This morning, I read a New York Times opinion piece called “The Great Stagnation of American Education” by Robert Gordon.  My first thoughts were that it contained a lot of useful information about how important education is for long term earning potential, and was discussing the trade offs people make in pursuing higher education versus cost.  Soon however, the article devolved into propagating educational tropes and clichés that are often less than helpful.  In particular, the following paragraph:

Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have gone too far in using test scores to evaluate teachers. Many children are culturally disadvantaged, even if one or both parents have jobs, have no books at home, do not read to them, and park them in front of a TV set or a video game in lieu of active in-home learning. Compared with other nations where students learn several languages and have math homework in elementary school, the American system expects too little. Parental expectations also matter: homework should be emphasized more, and sports less.

I am not sure there’s a missed broad brush in this paragraph.  These issues may be real in some or many homes, but giving people tools to change them is important rather than mere heavy handed critique.   In our school district, we’re going to try doing more community education this year.  This includes having “classes” or presentations in the evenings for parents, to help them help their children do better and become more involved in the school community.  It means giving them information from teachers about what they can choose to do to support learning at home, and become an added benefit to their child’s education, rather than assuming the teaching occurs only at school.  It means teachers also have to start considering what they would like and expect from parents, and look at education more like a partnership and less like a delivery service for the widget we call education.

Parents are stressed these days as well.  Many homes have both parents working, and there is not always an abundance of resources to provide extras and enrichment we would love every kid to have.  However, if you want parents to choose books over video games, homework over sports- you have to help them make these things a priority and help them, at the very least, with ideas and suggestions about how to help and support their children.  Trust me- my husband is an OB GYN and delivers babies daily, and we know you get more operating instructions with a blender than you do with a newborn.  Not every parent knows how to help their children develop and learn, or even how important their interactions are.  However, if you help them understand this and give them suggestions, maybe more parents will try to work these things into their daily lives.  Knowledge is power.

I’ve heard many teachers complain “Well, I’ve tried that, but I didn’t see a lot of folks taking advantage of it.”  Changing behavior is a long term enterprise, and change happens slowly.  Even if only a few parents responded, that’s a few more kids who are getting added help, and surely that’s worth the brief inconvenience of having put together some handouts or posted an article on your website.

The other old cliche states that “When I know better, I do better.”  The knowledge of how to parent is something you learn over time.  Ironically, by the time you feel reasonably good at it, the kids are off to college and all your great skills and learning can go to waste.   You default into giving advice to friends or your kids when they have children.  But this advice, from parents who have tread the path before you is invaluable, and this is what we need to start passing down.  Since school is often the “warehouse” for kids, they are in the perfect position to go beyond educating the students and help educate the parents as well.  It may be adding an additional mission schools may be reluctant to take on.  However, I would bet a concentrated effort, maybe even creating a community education position, could pay off in terms of performance of students; making the jobs of teachers easier by saving time with discipline and chasing students for assignments; and bring the community as a whole closer together, which benefits everyone.

More homework is not the answer.  No one needs more worksheets.  Meaningful work and assignments that make a difference matter.  Projects that apply knowledge make a difference.  Helping families emphasize learning and a culture of achievement matters.  Sure, it’s about books, but it’s also about writing.  Why not take on family journaling projects, or writing letters to relatives, or other things that enhance family connections while practicing academic skills?  Tightening social bonds tightens the social contract we have within our families and communities.  It makes kids better citizens as well as better students.

Isn’t that really what we all want in the end, whether college or trades are the goal?