The Role of Parents in K-12 Education

Two classmates grow up together from kindergarten. They sit next to each other in homeroom, have all the same classes with all the same teachers, and take the same state-required tests. One does well and one not so much. What accounts for the difference?

The answer depends on who is responsible for a child’s education. The role of parents in K-12 education was so large in the 1980s and 1990s that it hurt student outcomes. Now the reverse appears to be true.

Educator and researcher Rick Hess describes what schooling was like back in the day.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, American education paid a lot of attention to the quality of parenting and far too little to the quality of teaching and schooling. It wasn’t unusual to hear educators declare that certain students were unteachable or that they couldn’t be blamed for not teaching kids who weren’t there to learn.

In the early 1990s, I was supervising student teachers for Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and I’ll always recall one exchange that crystallized the old ethos for me. I was visiting an iconic Boston high school that had seen better days. The bell rang and the social studies class I was observing got started. In a room of 30 or 35 kids, there were maybe a dozen who were taking notes, participating, and paying attention. The rest were passing notes, staring out the window and generally tuning out. My student teacher tried all manner of teaching strategies, but none made much difference.

The class finally ended and the students shuffled out. The student teacher, his mentor teacher, and I sat down to talk. I asked the mentor, ‘So, how’d you think the class went?’

He said, ‘What really impressed me was how engaged the students were.’

I wondered if he was kidding. He didn’t seem to be. I said, ‘Here’s the thing. To me, it looked like maybe 10 students were really involved. Did I miss something?’

What he said next has always stuck with me: ‘No, that’s about right. But he had all of the students who were here to learn. The others, the knuckleheads, well, you just want to keep them in line.’

Times have changed much to the better since the ’90s, but don’t confuse Hess’ recollection to mean that he believes educators alone are responsible for today’s student performance outcomes.

In fact, the push to ensure teachers are responsible for educating ALL students has swung the pendulum to the opposite problem. Parents are now on the back burner, and some are even conditioned to prefer it that way. In some districts “parental responsibility” dare not be uttered for fear that parents will slam teachers for trying to make excuses for poor educational outcomes.

But the role of parents in K-12 education needs to be raised to an even par with teachers. Parents must “do their part” to ensure their children learn. That means making sure that students are prepared when they arrive in the classroom. That means parents must insist their children show respect for their teachers, complete their homework before returning to school, and accept school-mandated discipline without students calling on their parents to argue their way out of a fairly meted punishment. It means parents themselves must be prepared as well for activities like parent-teacher meetings.

If not, then parents are left off the hook while educators take the brunt for poorly prepared students. Hess describes the balance that needs to be struck.

Think about how this works in medicine. When we say someone is a good doctor, we mean that they’re competent and responsible; we don’t mean that they perform miracles. If a doctor tells you to reduce your cholesterol and you keep eating steak, we don’t label the physician a ‘bad doctor.’ We expect the doctor to do her job, but we expect patients to do their part, too. This is the handshake between doctor and patient, and saying so isn’t seen as ‘blaming’ the patient.

When the patient is a child, parents come to play a crucial role. If a diabetic child ignores the doctor’s instructions on monitoring blood sugar, we don’t blame the child or say the doctor is failing. We expect parents to learn what’s required and make sure it gets done.

When it comes to the handshake between parents and educators, though, things have broken down. After all, teachers can’t make students do their homework, turn off their devices, or show up at school on time. Parents can.

Hess isn’t letting teachers return to the days of selective attention, and he acknowledges that raising healthy, mindful children is hard work. But education doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door. Turning over students to the school system and then complaining that they aren’t learning hurts educators who are doing a good job against the odds.

It doesn’t take a village to raise a child, but it does take a parent-teacher partnership to educate one.

Read Hess’ article in U.S. News & World Report.