Putting parents to the test

While the 2000 presidential candidates, educators, and others haggle over student and teacher tests, I'm suggesting perhaps the most vital test of all to improve America's schools: a national standardized test for parents and community members.

Why not? Consider just how important parents and community members are in educating America's children. If anyone should be tested, why not those who ultimately are responsible for our children?

Of course, this idea is pure nonsense, but it would get people's attention, because there is something fundamentally bothering many Americans.

I hear it all across America - from people in small towns on the Great Plains, to the nation's sprawling suburbs, throughout the Mississippi Delta, and in urban areas. No amount of metal detectors and hallway patrols can address what parents and the community must do themselves.

In a research report my organization did, entitled "Halfway Out the Door: Citizens Talk About Their Mandate for Public Schools," many Americans said they desperately want their children to get a public school education, but feel schools are failing them. Given the choice, and the money, many said they'd consider alternatives.

There is more than enough blame to go around on why so many Americans believe schools need improving. But while we play the blame game, and argue over legislative fixes, maybe there is something parents and community members can do to act on their aspirations for good public schools.

The start of the school year offers a good time to think about the kinds of standards for parents and community members that would help improve our schools.

Here are four fundamental "test" questions to consider based on listening to Americans talk about schools.

1. Do you seek to act as part of a community, or just as an individual?

To strengthen our public schools we must act as a community in educational decisions. It is not enough simply to lodge a complaint, answer a survey, or show up at a PTA meeting and voice your individual concerns. Education is a common community enterprise; we must find our common interests and purpose for our schools. Everyone acting as an individual only will create more gridlock, frustration, and schools that seem beyond our control.

2. When you talk about education, whom do you talk about?

Too often, Americans tell me, people focus nearly obsessively on their own child - at PTA meetings, when speaking with an educator, or across the fence with a neighbor. All this endless talk eventually crowds out conversations about our children and what is important for our school. Yes, put your kid first; but it is only when we are willing to take part in conversations not just about "my kid," but "our children," that we can even see the larger issues we must confront.

3. How do you put your child first?

We all love our children and hope for their best, but just how engaged are you really, for instance, in their homework? Do you often hope that they'll finish up quickly so you can do something else, like watch TV? What kinds of questions do you ask that make your child really think, rather than the old stand-in, "Kid, how was school today?" Many Americans have told me that too often we give lip service to supporting our kids' education and don't come through for them.

4. How are you acting as an educator?

There is no school that can ensure that magazines are in a home for young children to flip through even before they can read; that can help a child learn to look both ways before chasing a loose ball in the street; that can wrap their arm around a lonely child who sorely lacks adult attention and affection. These things are critical to raising our children and to their education, for we all know that education occurs not just in classrooms. Each of us - let's start for now with parents and neighbors - can play these roles. To what extent do you truly do this in your daily life and how?

Take the "test" yourself. Then post it on your refrigerator and take it again every-so-often to see how you are doing and what you could do. It's vital.

*Richard C. Harwood is founder and president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, public issues research firm based in Bethesda, Md. The institute has a contract with the South Carolina Department of Education and the South Carolina School Boards Association to reconnect communities and schools.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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