Nearly all of the policy proposals coming out of the reform movements on both sides of the political spectrum focus on schools, whether it is school choice, merit pay, early childhood education, or accountability measures. However, there is a giant elephant in the room that everyone who has worked in public education knows about: parents. What, if any, relationship should there be between public policy and parental responsibility for educational outcomes?
For perspective, consider the relative amounts of time teachers and parents spend with children. Most teachers spend 50 minutes a day, 5 days a week, 43 weeks a year with their students, and often have 100 students or more.
Parents, by comparison, spend much more time with their children, can give them individualized attention, and are able to hold them accountable in ways that teachers cannot. Few can deny an enormous cultural shift in responsibility from previous generations to today. In the past, students were expected to know the content of a course regardless of whether they liked their teacher, or whether their teacher's teaching style matched their learning style. Today, if students fail, it is viewed as a failure of the teacher, the school, or the system.
Yet, schools have not been afforded any additional rights that correspond to their newfound responsibilities — quite the opposite has occurred. This is not to say that blaming parents alone does any good. Economic changes have resulted in households with both parents working, many single parent households, and low-income parents who often do not have the tools necessary to help their children succeed. However, we should recognize the limits of additional pressures on teachers and schools for improving outcomes without providing them with additional resources.
When I look at the achievement gap between students who come from high-income and low-income households, I see enormous potential to develop human capital that would benefit us all, but I also see profound injustice in the lack of fairness for children who come from disadvantaged households. Children do not choose their parents or their schools, yet these two variables heavily influence their life prospects.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to shift cultural norms through public policy.
The best method, it appears, is to allow schools a greater degree of authority and influence in the socialization of children. This is exactly how successful schools, such as KIPP and the SEED boarding school, ultimately work, by removing students from poverty-stricken environments, placing them in environments that foster high expectations, and requiring an increased time commitment for learning. These schools also require parents to sign an agreement that provides the school more rights and authority in disciplining students.
However, scaling up this model does not come at a small cost. Per pupil funding at the SEED school, for example, is $33,000 — three times the national average. The best route to ending poverty for future generations is through education, but we must be committed to making this investment. We could afford it by moving away from a government that subsidizes senior citizens — a relatively affluent group — and global military hegemony to one focused on developing human capital and alleviating poverty. Until then, I fear that the reform movements will largely be concentrated on marginal improvements to a grossly unjust system.
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