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Leave No Parent Behind

Everyone knows that parents are a child's most valuable learning resource, yet few schools want to involve them directly in how their children are being taught

by Steve Peha

I had a wonderful experience with a group of parents recently. For 90 minutes, I led a workshop on writing instruction for about 20 moms who were interested in learning a bit about what their children were learning in school. I started with a brief discussion of how the writing instruction of today differed from the instruction most of us received a generation earlier and then, for the last hour or so, the moms and I wrote together using the same lessons and classroom format their children had been experiencing throughout the year.

Judging from the friendly smiles, frequent laughter, pointed questions, and positive comments, I felt, as did the school's principal, that the parents not only enjoyed themselves but found the experience valuable. And the writing they did was pretty good, too — which I think confirmed for them that what their children were being taught was both authentic and practical.

As I was leaving, I was struck by how appreciative and excited the parents were, how happy the principal was, how everyone seemed to agree that this kind of communication between a school and its families did so much to foster better teacher-parent relations and a positive school climate — and how rarely an evening like this takes place. Over the years, I have offered to do free parent education nights like this one many times. But this night's effort was one of only four I have ever been asked to give.

To my knowledge, I'm not the only person who doesn't host many parent education nights. As I travel around the country, I have found only two or three schools that have ever attempted to enlighten their parents on the details of daily classroom instruction and I've never found a school that has a comprehensive ongoing program that provides parents with the details of daily teaching practice in all core subjects.

I understand the many reasons why schools don't do much in the way of formalized parent education. For one thing, it takes time and effort to do well; for another, most schools I have observed don't have a consistent approach to teaching; I have even visited some schools where giving parents information about specific teaching practices is considered dangerous or at the very least inappropriate.

It's human nature to fear the things we don't understand — especially when what we know so little about has such a big effect on our children. Much of the dissatisfaction people feel about our schools today comes from their frustration at not understanding what goes on within them. The best way to handle that frustration would be a pro-active approach to parent education at every school.

I've worked in enough schools over the years to understand why more administrators and teachers don't put together parent education programs. It certainly takes some time — another thing to add to an already too full day — and it is not without risk. But I have never understood why parents don't ask for it. Why wouldn't parents want to develop an in-depth understanding of the philosophies, methods, and specific techniques that were shaping the learning lives of their children? What I know of "open house" nights and report card conferences confirms for me that parents don't get nearly the knowledge they need from these.

Almost every school I've worked with has a PTA, PTO, or similar parent support organization. These groups are filled with intelligent, inquisitive, caring people who are sincerely interested in the well being of their schools and their communities. Why can't these organizations request and perhaps even facilitate ongoing programs that would allow them to understand in specific detail how their children are being taught? What better way would there be to encourage constructive communication between parents, teachers, and administrators, improved satisfaction with our schools, and better support for students at home?

Parents are a vital piece of the educational puzzle. But as things exist today, most are forced into an awkward passivity as the frustrated spectators of their children's school experience. Giving them a chance to get into the game could turn passive critics into active supporters and potential adversaries into probable advocates. Parent education isn't just good school policy, its good school politics, too. If local levies, state funding, and the help of private business are important, why not cultivate this support by giving education consumers a better understanding of what they are paying for? If our nation can endorse the idea of leaving no child behind, why should we be content to leave behind adults?

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