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Whose Failing Grade Is It?
By LISA BELKIN
SINCE the subject today is schooling, 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 $500 a day for every day the student is not in school.
3. A California kindergartener 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 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 American 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. State Representative Linda Lawson, a Democrat of Indiana, 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, a Republican, 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.
Ms. 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 antibullying measure, though it would not just apply 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.
Ms. Stargel, in turn, came up with a more startling piece of legislation: a requirement to grade parents on their involvement in their child’s education, and to post that grade on the child’s report card. Mom and Dad skip the parent-teacher conferences? “Unsatisfactory.” Send their child to class properly dressed, fed and with the proper supplies? “Satisfactory.” Are spotty in the checking of homework? “Need improvement.”
Both bills faced resistance from parents. “We don’t feel that the teacher having to grade the parent is really going to improve that relationship,” Cindy Gerhardt, the president of the Florida PTA, said tartly during hearings.
They also became bogged down in the problem of definitions. For example: What counts as involvement at school? Selling popcorn at a sporting event? Doing building repairs on weekends? And how do you define good or bad parenting — worthy of a passing or failing grade? Is the mother who sends a child to school with a Pop-Tart in hand a “needs improvement” parent or an “unsatisfactory” one? (Or maybe she deserves a medal for getting anything into the child at all.)
And how do you score the one whose children always have their homework completed because, as it turns out, the parent did most of the work? Or the one whose child shows up with assignments undone, because the parent wants the child to learn the consequences of slacking off?
The parent-participation bill in Indiana did not even get a hearing this session. The Florida parent report-card bill was discussed but never brought to a vote. Neither lawmaker is giving up, though. Both plan to revise their proposals over the summer and reintroduce them in the fall. In the next iteration, Ms. Stargel said: “We are going to stick to things we can measure. We can’t actually ‘fail’ parents. All we are really aiming to do is identify those parents who aren’t doing all they should so we can intervene.”
But other states have already enacted laws aimed at improving parenting. Alaska fines parents for a child’s truancy. In California, a misdemeanor charge can be brought against a parent if the truancy is flagrant enough. California is also the first state to allow judges to order parents to attend parenting classes if their child belongs to a gang. The goal, said the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, a Democrat, is to help parents navigate the minefield of adolescence. The new law took effect in January, and early reports indicate that attendance at the classes is sparse.
That is not surprising, said Diane Ravitch, an education historian and the author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” Yes, parenting can be “taught” Ms. Ravitch said, but not this way.
“If we could just find the right person to punish,” she said of the philosophy behind too many education reform plans. “Punish the teachers. Punish the parents. It’s Dickensian. What we should be doing instead is giving a helping hand.”
“Parenting education needs to begin when a woman is pregnant,” Dr. Ravitch said. “The window is open from prenatal days until age 5. And we need to acknowledge that the root problem is poverty.”
In the end, then, all these “punish the parents” paradigms will probably take their historical place as just one more shift of the pendulum in the sweep that already includes contradictory certainties like “children are being allowed to grow up too quickly” and “children are being infantilized too long.” Like every other new way of thinking, it will eventually be looked on as a well-intentioned but flawed reflection of a moment in time.
Standing in that moment, though, does punishing the parents seem to make sense?
a) No, it won’t make any difference.
b) At least it’s worth a shot.
Lisa Belkin covers family life for The Times and writes the Motherlode blog for nytimes.com. This column will appear monthly in Sunday Styles.