NEW YORK — Few buzz words are more actively associated with public education today than "accountability." Teachers, students, and administrators are increasingly discovering that they must meet specific sets of demands -or face consequences if they don't.
Now that concept is being extended to include parents.
A small but growing number of schools are asking parents to become contractual partners. In most cases, parents are asked to sign a written contract - although some schools rely instead on a conversation that clearly spells out expectations. But one way or another, parents are being told they must take a more active part in the education of their children.
For some educators, it's a simple concept, but one that's been overlooked for too long. Particularly as character education becomes a greater concern in schools, they say, it's essential to enlist support for learning at home.
"What's going on at school and at home should be congruent but too often it's not," says John Skief, chief administrative officer of the Philadelphia Harambee Institute, a public charter school. The education of children, Mr. Skief says, "is a family thing. We can't do it without [parents'] help."
Once, such a message may not have been necessary. Schools used to be smaller and more personal, and educators could safely assume that parents would meet certain obligations. But in recent decades, says Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, adult family members -particularly in urban areas, where the contracts tend most often to be employed -have become more disenfranchised from schools. "This is an invitation to come back," she notes.
In the case of the Harambee Institute, parents face several very specific requirements. They must sign a written contract agreeing, among other things, to make efforts to both discipline and praise their children; get them to school on time; volunteer at the school at least two days a year; read to their children for a half hour every day; check that homework assignments are completed; attend monthly conferences; limit television watching; and enforce the wearing of the school uniform.
If parents consistently fail to live up to the terms of the contract, Skief says, he eventually asks them to withdraw their children from the school.
Not every school that draws up a contract for parents is quite as specific as the Harambee Institute, but most do spell out certain kinds of support they'd like to get at home, and often ask for some volunteer assistance on school grounds as well.
Many of the schools drawing up such contracts are charter schools that enjoy a number of advantages over larger, more-entrenched neighborhood schools when it comes to dealing with parents.
"Charter schools are small and they're new," says Michael Petrilli, program director of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington. "They've got this magical moment, a fresh start, when the parents are signing their kids up for the school. Contracts are a good way of spelling out expectations and getting people to commit to a certain course of action."
Public schools set the pace
But although the idea is particularly popular with charters, they are not the only public schools asking parents to put pen to paper. The concept of parental contracts actually originated in the 1980s when public magnet schools were springing up in many areas. Because these schools were not neighborhood schools, and were not required to accept every child who applied, some began using parental involvement as a yardstick for helping to measure a candidate's desirability.
A few years ago the Minneapolis public school system also experimented with asking the parents of all high-school-age children to sign contracts, not as an entrance requirement, but in an effort to forge a clear set of expectations.
That's the spirit in which the Paul Robeson Academy, a public school in Detroit with almost 900 students, has been requiring parents to sign contracts for several years now.
"It's important that we create an atmosphere," says Ray Johnson, principal of the school. "Schools have not always sent parents a message that they're welcome, much less that they're partners, and yet they are the primary teachers."
Contracts, Mr. Johnson says, are a powerful means of telling parents they're key players.
And while many of the experts agree that the contracts do a good job of nudging parents back through the school doors and creating a more cooperative atmosphere, others point out that, legally, they're not worth the paper they're written on.
"These are public schools," says Mr. Petrilli. "They probably can't expel children" because of something their parents either do or fail to do.
But even private schools, which do have the right to ask students to leave if expectations are not being fulfilled, say establishing an understanding with parents is key to success.
At the East Harlem School, a private middle school for low-income kids in New York City, the school's founders, Hans and Ivan Hageman, meet with parents before accepting their children to ask them to support the school's efforts by banning television on school nights and checking all homework assignments.
Almost every time a student has dropped out, says Ivan, it's because, "I didn't spend enough time making sure the parents understood the agreement."
Parents more comfortable
At Paul Robeson Academy - where parents are required to contribute volunteer time and support the school's rules - some faculty members credit the contracts with having created an atmosphere in which parents feel comfortable showing up in classrooms.
At most Detroit public schools, says Derek Sales, a third-grade teacher at Paul Robeson, teachers may see a handful of parents in the course of a year.
"I see about 12 a week," he says. "And I don't solicit it. They show up."
Most parents are pleased to be asked to be more involved in their children's education, insists Randy Goins, a parent of a Paul Robeson student. "It's a sacrifice," he admits, "but for your child you just have to make it."
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