Bad Parents Don't Make Bad Schools

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008; 9:09 AM

A Washington Post poll this month revealed, once again, that D.C. residents put the most blame for their failing public schools on apathetic and uninvolved parents. Many Americans feel the same way about the same school troubles in their areas. They are wrong, but in such a convoluted way that it is difficult for us parents to get a good grasp on what role we play in making our schools bad or good.

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.

This happens, if you think about it, not only in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods but in those places where the rich folks live. Why do parents moving to this area flock to the suburbs where the housing is most expensive? It is because they have the best schools. Why are those schools full of parent volunteers? Because those mothers and fathers know their children are being given the best possible instruction and realize that their extra efforts will enrich an already good product. Schools that reject parental help and are slow to rid themselves of inadequate teachers -- there are some even in wealthy neighborhoods -- are readily detected by parental radar and find their PTA meetings poorly attended.

Yet we still blame parents for bad schools, a vestige of the racism and classism that distorts popular opinion on education everywhere. Stroll down any street in America and ask the neighbors about the local school. If it is full of the children of affluent parents, they will say it is great place to learn. If the children are largely from low-income, largely minority homes, they will say it is not a good school, even if some of its teachers have made great strides in raising achievement. When I write stories praising such schools for confounding expectations, I invariably get e-mails saying I have to be wrong, that such kids with such parents just can't be doing what I am seeing them do.

The Washington Post survey proved this point in a vivid way. When asked what was the biggest of a list of problems in D.C. schools, the highest portion of respondents, 20 percent, said parental apathy. When asked to read a list of issues and check all that they thought were big problems in the schools, parental apathy at 76 percent came in a close second to condition of facilities, 78 percent. (That is also an incorrect answer. I have visited some terrific schools in creaky buildings, but that is an issue for another day.) The choice that got the lowest number of votes as a big problem was quality of the teachers. Only 47 percent picked that issue, even though it is clear to anyone who has seen a bad school change to a good one that the teaching is by far the most important factor. (To be fair to D.C. teachers, I am talking about the quality of the teaching, not the quality of the teachers, which in some circumstances may not be the same thing. Good teachers stuck in a badly run school rarely do their best.)

Parents, no matter how much money they have or how difficult their lives are, are often smart about schools. They can figure out which ones are adding value to their children's lives, which are not, and they act accordingly. Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County was struggling to keep middle-class families from moving away in the early 1990s as low-income families moved into the Route 1 corridor and standards lapsed. A group of community leaders, including then-school board member Kris Amundson, former superintendent Robert R. "Bud" Spillane, then-assistant superintendent Nancy Sprague and former Mount Vernon principal Calanthia Tucker, introduced the International Baccalaureate program to the school and staffed it with exceptional teachers, like Betsy Calhoon and Bernie Glaze. Three years later, Amundson was hearing middle-class parents at cocktail parties brag about their children being admitted to IB at Mount Vernon.

Or consider an example in a New York City neighborhood much like the poorer parts of the District. Dave Levin and Frank Corcoran, both in their 20s, tried to start a middle school called the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx in 1995. Parents were not impressed. Some called them crazy for thinking they could make any headway in a school system that had disappointed them for so long. But Levin and Corcoran kept at it and succeeded in adding some first-class veteran teachers, such as Charlie Randall and Jerry Myers, who were decidedly not crazy. Five years later, KIPP test scores were the highest in the Bronx. When the local school board considered a plan to eject the school from its building, 200 parents showed up and chanted, "KIPP! KIPP! KIPP!" incessantly until the plan was shelved and the meeting adjourned.

The Jan. 21 Post story by David Nakamura and Jennifer Agiesta that accompanied the poll results indicated that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee understands this dynamic. She said the school system cannot demand more of parents until it offers better services. "I have seen firsthand how parents are treated in our schools," she said. "I can't blame them if they do not jump to volunteer."

Nor, I think, can they be blamed if they protest when Rhee tries to close their neighborhood schools, having learned that change in the D.C. schools is rarely for the better. But Rhee has spent all of her professional life doing exactly what has to be done, finding ways to get the best principals and best teachers so parents will have a great school to rally around. It is always a risk for any D.C. parent to hope that school system leaders will finally do it right, but at least Rhee, unlike most D.C. residents, doesn't think the sorry state of education in the city is the parents' fault.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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