Derrick Z. Jackson

Bring in the parents

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / April 3, 2010

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EVEN AS the Obama administration tempts educators with its “Race to the Top’’ grants, improving schools also requires a race to the foundation. Or, as it’s been known since ancient times, the parent.

This hit me in reading the US Department of Education’s reviews for Delaware and Tennessee, the two victorious states in the first round of its $4 billion contest for reform funds. They won hundreds of millions of dollars for classroom innovation. And yet even their proposals made scant mention of how kids get to school in the first place, and in what frame of mind.

The other adults in students’ lives are mentioned prominently. In the review for Tennessee, the federal education department praised the state for “unanimous support’’ from school districts, superintendents, and school board presidents and near unanimous support from teacher unions. It praised the state for having “the most extensive longitudinal student achievement data system in the nation.’’ The Delaware review said that state “articulated a comprehensive, coherent reform agenda, with signatures from every superintendent, school board president, teachers’ union leader, and charger school leader.’’ It said the state has a “strong buy-in at all levels.’’

But how do we know? Many states have parent initiatives embedded in proposals, but the word “parent’’ barely appears in the reviews. At best, parents are lumped together among the many “stakeholders’’ who provide “letters of support’’ in the Race to the Top applications. Here at home, the 180-page Massachusetts application rarely mentions parents, even as it concedes that “strong parent and community engagement is a critical lever of school turnaround.’’

The near-omission is shortsighted, especially because you know who will get the blame — from teachers, principals, and politicians — if the achievement gap fails to narrow. Those ignorant, uninvolved parents! Underscoring this mindset is President Obama himself, who in February boasted that he had not missed a parent-teacher conference and says, “I don’t care how poor you are, you can turn off the television set during the week.’’

He’s right. But Race to the Top doesn’t reflect that sentiment. It’s a race to a very low summit unless states are also rewarded for how well they include parents in their children’s education. Back in 1994, a University of Minnesota study found that only a handful of states required principals and teachers to be trained to engage parents. Little has changed. Last year, researchers at the Harvard School of Education said, “efforts to include family involvement in children’s learning and development at home have always been, at best, on the distant margins of educational policy.’’

This is true despite years of data — not to mention common sense — indicating that when parents reinforce high expectations, bug their kids about homework, take an interest in their school life and use family time for learning experiences, their children end up more engaged and more successful. “It’s no one big thing,’’ Heather Weiss, the director of the Harvard Family Research Project, told me. “It’s years of those little things from the parent that reinforce to the child that if you want to have a good life, this is what you must do.’’

If we’re going to have a Race to the Top, let’s get the child’s first and most important coach involved. Right along with “longitudinal student achievement data systems,’’ let us also have a race where states are judged by how well they get parents to:

■ slash TV, video game, and Facebook time in the home,

■ increase reading to small children in the home, and

■ take their children to public libraries and museums.

Conversely, states should also be judged by how well they engage parents, a rapidly disappearing art in the test-score bunkers to which we’ve consigned teachers. States should also be graded on whether parents:

■ attend parent-teacher conferences,

■ understand the hieroglyphics of test scores so they can support teachers with urgency in the home, and

■ volunteer for after-school activities or other enrichments.

With that, we might have a better Race to the Top, to a much higher summit.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at