Ask an American teacher why a student isn't doing better in school and "parents" are sure to place high on the list. In a recent Gallup poll, "lack of parental involvement" ranked as the No. 2 obstacle to improving US public schools - just behind school funding.
But such a response would be an anomaly in most other countries, where responsibility for schooling is squarely in the hands of a professional teaching corps and the state. And most parents have been happy to see it that way.
Worldwide, there's a vast range in expectations of how much parents should be involved in education. These views have deep historical and cultural roots. And experts are just starting to realize how critical parents are in strategies to boost education.
Japanese parents, for example, wouldn't think of mounting a full-scale assault against the official math curriculum, as California parents did in the 1990s.
"There is a division of labor assumed in Asian cultures between parents and teachers. Asians see teaching as a profession. Americans expect parents to teach and teachers to be parents," says James Stigler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Parents in China and Japan are not teaching their kids academic skills in the early years. They focus on nurturing and building up the emotional well-being of their children."
When asked to comment on videotapes of US classrooms, Japanese teachers are "horrified" to see parents helping out in the classroom, he adds. They view teaching as a professional experience, which untrained parents could derail.
Nonetheless, the Japanese system insists on the engagement of parents. It's not unusual to have 30 parents show up to observe a lesson from the back of the classroom.
"It's a chance for parents to see how their children engage the material and relate to their teacher and classmates," says Catherine Lewis, a visiting scholar at the Women's Leadership Institute at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and author of "Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education" (Cambridge University Press).
Such observation sessions also expose Japanese parents to the latest teaching techniques in a professional context. "It turns out to be a very effective means of keeping parents on board in terms of the schools," she adds. In many Japanese classrooms, teachers send home a daily notebook informing parents of a child's experiences in class. If something happens at home that parents think the teacher should know about, it's jotted down as well.
"What's important is a strong emotional bond between teacher and child. In order to foster a child's development, parents and all the teachers in a school need to be working together," she adds.
In France, the education system was overhauled in 1881, when the nation changed from an empire to a republic. The "crown jewel" is universal preschool, and its original goal was to take political culture out of parents' hands and mold citizens who would support the republic. More recently, the system has helped integrate large numbers of immigrants from former French colonies.
Nearly all French parents avail themselves of these "coles maternelles," and more than one-third of two-year-olds are enrolled in infant-toddler centers.
US parents have been reluctant to turn over such young children to public systems, but some educators say this is changing. "In California, two-thirds of mothers with children under five are in the work force. The most affluent people ... avail themselves of preschool. The next big step will be for all 50 states to offer universal preschool," says Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction.
In many Latin cultures, there has been a virtual fire wall between parents and the classroom experience of their students. When these children show up in classrooms in Los Angeles or Houston, the challenge for educators is to convince parents that they can and should participate in school activities.
"Increasing parental involvement is a big part of our work," says Eric Schaps, president of the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland, Calif., which works with schools to improve student experience. "Many of our Latino students come from cultures where it is not appropriate for parents to come to school." Movie nights with popcorn and discussion help, he says. So do family heritage days and "homeside activities," where students interview parents.
Setting boundaries between schools and a new generation of activist parents is the next frontier of school reform. While many US educators are happy to see parents commit to making sure homework gets done or raising funds for the band, they're not happy when superactive adults take on the school establishment or lobby to overthrow a new math curriculum.
Author and activist Elaine McEwan says she's seeing a surge of new parent activism in the US. "A majority of the parent activists with whom I spoke found that educators felt perfectly justified to engage in labeling and name-calling even though parents asked reasonable questions about curriculum, teaching methodologies, and accountability," she writes in "Angry Parents, Failing Schools" (Harold Shaw Publishers). "There is no penalty in public education for treating parents disrespectfully."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society