Students won’t learn? Go visit their parents

January 26

Caleb Rossiter once told his math students at H.D. Woodson High School in the District that they would not be allowed into his classroom without their homework. It didn’t work.

“The kids learn early that there are no consequences for not doing homework or even class work in high-poverty schools, since they eventually pass without doing any,” Rossiter said.

This is true of many schools in our nation’s big cities. Plenty of suburban kids also find they can ignore assignments and still get by. Many experts, including the U.S. secretary of education, lately have been putting some of the blame for this on parents.

But the remedies proposed aren’t impressive. Our schools repeatedly promise to get more parents involved, but that usually means limp gestures like sending notes home or holding back-to-school nights.

Some educators have been experimenting with more personal measures. In his book “Blue Ribbon Story: An Entrepreneur’s Success in Education,” New Jersey educator Robert L. Kravitz said he sent a stronger message by pulling out his cellphone in the middle of a class and letting everyone hear him tell a father how disruptive his son was being.

The most promising initiatives have educators visiting parents at their homes. They often start when a teacher shows up uninvited at a home after school because he can think of no other way to get through to a student. He learns the parents aren’t offended by the visit, instead thanking him for his interest in their child. Henceforth his assignments are more likely to be completed because the parents know him and back him up.

Except for a few charter school networks, almost no public schools make a habit of home visits. Officials say they cost too much and might be unsafe. But the D.C. school system is giving them a try.

The D.C. initiative is called the Family Engagement Partnership (FEP), supported by the Flamboyan Foundation, which tries to improve educational outcomes in the District and Puerto Rico. The program operates in 10 elementary schools — Bancroft, Beers, C.W. Harris, Garrison, Hearst, Neval Thomas, Powell, Tubman, Seaton and Stanton — as well as two education campuses, Truesdell and Wheatley; two middle schools, Jefferson and Kelly Miller; one secondary school, Columbia Heights, and nine charter schools. They had to compete for a chance to join the program. The District plans to add 15 more schools.

Teachers are taught what to do, and what not to do, when visiting families at their homes. No surprise visits, no making assumptions about kids or parents, no note-taking, visit more than just a class’s struggling students, listen more than talk. They visit in pairs after school, using a model developed by educators in Sacramento, Calif. Each is paid $34 per visit, plus additional stipends for teacher leaders at each school. Vincent Baxter, school-level family engagement director for the D.C. schools, said another 31 teacher pairs in 29 schools not in the program have been selected as teaching fellows. They also take training and do visits.

There are no conclusive data yet, but the first five schools that participated in the program saw their proficiency rates on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test increase an average 7.4 percent in reading and 15.2 percent in math from 2011 to 2013. “When we focus on helping teachers improve in this way, we see better outcomes for students,” Baxter said.

One of the reasons some low-income parents don’t support their children’s schoolwork is because, based on unhappy memories of their own schooling, they often think the instruction is poor and the teachers don’t care. Seeing a teacher show up at their door and treat them with respect can change that attitude. Empty talk about involving parents suddenly becomes real. When the teacher seeks help motivating their child, they are willing to give it a try, one big step toward a better school.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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