Parents' Role in School Reform

TIME for a mid-school-year check on education - and a bit of a parental pep talk.

The national school-reform agenda, America 2000, is winding its way through Congress in bits and pieces. Its goals of better math, reading, and attendance are needed. Proposals for a national test and national standards are gaining support.

So is both the idea and the fact of school "choice." The "New American Schools Development Corporation" has accrued $41 million in its effort to institute "break the mold" schools. In Minnesota, "charter" schools give parents choice and allow teachers a say-so in school government.

But overall the pace of change is still too slow. Children shouldn't have to wait five or 10 years for schools to improve.

Parents shouldn't wait either. Parents who simply use the excuse that the "schools are bad" or think they can wait for reform to create better schools should take more responsibility.

A good - even adequate - public-school education can't be taken for granted. Education is first and foremost a parent's job. In a world of sharply competing interests and influences, it is parents who must protect children and help them negotiate schools, the commercial world, and social life. "I'm busy" is no escape.

We suggest a "two-track" approach. Parents should support schools and efforts at sensible school reform as much as possible - whether it be through the PTA, conferences with teachers, or involvement in parent or political groups trying to move ahead with larger efforts like creating "choice" schools.

At the same time, and more important, parents must take a more direct role. To simply leave the teaching of reading, writing, and math - let alone values and ethics - to a school often allows children to drift.

This isn't a small job. It requires strength, patience, and wisdom to enable a child to interpret and often counter the trends of popular culture and the beliefs of general society.

Children should be taught to think logically, but not programmatically; to be creative without being anarchic. They need independent thought that is disciplined.

Of course we are aware of the increased demands on parents' time. Conscientious single parents deserve a hero's reward. But the old notion that one can simply drop kids off at school and expect them to imbibe coherent cultural values in a modestly protected environment doesn't hold. Parents may need to draw closer to their children, not with "smother love" but as watchful educators. The job may take a bit more work these days.

Parents can in some degree know what a child should know. Cultural heritage and literacy, good authors, democratic ideas, and even the sciences are areas parents can monitor.

The larger issue here is how seriously we take education of the person as a good in and of itself. Too much talk about education is connected to jobs. That's reductive and false. A competitive America needs citizens who learn to think well because that's what humans most need to do.

Besides, exploring, observing, investigating - learning - bring a family together. This, too, shouldn't be undervalued.

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