TERRE HAUTE —
Laws and policies can only change things to a degree.
As President Obama spoke to Congress and the nation in his State of the Union address Tuesday, his assessment of American education began with a comment that often gets little more than nods of agreement when he, or others, mention it. Maybe that’s because it’s so hard to fix.
The president explained that within the next decade, almost half of all new jobs will require post-high school education, yet nearly 25 percent of high-schoolers don’t graduate. The U.S. now ranks ninth in the world in the proportion of its young people holding a college degree.
“And so the question is whether all of us — as citizens, and as parents — are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed,” Obama said. “That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done.”
Later, he added, “We need to teach them that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.”
The plans and programs to tackle the problems the president mentioned are numerous. At just the kindergarten-through-grade 12 level in Indiana, the controversies involve public funding of vouchers and charter schools, teachers unions and merit pay proposals, and teacher evaluations and licensing, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. A Democratic president and a Republican governor have their own strategies for legislation to strengthen the system, as did the Republican president and Democratic governor before them.
One vital component in the learning system, though, requires more than that.
“There are factors outside of the teachers’ control and the schools’ control,” said Terry Spradlin, associate director of educational policy at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in Bloomington.
“Parent encouragement,” Spradlin continued, “is very important.”
Of course, that’s no secret. Any school counselor can tell stories about the hurdles some kids encounter just to get from the end of one school day to the start of another, miles away from their teachers and classrooms. Most of the discussion about education in the Statehouse and on Capitol Hill involves what happens between 8 a.m. and 3:15 p.m., and undoubtedly those hours inside the school are crucial and more controllable. But home life affects learning, too.
Jackie Garvey was glad to hear the president emphasize the role of parents in the educational process. “I think it needs to keep being in the conversation,” said Garvey, executive director of the Indiana Partnerships Center. That agency, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education, serves as Indiana’s Parent Information and Resource Center. The PIRC helps connect school districts with their students’ families through workshops, and provides schools with resource materials and strategies to increase family engagement.
Kids with involved parents (or, in some cases, grandparents) are more likely to earn high grades and take advanced courses, attend school regularly, behave and graduate, according to studies cited by the PIRC. The earlier, the better. “We know that if families are involved at an early age, they’re more likely to stay involved even when things get tougher in middle school and high school,” Garvey said.
Likewise, schools must make sure parents realize their efforts matter, she added. “If parents know reading to their child at home has an impact on their reading development, then parents are more apt to do that, regardless of their own educational level,” Garvey said. Collaboration with the school helps parents know what’s going on in their child’s classroom.
Parenting is a challenge, and that challenge gets even tougher for families with limited incomes, Spradlin noted. Some kids from low-income families never venture beyond their community or visit museums, may lack access to a home computer or be malnourished. Legislation can address some of those issues to help level “the playing field so that all children are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need,” Spradlin said.
Education is complex, and Garvey pointed out that parent involvement is only one part of the equation. There are other key ingredients, from the quality of teachers and administrators, to a school’s learning climate, a well-suited curriculum, teachers feeling supported, and collaboration between the school system and its community leaders. Each ingredient is necessary.
When coffeeshop talk about education reform gets going, it’s not uncommon to hear, “I’ll tell you what the school’s need today, and it’s (fill in the blank).” But life is seldom that simple. “There’s not one panacea, like, ‘If schools do this one thing …,’” Garvey said.
Still, the value of a parent’s encouragement and interest in a kid’s science fair project, third-grade math assignment or calculus final shouldn’t be forgotten while we adults debate other elements of the educational process.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.