Blaming the Victim, Again

­­This week, a bill was introduced in the State of Mississippi that would allow teachers to grade parents on their ability to parent with regard to their children’s school readiness and preparation. The bill allows for teachers to give grades of “satisfactory,” “unsatisfactory” or “needs improvement” and is required of schools that receive a grade of “D” or “F” but is optional for schools that receive a grade of “C” or better. (I’m not even going to touch that one.)

House Bill 4, cited as the Parent Involvement and Accountability Act, starts with the premise that “parent accountability has decreased.” I’m not sure of what research this premise is based on…I would bet none. I do understand, however, why teachers would be frustrated with poor or non-existent levels of family engagement and are looking for leverage to improve outcomes – I get it.

One of the reasonable conclusions of this bill and its focus would be that failing schools are a result of poor parenting, poor family engagement or socio-economic disparity itself; maybe all three. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence in this bill that schools harbor any culpability in this equation. Interesting.

Here’s the evidence from the bill that helps me draw my conclusion.

[The grading policy will] “address the following behaviors with respect to the relationship between a child’s home and school are identified as possible causes for a student’s underachievement:

              (i) A child is not physically prepared for the school day due to inadequate rest or improper clothing, lack of necessary school supplies, or frequent tardiness or absence;

              (ii) A child is not mentally prepared for the school day due to uncompleted homework or inadequate preparation for tests; and

              (iii) Communication between parents and the teacher is often written rather than through personal contact and often occurs only when a problem has arisen rather than on a consistent basis throughout the school year.”

Giving a family a grade of unsatisfactory because they are struggling to keep the lights and heat on and food on their dinner table is not going to be resolved with a reminder from school about how poorly they may be meeting these basic needs. Assuming for a moment that every homework assignment has some validity to it (and I think that is a big assumption) what will we learn? The most we can hope to learn is that of all of the stress on a family that struggles, homework may not have made it to the top of the “must have” list of things that are essential. To hold a parent-teacher conference at a time that may be inconvenient due to work or family schedules and then send a “failing grade” to a family that doesn’t attend is indicative of a school culture that may not truly value the engagement of every family at all. These actions, however, scream volumes about the culture of a school, (or a state) and their true beliefs about the role of families in the education of children.

If the Mississippi legislature desires that parent-teacher communication needs to be personal and more positive how about funding and requiring a professional development program that teaches teachers how to engage families through many means, one of which could home visits and then writing legislation that requires teachers to perform these visits? By the way, these efforts would promote the efficacy in families necessary to complete more homework, increase attendance and improve student attitudes toward  learning (all research supported) and may make the need for formal conferences obsolete.

I know, it’s just a lot easier to write legislation that blames the victim.

Where the Answer Is

I am a fan of the late Ron Edmonds. Those of us who have been around for a while remember the correlates of effective schools and the research that went into creating them and most importantly, why they were created.  Edmonds wrote a landmark article for ASCD in 1979 and that article is as relevant today as it was then and holds the real answers to the type of family engagement that will truly leverage student success. The conclusion to this article is one of the most-often quoted ideas about teaching the children of the poor:

“First, how many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of poor children? If your answer is more than one, the I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that basic pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background…It seems to me, therefore, that what is left of this discussion are three declarative statements: (a) We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose school is of interest to us; (b) We already know more than we need to do that; and (c) Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

What is most interesting to me in the Mississippi bill as that nowhere does it hint that the education system has a role to play in improving relationships with families – it simply suggests that failing schools are a result a lack of parental responsibility and grading that will somehow result in improving the problem. The system provides its expectations of families and if the expectations are not met, the family will be graded poorly and ultimately fail, which I believe is where they started, at least in the eyes of the state. What the bill fails to take into account are the numerous culture changing processes that educators can employ to create more effective and trusting relationships with families. By the way, there is no chance this bill will improve anything.

Here is what I know: Every family desires that their children exceed them in their quality of life. Parents and family members desire that their children’s experiences in schools center on three main ideas: to do well, to be safe, and to feel love. Families are far more likely to work directly with schools when they have evidence of these ideals and a clear notion that we care about their children, which I know we do.

So to borrow from Ron Edmonds, whether we reach out and engage families in this fashion will largely be determined about how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.

I don’t think a grade is going to cover it.