Vanessa Descalzi is manager of national communications for Teach For America.
I recently had the privilege of attending Education Nation, NBC’s annual summit about improving education in America (several TFA alums were also in attendance). Former Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed the high school dropout crisis, while Condoleezza Rice shed light on what an uneducated workforce could mean for our country’s global competitiveness. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro explored the broader challenges of poverty and education, and former first daughters Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager both shared their experiences with forward-thinking schools.
Looking back at this experience of a lifetime, I’m astonished by how many game-changing arguments I heard. But one proposition that still troubles me is one presented (l believe unintentionally) by Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney: that a parent’s presence in school is the single determining factor in a child’s educational success.
In Romney’s one-on-one with Brian Williams, he recalls asking a group of Massachusetts teachers if they could predict which of their students will stay in school and be successful, and which will drop out. Their answer, according to the candidate, was that on parent-teacher night, “if the parents show up, then the child will be just fine. If the parents don't show up…that kid probably won't make it through high school.”
I agree that parental involvement is critical to a child’s success—heck, even President Obama concurs. In his March 2009 address to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the newly inaugurated president argued that "There is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent-teacher conferences or help with the homework or turn off the TV, put away the video games, read to their child.”
What I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around, however, is that neither side is communicating that parental involvement looks different for different students. We can’t prophesy failure for a child whose parents don’t show up for a conference, and we can’t label a parent who doesn’t have time for a conference as uninvolved. Raised by a single mother who at varying times juggled being a waitress, aerobics instructor, office manager, health club associate, and realtor, I’ve witnessed first-hand that there are literally not enough hours in a day for some parents to attend school functions. For kids whose family situations don’t mirror middle-class norms, there may be no parental presence in the school—but that doesn’t spell disaster.
Studies show that the most effective forms of parental involvement actually occur at home. Parents who read to their children, guide TV watching, and promote stimulating conversations and experiences contribute to student achievement. What’s more, researchers David Williams and Nancy Chavkin found that the most consistent predictors of children’s academic achievement are parent expectations. Whether parents make their faces known in the classroom or not, the experiences and standards set at home can successfully lead their children to high school graduation and beyond.
Washington Post reporter Jay Matthews argues that when parents aren’t involved, it’s up to schools to win them over—not write them off. In its first year of operation the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network of charter schools, charged with prepping the children of underserved communities for success in college and life, faced nearly nonexistent parental involvement. But once KIPP’s inaugural middle school became the highest-performing in the Bronx, parents piled on the support, even filling a school board meeting with chants of “KIPP, KIPP, KIPP…” when the school’s location was in jeopardy. In Matthews’ estimation of the situation, “Low-income parents may often be distracted just trying to make a living, but they know what works. Once they see a school keeping its promises, they provide the kind of support found in suburban schools. But it's important to remember that good schooling must come before parental support, not the other way around.”
This makes it hard for me to swallow the prediction Romney quoted, and dispels the dangerous mindset that low-income parents and single parents will not or cannot spend as much time helping their children as middle-class parents. While not ideal, it isn’t calamity if a parent isn’t a regular presence in the classroom—it’s what’s going on behind the scenes that truly counts.