The Sins of the Children Visited – This Time – on Their Parents

What to do about children who fail in school, or who simply fail to attend school at all? Efforts in recent years have focused on the schools themselves and on the teachers, and there have been initiatives to test children for performance in key areas and punish schools or teachers in underperforming schools. A recent New York Times article describes another approach: punishing the parents of underperforming (or under-attending) students. In “Whose Failing Grade Is It?” author Lisa Belkin discusses proposed legislation that endeavors to hold parents accountable for the performance of their offspring. She cites as examples a bill proposed in Indiana that would require parents to volunteer for at least three hours per semester in their children’s schools, as well as a proposed bill in Florida that would grade parents on their level of involvement in their children’s education, said grade to be posted on the child’s own report card. Belkin also notes that some states (she mentions Alaska and California) already have laws in place allowing for punishment of parents of habitual truants by imposing monetary fines or requiring attendance at parenting classes. The Indiana and Florida proposals were not enacted this past year, but their sponsors have vowed to try again in the new legislative session.

Obviously, very young children are entirely dependent on their parents’ efforts to get them to school, and to make sure that they have the necessary materials and support in order to attend consistently. However, problems of school truancy and failure to adequately fulfill academic requirements are more often seen and discussed as children enter the middle school and high school years. When we look at the issues facing these older students, are parent-directed laws a viable solution to the problem of kids failing in school?

To answer that question, we first need to know why kids fail, skip, or drop out of school in the first place. Although it is easy to dismiss truancy or school failure as results of parental laxity, research shows that the reasons for troubled school performance are complex. Educational researchers do not agree on the main causes of poor school performance by children. Students who are members of racial minorities or whose families are economically disadvantaged tend to be on average lower achievers in school, but it is not clear whether the different performance levels are due to different levels of stimulation and language limitations in their home environments (as suggested by researchers such as Bernstein, West, Denton, and Reaney), differences in habits and attitudes between the lower and middle classes (as theorized by DeMarrais and LeCompte), differences in school resources (suggested by Kozol and others), low teacher expectations (theorized by Steel, Aronson, and Casteel), or oppositional attitudes developed by students themselves in response to perceived oppression or discrimination (suggested by Farkas, Lleras, and Maczuga, among others). Research does not uniformly support the claim that children perform better academically when their parents are involved in school, so laws forcing parents to achieve a certain level of involvement do not seem likely to improve cognitive performance of students.

However, there does seem to be a correlation between parental involvement and children’s behavior in school: the higher the level of parental involvement, the fewer child-related behavior problems. Since truancy is popularly viewed as primarily a behavior problem, coercing – or at least strongly incentivizing – parental involvement at school seems like a rational way to address the problem. But is excessive school absence always a behavior problem in the usual sense of the word? Kids miss school for all sorts of reasons: illness, fear of bullying, being needed at home to babysit younger siblings, or just feeling like they want to skip. The hope in using carrots and sticks to elicit parental involvement in school is that the positive benefits known to correlate with parental school involvement will occur. If parents are more connected with the school (the thinking goes), they are likely to convey higher expectations and positive attitudes about school to their children. If parents have more connection with the school, they may become aware of problems experienced by their offspring in time to help the kids deal with the issues without skipping school or dropping out entirely. Thus truancy will go down, student performance will go up, and education will run much more smoothly. But will it, really?

As well-intentioned as some of the parent-directed legislation may be, it ignores some important facts. For one thing, studies that show correlations between parental school involvement and positive educational outcomes examine voluntary parental involvement. The parents may have been predisposed to get involved at school due to personal characteristics which themselves increase the likelihood of their children’s success and decrease the likelihood of child truancy, or the school may have presented an attractive environment in which to become an involved parent, which atmosphere might also be partly responsible for school success. So the cause-effect relation is not entirely clear Even if the willing parental involvement is by itself responsible for part of the good educational outcome for some kids, it is not certain that coerced parental involvement will have the same positive results.

Another concern is that “grading” parents may undermine their status or authority in the eyes of their children at a time when those children are in the throes of normal adolescent rebellion. This could be counterproductive, giving kids another excuse to reject school and eschew any personal responsibility for their own success or failure. In addition, some studies have shown a strong correlation between peer group influences and truancy. It is notoriously difficult to control peer group access as children become adolescents, so short of moving, parents may have very little control over their children’s associates. If destructive peer groups are the real problem, pressuring parents to get involved in school or ridiculing their parenting may increase their stress levels without real results for their kids. Finally, there are some researchers who have posited that truancy is a rational response when a school is truly inadequate, and solutions ought to focus on providing alternative schools or even viable home-schooling. In this situation, the research suggests that parents should be allowed to look outside of the school itself, rather than becoming more involved in the school and its rituals.

The blame-the-parents mentality of the proposed legislation is especially troubling given that there is apparently no provision for individual fact-finding about whether a parent’s lack of involvement is actually causative of a student’s difficulties rather than a reaction to them. Equally troubling is this: since failure and truancy rates are on average higher in inner-city schools, the burden of the laws’ enforcement is likely to fall most heavily on parents who are already struggling with poverty, unemployment, and underfunded schools. This is not likely to result in the kind of school-parent alliance that best serves kids.

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