In NYC, there are legitimate calls for greater parent input, and representation on public education decision making councils.
These advocates are not wrong; and I would be the last to argue against parents having a greater voice in how our public schools engage with their children. For sure, they are making the largest commitment to a hope that the system succeeds! They also stand to lose the most of all stakeholders (their children’s future), if the system fails their child. My experience in public education has taught me that the best chance you have of convincing a stakeholder group to accept radical-progressive change, are the parents of the children for whom you are seeking that change! And so yes, I trust them above everyone else!
But parent political engagement with the public education system would probably not be at the top of my: “Things we need to do list”, when it comes to parent engagement. If we want to get the quickest, most effective, and most long lasting positive parent influence on the level of academic achievement by children. I would go big and audacious, by moving to close the little mentioned, and greatly understated: Parent Resource and Information Gap. Now, that would be a serious politically parent empowering act of the first order!
We need to help all parents to understand that an important part of a child’s academic success, and parallel to the public education system, is the informal education system. For those NYC parents who are in the know when it comes to informal education (IE), the advantage starts before the child starts school. These fortunate children are exposed to books (being read to), educational materials, toys and games; a nutritious diet, and the rich resources of the city’s many venues for learning. This turning the city into a large classroom continues up to and throughout pre-elementary and middle school years. Recently while reading an unrelated to education article in the New Yorker, I was struck by this paragraph:
“One recent morning on the Upper East Side, a troupe of two-year-olds, strapped into their strollers, sat around the grand entrance to the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Their nannies chatted in many languages—Spanish, Urdu, English. “This is my first time coming here,” one woman said. “Art class,” she added, nodding at her charge.”
This, I thought is the real meaning of a head-start! Some children in NYC are rapidly expanding their knowledge base, being intellectually stimulated and educationally accelerated through this IE system. Those pre-early-elementary school children who visit museums, cultural performing and graphic arts centers; engaging in art, dance and music programs and lessons, build up a wealth of knowledge, vocabulary, inquisitiveness, creativity and intellectual capital. Schools will then only serve to enhance and accelerated those IE learning gifts. And the longer those students remain in school the wider the gap grows. For those students on the positive side of the IE gap, they will start to out-perform (actually out-parent-pushing) their less fortunate peers in Pre-K. And of course those parents who are most aware of the power of IE will also pick the “right” school programs, or schools that will further nurture those IE accelerated talents. Further, these students are probably better able to escape a school environment that consist of a culture of: all-test-prep-all-the-time. This means they have a better chance of being exposed to an enriched, creative, thought provoking and exciting curriculum; which further widens the gap between them, and students who are not exposed to IE.
We need to fairly provide all parents with the real “rule book” for how to make their child academically successful; not the false rule book that says all learning takes place inside of a school. Let’s start early: Based on economic need, some parents, as part of prenatal education, and when leaving the hospital to take their new born babies home, should receive a “parent education resource manual”, and a package of books to later read to their child. Parental educational materials and classes should be made available through the child’s first year; and should parallel the attention given to the child’s physical health by pediatricians. We should share with parents the unwritten: “What children really need to know before starting school” list. Let’s be honest, pre-K—Kindergarten children are “sorted” (not necessarily for reasons of tracking, but for teaching purposes) by a rubric consisting of: Vocabulary (the size and quality of it), knowledge of colors, letters, numbers, language-concepts mastery, word recognition and writing skills. But in reality, in almost every case we are really measuring the amount of exposure, and “teaching” provided by the parent.
But schools also can’t wait while parents are being made aware of the importance of our IE system. Schools must be provided with the resources and personnel to essentially step in and serve as providers of a systemically planed IE program; especially in places where the parents are unable or unwilling for whatever reasons to engage in these activities. To start: art, music, dance, drama, museum study, performing arts exposure, access to technology (not just for test-prep), creative writing, science project learning, foreign language and library (and live full-time librarians) programs, must be established, enriched and expanded in every school. Establish K-8 applied STEM labs (with a dedicated science teacher). Schools can organize family trips to museums (In CSD 29 we sponsored evenings at the museums.) Joint parent-student STEM projects. After-school and summer programs could be a wonderful mix of academic with creative, performance and inspirational work.
In my particular area of educational interest, I would like to see high school parents act less “friendly” and more “parently” with their children. These young people are developing, and are not fully developed emotionally. They need guidance, standards, and accountability. Parents must insist their children get to school every day, and to get there on time. They must insist that their children behave themselves, and rigorously invest in their own learning (set up an entire family reading-study 2-3 undisturbed hours an evening). Further, I would like parents to intensify their involvement with their child’s education, rather than “slack off” as they move up, and into the high school. Finally, parents must ensure that students are studying hard (not just doing homework) and seriously investing in their own future by applying themselves to their school work. Help the young people to understand that they are in a global competition for achieving a meaningful and productive adult life in this world; school is not a fun-pleasure boat, it is a life raft! A parent can choose to negatively enable their child, if it is the parent’s plan to take care of that child for life!
While we “wait” for schools to improve (reform after reform); young lives can’t wait; students should perform at their best no matter what school they attend. Parenting necessarily begins at home; and if we don’t help parents to perform effectively in their primary job of educational parenting, where they serve as the first, most direct and consistent teacher; then they can attend a 1,000 meetings a year, but their children will suffer, and fail academically.