Monday, June 16, 2008

Parental Commitment

I find it interesting that in this post much of the comment debate is focusing on the issue of parental involvement or commitment to their children's education. I find this so for two reasons. First, nobody cites sources saying that urban parents are "less committed" to the education of their children. This is because "commitment" is a nebulous term. What are we talking about? If we mean "helping one's children out with their schoolwork", then obviously there is an advantage for wealthier, well-educated parents over poorer and more poorly-educated ones. If you have only an 8th-grade education, it's tough to help your kid with her algebra homework no matter how "committed" you are. If we mean "dedicating time and resources to improving your child's educational experience" (volunteering to read at elementary school, chaparoning field trips, raising money for new programs), the same thing applies: poorer families are less able to take time off work to engage in these activities, and have fewer private resources to invest. The parents at one suburban New Jersey raised $187,000 to send their choir to Vienna, Austria for a concert. It is not a failure of commitment that prevents parents in Anacostia from doing the same. These metrics of "commitment" boil down to the argument that in order for poor students in urban schools to succeed, they need to become rich, which is not a meaningful statement.

If "parental commitment" is to mean anything with a critical bite in the context of reforming urban schools, then, it has to be more abstract: parents who "value" education and learning, who are "committed" to extolling the importance of it. And I do believe that's what we're talking about when we say we want parents "committed" to education. After all, O'Reilly's quote in the aforementioned post was one that contrasted the "values" in urban versus suburban school districts. Unfortunately, it's devilishly difficult to measure "parental commitment" under this definition. This makes it all the more troublesome that people just assume that urban parents do not value education the same way that suburban parents do. Without any empirical evidence backing it up, the statement reeks of stereotyping and prejudice.

Several years ago, the Wall Street Journal tried to bank-shot an argument for parental commitment by claiming that the amount of money spent on schools was a proxy for how much a given community's parents cared about education. They did so in the context of arguing that more money, itself, was not an important factor in the educational achievement of students. To explain the strong correlation between high spending and high performance in many affluent districts, the Journal argued that it was not the money, but the value commitment that impelled parents to spend the money via taxation, that was responsible for the performance. But this, as Jonathan Kozol points out in his magnificant (and chilling) book Savage Inequalities, is belied by the fact that many parents in urban school districts do, in fact, vote to tax themselves at high rates -- far higher ones than most suburban districts, in fact -- in order to invest in the public school system. The problem, of course, is that even a higher percentage of income going to schools still yields massive inequalities when starting from a lower base. Most educational spending comes from property taxes, and the inner cities suffer from a deficit of high-value property. At the time of Kozol's writing, the property value of the entire city of Camden, New Jersey, combined, was less than that of a single Atlantic City Casino. But if the Journal is correct and willingness to spend what money one has on the public schools is a solid proxy for parental commitment to education, than commitment does not appear to be the inner city's problem.

The second reason I find this discussion interesting is the way in which it displaces discussion of alternative or systematic reform avenues -- particularly ones which might threaten the interests of suburban school districts (or even simply problematize the comfort suburban parents and graduates feel that the status quo which advantages them is "fair") -- in favor of aggressively foisting responsibility back on inner city families. Kozol notes that, while in reality the way we organize public schooling in America needs many changes and many reforms if it is to solve the problem of educational inequality
The search is for the one change that will cost the least and bring the best return. "Changing parent values" is the ideal answer to this search because, if it were possible, it would cost nothing and, since it isn't really possible, it doesn't even need to be attempted. [Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: Harper, 1992), 136]

Coupled with the lack of empirical evidence that urban communities actually suffer from a significant deficit of parent's who understand the value of an education, the discussion takes on the gloss of a very perverse type of wishful thinking: Though we have no proof that it's the parents fault that inner city students suffer, we hope it is, because the alternative is that the explanation lies in something we did, in how we organized the system, in the resources we give to ourselves and deny to them. These thoughts are scary, so we push them away and advocate "solutions" whose only benefits are not that they actually are geared towards the obstacles faced by urban schoolchildren, but that they don't require anything out of ourselves.

I don't disagree that parental commitment to the value of education is a very important thing for the development of children. But I do think it is in many ways a distraction. There is little proof that it is the major barrier facing urban school districts; it is way too convenient an explanation in that even to the extent it is "the problem" (as if there is only one!) it's one that requires absolutely nothing out of larger society (indeed, is uniquely resilient to social reforms); and as for students who do have parents who don't value an education, it's not like we can just give up and throw them to the wolves. As PG says, children are not "property of parents" in this respect -- if parents don't care about education, well, guess what, we still do. Since we can't reform the values of the parents directly, we're still left in precisely the same position as when we started -- looking at alternative mechanisms to reform our educational system so it fairly serves children in inner cities.


PG said...

There is a certain level of resources, mainly in the form of spare time, that is necessary for parenting.

For example, suppose you have a kid in an after-school program who has started slacking off -- he's not showing up some days, he doesn't always stay until homework is done, he's even falsified his grades in order to obtain a reward from the program. As the program coordinator, the most you can do alone is kick the kid out of the program, which you really hate to do because that means you're giving up on him. You do need whoever is legally in charge of the kid to be able to come into your office and team up with you to scare/ shame the hell out of the kid and make him realize that people are checking up on him, that he's not that clever, and that he's getting one more chance.

It is difficult for someone who doesn't live with the kid to hold a parental role, and there is something about that role -- whether played by father, grandmother, older brother, whoever -- that is necessary. People who don't live with the kid can take on a substitute parent role, but it requires a huge emotional investment on both sides; the kid has to see this person's approval as important enough to be worth delaying gratification.

Dance said...

I don't think it has to be a 'parent role'. There does need to be a relationship though and an attachment to the teacher/program coord/whatever and if there is then it follows that *that* person's opinion is important.

If the relationship/attachment isn't there then it's doubtful that shaming/scaring the child would do much good.