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Norman Sperling
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"Education Reform" Without Parent Improvement Won't Help Much

© Norman Sperling August 15, 2012

After 15+ years of parent-teacher meetings, I've attended my last. I've heard what happens, in and around those groups, since before my older boy entered Kindergarten. I've taught K-12, undergrad college students, and a few grad students. I've listened to a whole lot of students at all levels.

The Big Things that are wrong with Education are going to stay wrong. Almost all the "reforms" proposed by politicians, teachers, administrators, scholars, and the public, would accomplish very little. They nibble around the edges of the problems, because current Political Correctness won't let anybody address true and big problems.

That's because by far the biggest influence on how children succeed, and especially on how children fail, is their parents. In my first stint as a teacher, I figured out that almost every student problem I saw was traceable to their parents.

I never found a culturally-acceptable way to influence those parents. Parents are politically untouchable and unmentionable. The school and the government can't tell parents how to raise their children. Most governments, and many schools, are less competent than many parents, and would pick the wrong factors to squeeze parents on.


Since you can't blame children for acting like children, and politically you can't blame parents, the only target left is the schools. Bad choice. Kids can be spectacularly unresponsive or contrary. A whole lot of students don't do their homework. Schools can grade them accordingly, but without parent support, that accomplishes nothing. So schools conduct class as if that was the place to do what ought to be homework. Without parents scrupulously, patiently, and methodically helping students do every assignment, the kids drift, and the school cannot accomplish much.

Most teachers enter the profession because they want to teach. Most leave because of burnout. Teaching is extremely frustrating, and results from students just not doing what they're taught. That results from parents just not helping the students learn. To improve teaching, reduce teachers' frustrations.


At this point, insert your favorite litany of why parents are overburdened and overmatched and just can't: working too long hours, poorly educated themselves, not knowing enough English ... . Get real: add alcohol, and drugs, and temper, and selfishness, and neglect.

Student failure isn't rooted in poverty: I often encounter successful people who rose from poverty. They almost always tell of a strong adult who helped them learn (most often, their mother). That's what it takes, and the other factors are minor.

Wealth doesn't assure success: I've encountered many people who accomplish little despite prosperous starts.

Working too-long hours is a bad choice. Drop the worst part-time job. Use the liberated hours to help the children. They'll gain much more from the attention than they'll lose from the dollars. I've never heard an adult criticize their own parents for not having more money, but I often hear regrets that their parents didn't pay enough attention to them.


The PTAs and PTSOs I've been in are full of parents who pay a lot of attention. Their students do relatively well. They have relatively few problems. But the organization fritters a lot of effort.

From students and sometimes parents, I hear of certain students who show occasional sparks. They have ability, and decent minds. But they're mired in unsupportive families, do-nothing mentalities, and sometimes gangs. I think that a few percent of the student population can be identified as slackers who might catch on. Scuttlebutt can identify such people, so the administration doesn't have to. Individual parents in the PTSO could reach out to those students, and where possible, their families. Incorporate them as much as practical in some patterns of success: bring 1 or 2 along on cultural trips. Include 1 or 2 in study sessions. Include 1 or 2 in activities ("hey, could you please pitch in on stage crew? It's fun, and we sure need your help.") If the involved parents at my kids' high school privately targeted 20 such kids a year to draw in, maybe half would "take". Changing 10 F-and-D students into B-and-A students, per year, would raise the school's academic numbers at least as much as most traditional proposals.

I've also noticed repeatedly that kids hear what they're told even if they don't react immediately. It may take years, but some lessons do eventually click. So some students who don't respond right away will benefit eventually.

While I can spot what needs to be done, I'm not very good at doing most of it myself. We did invite a wide variety of kids to join us at baseball games and museums and other jaunts. We did provide some support for neglected kids (especially rides, food, and a few sleepovers).

I could have done more. Maybe I could have learned how to drop some hints with other parents. Maybe I could have included kids more. But I was always so preoccupied just minding my own kids.

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