By Stu Bernstein | Op-Ed in the LA Daily News
08/18/2009 11:05:04 AM-- HOW do we fix the schools, especially schools in urban school districts? That is the recurrent theme that grows more relevant as kids return to school in a few weeks.
Everyone has suggested fixes including, but not limited to, charter schools, greater financing, getting rid of poor teachers, getting rid of the administrative bureaucracy, giving teachers greater control of individual schools, eliminating the influence of unions, special tutoring for students who lag behind, developing stronger discipline policies, and parent involvement.
While many of these suggestions have a great deal of merit, there is one that begs greater attention from the educational community and society as a whole, and that is parent involvement.
Regrettably, a serious discussion of the causes of the lack of parent involvement in the schools is the deadly "third rail" of any public discourse relative to improving urban schools; that is, there is fear of openly discussing the virulent effect that generations of poor child-rearing practices - at every level of society, especially in poor communities - has had on public education.
Few in liberal, progressive or other circles wish to publicly recognize the destructive effects years of poverty and societal neglect have had on parenting practices. Doing so risks being accused of elitism, of "blaming the victim" or, worse, of racism.
The term "parent involvement" means different things to different people. For some it means involvement in parent-teachers associations or other parent groups at a school. For others, it may mean volunteering to assist with the myriad of tasks and responsibilities at a busy school. For others still, it may mean raising funds for needed activities at the school. And for the really committed, bless them, involvement may combine some or all of the latter.
Yet, the type of parent involvement that is desperately needed from all parents, and is the most difficult to obtain, is the type that takes active and daily personal interest in one's own child's performance with regard to both academic achievement and social behavior.
Involved parents make sure their children's daily attendance and punctuality is excellent. They supervise homework and make sure it's returned on time. They promptly respond to contacts by teachers and other school personnel. They regularly show up for scheduled parent conferences.
Involved parents let their children know, in no uncertain terms, that they are united with the school in their dedication to help their children grow and benefit from their time in school.
In fairness, teachers and administrators must treat parent inquiries with respect and not be threatened when negative allegations are made. And it goes without saying that teachers and administrators must acknowledge their wrong decisions and make amends when necessary. But involved parents must do the same - admit when their children have been wrong and correct them when necessary.
I would guess that if forced to choose, most people in schools today would favor the type of parent involvement I just described. But it comes at a cost. It calls for intensive parent training, and getting the parents most in need of the training to participate will be extremely difficult.
Who will be willing to identify the families and who will take the responsibility to design and implement public programs to assist them? Let's get the discussion going.
Dr. Stuart Bernstein is a former administrator in the LAUSD who served as interim principal at Manual Arts High School last year. He is a senior adviser to the Amber Group, a private consulting firm dealing with issues in education.
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