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No-Account Parents: Not Really the Problem?


Q. You hear a lot from educators that it is irresponsible parents who are the real cause of so many kids having trouble reading and learning these days. Is that true?


Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of parental and family dysfunction contributing to school underachievement and failure. Yes, it appears that there are more parents than ever before who don't appear to be preparing their small children very well for school, not giving them breakfast, not making them get to bed on time, letting them watch all kinds of TV, not enforcing rules about homework, not showing up for open houses and parent-teacher conferences, and basically remaining caught up in their own problems, distant and uninvolved, while their children languish in school.


However, there are always two sides to every story. According to Strong American Schools (, 70% of American 8th-graders cannot read at a level deemed "proficient." Can there be THAT many bad parents? Of course not.


Look at learning disabilities and reading dysfunction, found all along the income scale, and in families with excellent parenting as well as in families with substandard parenting. These learning disabilities are sometimes very difficult to overcome despite enormous effort and expense, and nobody needs the shame and blame that comes with trying to find fault.


Another factor: reading instruction today is not as successful as yesteryear. Kids with parents who are college-educated, free of addictions, and doing most things right with their parenting are still having trouble reading, alongside kids from the poorest families whose parents are out of control. There has to be an explanation for this that goes beyond the home. And there is: part of it is the impact of TV and other electronic distractions on children's reading ability and attention spans, and another cause is that reading instruction is not being delivered effectively in many schools today.


Now, it's clear from the research that white, middle- and upper-class parents are much more involved with their children's schooling than parents of color who are in low-income demographical groups. But that's not necessarily the fault of the parents; it could be that the educational governance authorities, schools and teachers themselves have set up barriers to parental involvement, whether they know it or not. This especially happens when overarching policies and procedures are in place that make it seem as though the powers-that-be know better than the parents what's best for the child. Clearly, that's not true.


Sociologists Brigitte and Peter L. Berger argue that parents -- rather than governmental agencies or "experts" -- make the best educational decisions because their children are their highest and most immediate concern. That goes for whether the parents are highly educated and successful in their careers and daily lives, or barely educated and struggling with all kinds of problems. In fact, lower-income parents are thought to be even more diligent and interested than their well-off peers because they are well aware of the disadvantages that their children will face if they don't get a good education for a good start in life.


So it's a great idea for educators to offer opportunities for high-income parents to "mentor" low-income parents and work together for the good of all of their pupils. In schools where the income levels are mixed, that's easy to do. It's a key reason educators bend over backwards to try to make inner-city and lower-income area schools more attractive to middle-class parents. They know that, if the more advantaged families leave, the school will fall apart. It's already happened in the inner cities, and it's happening right now in many of the country's rural schools, where the middle and upper classes are shifting into private education and the public schools are filling with low-income, non-English speaking and problem-beset children with parents who have no role models for involvement in schools.


But with the right curriculum and instruction methods, even the "basket-case" schools with a group of less-educated, less-involved parents can still turn out students with academic achievement.

Consider a grade school in the United Kingdom, Kobi Nazrul. Two-thirds of the children are from families so poor that they receive free or subsidized lunches at school. Most have weak or nonexistent English ability when they start school. Ninety percent of them are Bangladeshi, a relatively recent immigrant group which is notorious for intergenerational conflict and seriously messed up kids.


Yet Kobi Nazrul has no non-readers, according to a recent report. None. This was confirmed by standardized tests. No child was excepted from the testing for any reason.


Amazingly, Kobi Nazrul's reading scores are consistently among the top 100 in England, out of 20,000 schools. This is no flash-in-the-pan, either: those great scores have been consistent for almost 10 years.


The reason for this success: that school teaches English with systematic, intensive, explicit phonics instruction. The school's impressive success with a tough student group has caused a bit of a hubbub in England, to the point where the government has now chucked its longstanding preference for Whole Language reading techniques in favor of tried-and-true phonics.


If only the United States would do the same!


Observers point out one more thing about schools like this one: when children do well in school, parents whose lives are a mess suddenly have hope. This has a reciprocal effect; it begins a positive cycle that can help the whole family avoid the trap of demoralization, and lift them up and out of the habits of poverty, into the middle class.


Homework: Here's a report on Kobi Nazrul:


By Susan Darst Williams Parental Involvement 05 2008


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