that mutual engagement and support is still missing for far too many of our nation’s schools… We have a long way to go before all schools support student learning and healthy growth, but parents aren’t off the hook here either in this partnership between schools and families.

It’s definitely a two-way street, but schools can only control one part of that street. With some work, they can get the other side working, too. Duncan also brought up the effects of the home environment on student learning. He pointed to a study by Kaiser that showed that adolescents spend 12 hours a day with media and that that number is even higher for African American and Hispanic children. This is compared to the 25 minutes a day students spend reading books. The kicker? Only 1/3 of parents in the study said they set any rules at all on how much their children could use the media. The results? Students who used media more were more likely to do worse in school, spend less time reading books, and got into more trouble. Coincidence? I think not.

We are never going to put the electronic genie back in the bottle, nor should we try, but parents can do better about setting limits on children’s use of electronic media and work towards using it more creatively to support student learning. There are extraordinary examples of using technology to engage children in their own learning, but more and more parents are realizing that media saturation and even addiction are real problems for their children.

We need to draw a line somewhere.

Being the Secretary of Education, Duncan brought it back out to what they need to be doing:

It is time for us to look in the mirror and not just out the window – and that includes us at the department of education… For 45 years, ever since the passing of the ESEA, the federal government has required or encouraged states,  districts, and schools, especially those with large numbers of low-income students, to promote parents’ involvement in students education.

I think this may be an area where Duncan sees a foothold into expanding the power of the federal government. If there are already provisions for these programs and they are so neglected, the DOE has a strong opportunity to have a lot of influence. However, as I’ve noted in other articles, one of the problems in policy these days is the lack of research into what works and parental involvement is no exception, as Duncan points out:

There is surprisingly little research on what works and what doesn’t in family engagement programs to accelerate student learning.

So the big question is, what should be done to improve the situation? Just like the other policies that have ruffled many feathers, the answer Duncan is providing is in money, since that’s what changes minds:

Our proposal [the Blueprint] allows family engagement to be included as one measure of success in teacher and principal evaluations… Today, we propose to double funding for parent engagement from one to two percent of  Title 1 dollars to bring that total to $270 million and at the same time in order to drive innovation. We will allow states to use another 1 percent of title 1 dollars, about $145 million, for grant programs that help support, incentivize, and help expand district-level, evidence-based parental involvement practices

I know, a lot to take in, but I think overall, the message is clear: we can’t just focus on what students are doing inside of the classroom. Students only spend 8 hours a day there for half of the days of the year. To improve education, we need to take into account all of the rest of the time in a student’s life.

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