Parental Involvement in Schools – How Thomas Friedman Missed the Point

This past week Thomas Friedman wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, U.S.G and P.T.A, about parental involvement making a difference in student achievement.  When I first read the article I yawned.  Tell me something I don’t know.  Kids do better when parents are involved?  Of course.  Kids do better when parents lay down boundaries, set expectations and create study spaces and structure?  Obviously.  None of this is new or interesting to me.  I’m not sure what his point was other than to say American parents have become lazy while first generation parents are way more effective at encouraging and pushing their children to excel.  Again – snore.  What was actually interesting to me in this article was how off the mark and off point it really was when trying to talk about the role of the P.T.A.

As Co-President of the Parents Association of my daughters’ large NYC public elementary school I have seen the benefits and limits of parental participation.  As budget cuts have slashed every cent of our school budget down to the very core – teachers and staff only – parents have had to pick up the slack to pay for everything from paper and supplies to substitute teachers to professional development for teachers.  Our parents are in our school everyday – helping in classrooms, overseeing a new healthy school lunch program, raising money, coordinating assemblies, dealing with overcrowding and rezoning issues – the extent of the involvement goes way beyond the normal into areas that used be covered by actual Department of Education employees but now have to be done purely by volunteers.  Yet, with all of this involvement the one thing Thomas Friedman harps on is perhaps the hardest to achieve – the extension of the school into the home rather than the other way around – and this cannot fully lie at the feet of parents.

Parents can only be as effective as a school lets them be.  A parent cannot help with homework if they themselves do not understand it.  Parents cannot help a child reach academic goals if those goals have not been clearly defined by administration and teachers.  Parents cannot be the regulators of technology in the home unless they have a thorough understanding of how that technology needs to be used for classwork vs. fun.  All of these aspects of helping a child succeed take some teaching from school to parent.  If schools truly want a partnership with parents then they have to be willing to put in the time and thought to let parents know what is expected of them, and the tools to make it happen.

Yes, there has to be some parental responsibility.  I am constantly working and talking with other bloggers about social media and technology in our children’s lives.  I often find myself repeating the same mantra, “Parenting doesn’t stop at the screen.”  So no your kids shouldn’t have their cellphones near them when they work at home, and there are endless ways to track your child’s online activity.  But, in my mind, while parents need to be pushing their kids to excel academically they also need to do something bigger – VOTE.  Vote for candidates that actually have a plan for education, not just charter school mania and Race To the Top.  Show up – at parent teacher conferences, at PTA meetings, at community board meetings – and make your voice heard.

Hold people accountable.  Your kids are a good place to start but don’t stop there. Hold administration and teachers accountable for providing clear and consistent academic goals and curriculum information (we’re still working on this at our school).  And hold yourself accountable for providing a space where your child can do their work, for making it clear that you expect your child to do their best, and to impart to your kids that school is important and that learning is something that never ends.   But, most of all, hold your elected officials accountable for funding schools properly, for giving teachers professional development funding instead of just putting all the money into evaluation systems and for giving our kids and parents the resources to learn at school and at home.

That’s the true power of PTAs – banding parents together to create a deafening voice that cannot be ignored.  Thomas Friedman may be sounding the bell of laziness and apathy (which is ironic since every other day we are told there is an epidemic of helicopter parents) but everyday I see the tremendous efforts of parents to enrich our school, thank and encourage our teachers and make public officials take schools seriously.  I don’t think we need the Education Secretary to tell parents how to get involved, I think we need the Education Secretary to look at successful PTAs and learn from us instead.

7 thoughts on “Parental Involvement in Schools – How Thomas Friedman Missed the Point

  1. This is an enlightening post, Rebecca – I had no idea how much your PTA team is responsible for…and quite frankly, it’s a shame. I know every parent complains about whatever their kids’ school is lacking – but paying for substitute teachers? That’s not only crazy…it’s irresponsible.

    Further, the ‘blame the parent’ whine drives me crazy…it seems to be the default reason for all the ills in the world – as far as our kids are concerned. Education works best in a triad: school, parents, community – and it’s clear that your’re ‘community’ (local government) has let your kids down.

    • There is no doubt that our local govt (NYC and NYS and the federal govt too) has continually let down students and schools. I don’t think they ever look at the micro level impact of the budget decisions they make. Shameful is the right word for it. I am thankful that our parent body is able to make up the difference but they shouldn’t have to. We shouldn’t be choosing between losing music and art teachers or being able to have substitutes. Without PTA money that’s exactly what would happen.

  2. Yes, parents get blamed by teachers and admin whether we help too much or not enough. (And I guess we blame them, too, sometimes.)

    But in that atmosphere, no one wins, least of all the kids.

    Great post!

  3. Pingback: Why Aren’t Parents Rioting in the Streets? «

  4. Rebecca, I spent over 3 years on our school’s SLT saying many of these same things. Usually left those meetings feeling like I must have 3 heads…

    • I know. It is endlessly frustrating to be in the muck of it and still not know how real change can be made. Our schools and the system are full of well-intentioned acronyms and yet no real willingness to change. SLTs in particular seem set up to fail. Parents have no real power in them, no one can really speak honestly for fear of offending the other group reps and in the end the principal is going to do what he or she thinks best. Not the most productive set up for sure.

  5. As Rebecca knows, I’ve said these same things in a variety of ways about parent engagement here in Louisville, KY. Far too often we created cultures where a PTA (all our public school’s have a PTA/PTSA) is seen as a fundraising arm for the school. Rather than treat these volunteers as professionals who might be able to contribute something to change the school culture, parents are often just asked to participate in a fall festival fundraiser or bring snacks for a class party. I have recently stepped down from my roles in PTA leadership (I am the immediate past president of the District PTA, and have held PTA leadership positions for the last nine years) not because I don’t support the PTA mission/vision, but because I believe that as an advocate I am more than an ATM. I do believe the Sect. of Ed wants parent engagement, but wanting and actually happening…well. Some schools are more successful at creating a culture of partnership and support. If I am the at home expert about my child, then connect with me. If I have a degree in engineering or math, ask me to tutor. Thanks Rebecca for this response. I’ve said it before too. I am a PARTNER with our school. Please respect my insight and expertise, be thankful for what I can do and do not criticize me for what I cannot do. In addition, we KNOW that positive parent/family engagement can make a difference. We’ve known it since I was in elementary school. If the data and proof is there, do we really need another op-ed to point out the obvious?

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