Our public schools are suffering from crippling shortages.
But of all the essential personnel who have gone missing, the group with the largest impact is the one we least want to mention – parents.
Every year I look forward to parent-teacher conferences.
I gather samples of student work, journal entries, drawings and grade reports. I put out a row of chairs in the hall so people have a place to sit if they have to wait for one group to finish before they can see me. And I write in big, bold, colorful chalk on the board, “Welcome, Parents!”
Then I sit at my desk trying to stay awake as the hours creep by in my empty classroom.
Seriously. Where did the moms and dads go? Where are the grandparents, the older siblings, the guardians, the primary or even secondary caregivers?
On Parent-Teacher Day, they must be somewhere, but they’re not here.
We typically have a section from noon to 3 and one from 5 to 8 pm so that people with various schedules can come in.
And every year it’s the same. Only about 20-30% of my students’ parent or guardians usually visit me on these days – and that’s after the promise of bonus points if they come in!
Even then it’s most often the parents of the kids with the best grades who show up. It’s the parents of kids who say “Please” and “Thank you,” the kids who smile when you walk in the room, the kids who want you to hang up their drawings on the bulletin board.
And it’s these bruised and battered kids who are in the majority.
Where are their parents?
They’re missing. Gone. Poof.
Teachers would turn on their Zoom links to give lessons to their students only to find many of the kids vanished.
These kids usually were there when school was in-person. But on-line they were MIA. And even if they were technically present, they often hid behind a turned off camera and didn’t hand in their work.
At school, the teacher was there to make sure these kids took care of business. But at home there simply was no one to hold them accountable. No one to get them up, feed them, and make sure they were online when classes began, ensure they paid attention and did their work.
That’s why so many kids were absent or otherwise failed the online experience.
Granted this kind of cyber learning is developmentally inappropriate for most K-12 students – certainly those up through middle school. But with the proper parental support, most children would have done much better.
It just wasn’t there.
Now let me be clear about one thing – I am not blaming anybody here.
It is not my intention to pass judgment on anyone.
As a parent, myself, I know from experience how difficult the job is – especially during a global pandemic.
But we have to face the facts. As a whole, parents were the weak link in the chain. And it didn’t start with Covid – they have been the weak link for decades.
Teachers can’t go to every student’s home and be caregiver as well as educator. The fact that so many children are struggling with basic socialization skills after as much as two years of online schooling goes to show how much of the responsibility for raising children has rested on schools and teachers.
This year many students don’t know how to talk with each other without instigating a fight. They constantly pick on each other, demand respect they aren’t giving and are starving for any kind of attention they can get.
Without daily in-person contact with teachers, many children have become socially awkward and need to relearn the basics of interpersonal interaction. That’s how much we’ve come to expect teachers to be co-parents from year-to-year.
Let me stop again and clarify that I am not talking about all parents.
Many parents go out of their way to be present in their children’s lives.
They get their kids up for school, make sure they eat a nutritious breakfast, ensure they catch the bus or get a ride to school, make sure they do their homework after the day is over and establish a healthy bedtime.
But this should be the norm, not the exception.
I know how hard it is to do. Waking my daughter up every morning often takes a stick of dynamite. And getting that girl to eat a healthy breakfast is a battle I often lose. But her mother and I make darn sure she does her homework and we even sit down with her to help it get done. And weekday bedtimes are religiously adhered to – no one wants a cranky, fussy child the next morning.
My wife and I don’t have to work more than one job to make ends meet, for example. It would probably help if we did, but neither of us has the wherewithal, and we get by.
But many folks are not so lucky.
They DO have to work multiple jobs. They have work schedules that are less in tune with the school day. They can’t be home to wake up their kids and send them off. They can’t be home when kids are dismissed and don’t have the time to help with homework. Some barely have the education, themselves, to be of much assistance.
Disadvantaged parents often had bad experiences with school when they were students. So they don’t instill the importance of education to their kids. Nor do they prove good role models since they often don’t read for pleasure, speak in the dominant vernacular or respect teachers.
All this has tremendous effects on the education children receive.
In fact, many academic studies have shown that the most important factor in the education process isn’t the school or teachers – it’s the parents.
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%. (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).
Estimates vary somewhat from study to study, but the basic structure holds. The vast majority of impact on learning comes from the home and out-of-school factors. Teachers are just a small part of the picture. They are the largest single factor in the school building, but the school, itself, is only one of many components.
According to the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), the most accurate predictors of student achievement in school are the extent to which families create home environments that encourage learning, communicate high yet reasonable expectations, and become involved in the children’s education at school.
Moreover, when parents are involved, the performance of all the children at school tends to improve – not just the academics of kids with involved parents. The more comprehensive the partnership between school and home, the higher the student achievement.
Put simply – parents are vital to good learning.
But our society doesn’t do much to allow parents to parent.
To some extent, the pandemic is making things worse.
More than 750,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.
According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus.
This is wreaking havoc on kids support systems.
But an even larger problem is economics.
When schools went online, employers could have allowed more parents to work from home so they could be there for their children. However, profits were more important.
Even in non-pandemic times, employers need to provide more time and resources for parents. There is too much demand for overtime hours, increased productivity and very little family leave or other such services.
We live in one of the richest countries in the world. Much of the labor we force people to do is strictly unnecessary. It’s there just to justify our economic system. If we reordered things around people instead of capital, parents could more easily be involved in their children’s educations.
This is fundamentally the problem with all the educational shortages we’re seeing.
These are symptoms of an economic failure. We can continue to prop up this faded machine or create a world that values life over profit.
But we pretend this isn’t true.
We’ve been trying to run our schools as if parents weren’t that important and then throwing all the blame on teachers when parents don’t show up.
This has to stop.
It’s time to admit how important parents are to their children’s educations and then provide them with the tools necessary to be parents.
It’s time to include parents in the circle.
It’s time to expect them to show up.
Because we can’t continue educating their children without them.
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