Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Teachers v. Parents: Who is the Greater Influence?

In his weekly column for the WaPo, Jay Matthews argues that, contrary to popular belief, teachers have a greater influence on children's achievement than their parents:

Do unsupportive parents create pathetic schools or do pathetic schools create unsupportive parents? It is the most frustrating of chicken-and-egg questions. Many education experts will say it is a bit of both, but that's a cop-out. Most of our worst schools are full of low-income children in our biggest cities. No one has yet found a way to revive those schools in any significant way by training the students' parents to be more engaged with their children's educations. It is too hard to do and too unlikely to have much impact on the chaotic school district leadership.

What has worked, again and again, is the opposite: Bring an energetic and focused leader into the school, let that person recruit and train good teachers and find ways to get rid of those who resist making the necessary changes. Great teaching makes great schools, and once you have a good school, parents become engaged and active.

I don't disagree with him entirely, but I do believe Matthews gives too little credit to parents.

Matthews focuses mainly on parental engagement - for example, programs that teach parents how to help their children with their homework. This type of program is clearly important, but as Matthews said, it doesn't exactly create systemic change. Students benefit and parents benefit, but schools rarely transform because parents start checking homework assignments at night.

What does have the power to create systemic change - and what Matthews misses - is parental advocacy. This type of "parental involvement" is not taught by schools, primarily because of its political nature. After all, if schools teach parents to demand better, eventually, those parents will start demanding better of the schools themselves.

Yet advocacy is a necessary skill for parents, especially low-income, minority parents. Wealthy Anglo parents often have the education, social capital, and financial resources to be effective advocates for their children. Low-income parents, minority parents, immigrant parents - these are people who we should pour our resources into. These are the people to whom we must say, "This is America. Your child deserves an excellent education. Now, let's go fight for it."

If it is taught effectively, parental advocacy can change not just the lives of students and parents, but the entire school system as well. This is the next phase of parental involvement - moving from engagement to advocacy - and it has incredible potential.

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