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Schools can’t make up for poor parenting. Period.

The public-relations deck sure is stacked against the public schools. Whenever the subject of poor academic achievement is discussed, nine times out of ten the discussion assumes that the root of the problem is the schools—the teachers, schools administrators, district administrators, or state officials.

Some kids take to school work and homework like second nature. Some kids need a gentle nudge, especially in the early years of grade school. And with other kids, a parent (or someone at home) needs to round ’em up, sit ’em down, and help with the homework sheet by sheet or it’s not going to get done. It’s in these years that good study habits are formed. Bad study habits take a lot of work to undo. Nowadays, online education help students get back on track but parenting skills are hard to replace.

So what to do about poor academic performance? As a nation we need to face reality: The biggest problem isn’t the schools. It isn’t even the kids themselves, not when they’re young, anyway. (After all, they’re not born with a bad attitude and a spray paint can in their hands.) The problem is the parents—along with the home environment in general and the communities in which the kids live.

But the issue of parenting is almost never brought up in the national debate about education. There’s an unspoken agreement among people of every political stripe not to broach the subject of parenting as a factor in problem kids. (Middle-class parent: “I won’t blame you for your drug-abusing problem kids if you don’t blame me for my shoplifting, self-mutilating teenager or my Ritalin-taking grade schooler. Deal?” Rich parent and poor parent: “Deal!”)

Do you remember when Los Angeles ex-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (a high-school dropout himself) has proposed shaking up the L.A. school district primarily by forming a council of L.A.-area mayors who would administer charter schools.

Charter schools—publicly funded but semi-autonomous schools that bypass the local school district—are often cited as an alternative that’s been proven successful. But charter schools attract the kids whose parents are most concerned about education. The traditional public schools are still left with the rest, and the root problem of apathetic parents and communities in shambles still isn’t solved.

When my daughter was in kindergarten, one of her classmates was Robbie, an extremely disruptive student. In fact, Robbie ended up in my daughter’s class because the other kindergarten teacher couldn’t handle him. All the other kids in her class were well-behaved, but this problem child brought instruction to a halt for anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes a day. (Multiply that by the number of days in the school year, and you have one kid accounting for the loss of a significant chunk of teaching time.)

Many times, the teacher took Robbie to the office and complained to the principal, who then called in the boy’s mother. But the mother flatly refused taking any special measures for Robbie, such as putting him in a “special needs” class. (He was also behind the other kids academically). “There’s nothing wrong with Robbie,” she said. “He’s just a little excitable. If he misbehaves, tell me, and I’ll deal with it after school with the back of my hand. But you’re not putting him in a special needs class or sending him to a special school or even to a counselor or a shrink. Not my boy!”

So that was the end of it. The principal, afraid (or politically unable) to stand up to the mother any further, stopped answering the kindergarten teacher’s pleas for help. “Deal with it!” was all he could say.

Now, imagine if there were two Robbies in a class. Or three. (It doesn’t take that many to do serious damage to a classroom’s learning environment.) Now imagine these Robbies are 15 years old instead of five.

I suspect that even in the most crime-ridden, high-dropout-rate schools, the truly “bad apples” only account for a small minority. This may be another instance of the Pareto Principle, a concept from the business world also known as the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of problems are due to 20 percent of the causes. In poorly performing public schools, the ratio may even be more lopsided—90/10 or so.

Then there are girls who drop out of school after getting pregnant. (Some schools even have a separate area for expectant mothers.) You can’t blame that on the schools (although many try, I’m sure). And some kids drop out of school after being pressured by their parents to help out with the family business or get a job and pay their way. (Oh, sorry. Is it not politically correct to talk about that?) In such cases, it’s the parents who need counselors, not the kids.

Another issue that never gets addressed is cultural—in a huge segment of America’s youth culture, school just ain’t cool. And I’m not just talking about inner-city schools where kids brag about cutting class and wouldn’t be caught dead carrying home a schoolbook or a folder. In middle-class suburbia, sports is king, and studious kids often get teased as geeks or nerds.

The bottom line is that before we decide what to do about our public schools, we have to take an honest look at all the factors involved, particularly parental apathy. I’d like to see a survey of high-school dropouts that asks why they dropped out. Pregnancy? Drugs? Apathy? Did their parents pressure them to drop out so they could get a job? Hmm… Now who deserves the blame for that?

As with any problem, you can’t come up with an effective and just solution until you’ve looked at all the assumptions and have stripped away all the posturing, politics, self-serving denial, political correctness, and other forms of B.S. to take an unflinching look at the uncomfortable reality underneath.

The paradox at work here seems to be that when a factor behind a problem is universal, when it applies to rich and poor, liberal and conservative, and everyone in between, then the people unite in blaming someone else.

 

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