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In defense of parents

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Some teachers, rightfully angry over being blamed by politicians, the media, and self-appointed education reformers for the failures of inner city schools, turn around and scapegoat parents, or more specifically, poor parents of color.

Parents often take a beating on the Notebook blog. Here’s one extreme example from a teacher frustrated with poor attendance at report card conferences:

“Parents should be required to show up in the auditorium for report card day and then sent to the proper classroom at the proper scheduled time. If they don’t show, expel the child. There will be no increase in parental involvement until the District gets some backbone. No cousins, older siblings, it must be one of the two parents or whomever has custodial control (grandparent, foster parent). The District would never allow such slipshod behavior from teachers so why do they accept it from parents?”

Here we have in extreme form two common ideas:

  1. We need punitive measures aimed at parents who do not meet the school’s expectations – in this case even if the student is the one who is punished.
  2. Teachers are held accountable, why aren’t parents?

Blogger Chris Paslay’s recent op-ed piece in the Inquirer sounds the same theme in a more nuanced way. Paslay writes:

“Oddly enough, though, it’s considered poor etiquette to hold parents and students accountable. The accountability police aren’t allowed to stop at their houses – nor at those of ineffective community leaders, deadbeat fathers, out-of-touch policymakers, or any of the other people responsible for a child’s schooling.”

Like any teacher I have my share of stories about irresponsible parents, but in two decades of teaching in the so called “badlands” I found most parents to be concerned about their children’s education and supportive of me as a teacher. Parents volunteered to help in the classroom and chaperone trips, gave me gifts at Xmas, brought me flowers when I was ill, and wrote wonderful letters of thanks when their children graduated. These expressions of support and gratitude were part of what made my experience as a teacher a rewarding one.

So what about those parents who don’t show up for conferences or otherwise seem to shirk responsibility for their children’s education? They need to be challenged to step up. But we need to recognize that many parents in our city have not had a positive relationship with the school system and this shapes how they relate to schools and teachers. It is also the case that many parents are struggling to survive, sometimes working multiple jobs to support their families. Then there are some who are overwhelmed by the pathologies associated with poverty and are AWOL as parents.

What I find disturbing in many of the parent-bashing comments that find their way onto the blogs is the vitriol, the absence of any empathy for those who are trying to raise families under difficult circumstances. The Victorian attitude that poverty is the result of a moral failing on the part of the poor rather than a symptom of a society organized on lines of class and race is evident in many of these remarks. Mostly White, relatively privileged teachers lecturing mostly poor African American and Latino parents about their responsibilities will not promote the kind of partnership we need with parents.

It also should be noted that parents do face some accountability before the law. Parental negligence can result in children being removed from the home and criminal action in some cases. The question here is: are more punitive consequences the way to improve the quality of parenting?

It is fair to point out, as many have, that teachers do not control many factors that impact schooling…attendance, diet, home life, etc. Any accountability system that punishes teachers for things that are beyond their control is clearly flawed. The same point can be made about parents.

Parents do not control all the factors that impact their children. Teachers, who are very clear and vocal about what they can’t control, sometimes assume parents are omnipotent when it comes to their children. Teachers, regardless of the circumstances of their students, need to do the best possible job and make the maximum effort. The same standard applies to parents. A good faith effort by both parents and teachers will not always be enough to ensure success of students. That’s why we need systemic change.

We need to move beyond mutual bashing toward a partnership that recognizes the real challenges both teachers and parents face. The fight to save and improve public education is powerful common ground that can provide a foundation for an alliance.