News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

March 3, 2011

B-SIDES: Parent involvement can change education in ways that new laws can’t

TERRE HAUTE — The message wasn’t frivolous.

This week, all over Indiana, school districts urged parents to make sure their kids got a full night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast. Why?

ISTEP.

Young minds in grades 3 through 8 are being tested on their knowledge of English, math, science and social studies through the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress — or, as it’s more fondly known, ISTEP. In the words of Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” character Ron Burgundy, ISTEP “is kind of a big deal.” It prominently factors into controversial proposed legislation which could determine the future of certain public schools, teacher evaluations and compensation, and requirements for private or charter schools to get taxpayer funds.

So, the callout for parental help during ISTEP was significant.

The need for increased parental involvement in public education is the 600-pound gorilla in the room, as the school reform laws are being crafted.

It, too, is kind of a big deal. Bigger, even, than standardized tests. A report by the Michigan Department of Education in 2001 concluded that 86 percent of the general public believes that support from parents is the most important way to improve schools. Likewise, the lack of parental involvement, the report said, “is the biggest problem facing public schools.”

A 12-year-long study released in 2007 by the independent Center for Education Policy found little difference in the performance of students in private schools versus those in public schools. The study suggested that forcing public and private schools to compete through tax-funded vouchers is simply a “diversion” from the larger dilemma (that 600-pound gorilla). The primary determinants of a kid’s academic success, according to the CEP study — family income, the level of involvement by parents in their child’s day-to-day school work, and the parents’ long-range expectations for their children. (And, it’s worth noting that the Michigan DOE report said that family participation was “twice as predictive” of a student’s success as family income.)

“There may be ways to improve schools, but we have to be very conscious of what parents bring to schools,” CEP president Jack Jennings told USA Today in 2007.

So, as the debate rages inside the Indiana Statehouse over aggressive changes favored by Gov. Mitch Daniels and fellow Republicans in the Legislature, it’s quite possible that all of this upheaval won’t move the meter much. As the nation has seen the academic standing of its young people drop in the worldwide rankings (we’re now 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, according to International Student Assessment figures), maybe schools have gradually inherited a proportional amount of the educational responsibilities once handled at home.

“I really think parents need to be involved in their child’s education,” said Tina Hartman, president of the Indiana Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).

That organization, with 27,000 members across the state, opposes House Bill 1003, which would create taxpayer-funded tuition tax credits and vouchers to help families send a child to a private school. The Indiana PTA disagrees with the use of public money — limited as it is in post-recession Indiana — to subsidize private school tuition, questions the state’s readiness to hold private schools accountable, and objects to tax support of private schools that “aren’t expected to take all children, [while] public schools are,” Hartman said.

Republicans contend the bill is a crucial component of their educational reform package, which also includes limiting collective bargaining by teachers unions, expanding the number of charter schools, and instituting a merit-pay structure for teachers linked to student performance.

If the decisive factor in upgrading American education is indeed parental involvement, then Republicans in the Indiana Legislature are basically guilty of a tactic their party traditionally criticizes — trying to fix society with legislation. In this case, they’re focusing on the components they can change, while the main issue lingers.

“That’s the problem — you want to hold parents accountable for their child’s education, but how do you do that?” Hartman said.

Now, to be clear, talented teachers make a tremendous impact on children’s learning and help pave their life’s path, leaving a lasting influence. And millions of parents complement the work of those teachers by doing the best they can to help their kids with homework, racing to the store to buy materials for a technology project, following their progress beyond report-card day, encouraging them, and enforcing bedtimes and cooking scrambled eggs during ISTEP. But, what if the percentage of kids getting that level of interest at home is declining in Indiana and in the nation?

In the current economy, balancing a child’s school needs with a job that may now require longer hours for less pay is not easy for many parents. (It’s also crucial for schools to explain how parents can help their kids learn and to support their contributions.) But, Hartman emphasizes that it is possible for parents to find ways to actively assist in their child’s schooling.

She’s in her second year as Indiana PTA president, which is a volunteer job. “I’m also a single mom and work full-time,” she explained. “Plus, I’m going to school to get my bachelor’s degree.” By day, Hartman works as an office administrator for a financial services company in Fort Wayne. She has three kids, ages 22, 15 and 4. She believes in the power of parents.

“I know what they’re going through,” she said, “and it’s hard sometimes, but it can be done. You have to make your children a priority.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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