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.

Reagan’s Legacy? ‘Privatization’ Is a Dirty Word

In the era of a billionaire president (namely Donald Trump), any discussion of privatization turns nasty, and it’s Ronald Reagan’s legacy that is getting beat up in the process.

Reagan was big on running the federal government more like a business, and proposed broad ideas to get the private sector to take over some of the jobs government was doing. These public-private partnerships helped pump the economy, and it seemed to make more sense for these jobs to be done by companies whose business it was to do this kind of work. In a 1986 message to Congress, Reagan wrote:

In most cases, it would be better for the government to get out of the business and stop competing with the private sector, and in this budget I propose that we begin that process. Examples of such ‘privatization’ initiatives in this budget include sale of the power marketing administrations and the naval petroleum reserves; and implementation of housing and education voucher programs.

During the Reagan era, privatization began on a broad level, and private-public partnerships were instituted in a variety of areas. Today, these arrangements vary from prison administration to school vouchers. As Gerard Robinson, the former commissioner of education for Florida and secretary of education for Virginia, explains:

Public-private partnerships remain an important aspect of doing business in America; private prisons are still part of our state and federal corrections landscape; 26 school voucher programs are operating in 15 states and the District of Columbia; and 21 tax credit programs are operating in 17 states.

But in the age of Trump, Robinson says, much of the talk about private companies, which earn billions providing services to the government, has turned toward an anti-capitalistic tendency: namely arguments like, if a company has a contract with the government, it shouldn’t be allowed to profit.

But is that even remotely realistic? For one, these types of relationships have in fact been functioning for more than 100 years, not without flaws but certainly more efficiently than government could do alone. Two, what would be the incentive for companies to do business if they can’t benefit from the service? They already are doing it more more cheaply than could be done by a parallel company created by government to perform the same function without benefit.

Three, as Robinson points out, it’s just more feasible for some government agencies to contract out some educational services while doing others in-house. He uses examples from public school arrangements, for instance, in the area of technology support. Let Apple and Microsoft handle student computer services, not the schools. Or how about student transportation?

According to a recent report from Bellwether, district-managed public school buses account for approximately two-thirds of the 480,000 buses that transport 25 million students in urban and rural school districts each year. Private companies such as First Student, Inc., which has a contract with 1,200 school districts and employs 57,000 people to drive 6 million students to school each day, are among for-profit service providers that compose the remaining one-third. Why do districts outsource transportation? According to the National School Transportation Association, ‘School bus contracting benefits schools and school districts nationwide. Outsourcing transportation redirects attention and financial resources back into the schools that were overburdened by the expense and administrative commitment of providing their own student transportation.’

Robinson lastly makes the case that some anti-privatization groups may not want to admit: public employees benefit from investing in the private sector. If you remove that profit margin, public employees lose out, both in terms of an upper salary limit and by not having profitable companies into which they invest their retirement savings.

According to an American Investment Council report regarding the investments of over 155 public pension funds in various equity markets, funds invested in private equity produce a median 10-year annualized return rate nearly 4 percent higher than those invested in public equity. For example, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas invested $16.41 billion in private equity, and came away with a 15.4 percent increase in their annualized 10-year return. The New York State Teachers’ Retirement System invested $8.26 billion in private equity, and garnered a 13.2 percent increase in their return. The point is that these teachers, and countless more, will be able to retire with some comfort based on the investment of their public pensions in the private equity market.

So having profitable companies that provide valuable services seems like a smart choice that works on both sides of the coin, complementing government services while also providing a revenue stream for government investments. Seems like a viable course of action, one currently threatened by anti-capitalistic forces.

What do you think?

What US News & World Report’s High School Rankings Missed

There’s a saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Another, perhaps more humorous one, is the proverbial story about the drunk looking for his keys under the street lamp.

The meaning of the sayings are similar — if you only have one resource to identify and solve a problem, you’re never going to solve the actual problem that you may be facing.

Such is the problem with the U.S. News & World Report ranking of the best high schools in America, as identified by education researcher Nat Malkus.

For Malkus, USNWR does a decent job with the tools it has to measure the performance of more than 20,000 U.S. public high schools. The problem, however, is that it only uses one tool, over and over again, which doesn’t accurately measure outcomes in educating students.

Each year, U.S. News teams up with RTI International to run 20,000 public high schools through a four-step process to rank which are the best. In step one, they evaluate schools’ proficiency rates on state math and reading tests against statistical expectations given their student poverty rates. Passing schools move to step two, in which U.S. News assesses whether historically disadvantaged students performed better than the state average. In step three, U.S. News cuts all schools whose graduation rate is below 75 percent (somewhat odd, given that the national average is 83 percent). In step four, schools are ranked on a ‘College Readiness Index,’ which is based entirely on their success in Advanced Placement courses.

What makes a school ‘best’ in the U.S. News rating system? A school’s broader performance on state tests has to be moderately above average to clear the first three steps, but that left more than 29 percent of the schools moving on to step four this year. After that, it all comes down to AP passage rates. … No doubt, AP success is a high bar for high school students, and since the AP tests are the same nationwide, it provides a usable metric for academic excellence. But is it a good enough indicator to decide which high schools are best?

The answer is no. The reason U.S. News leans so heavily on AP is that the data are available. But that is like the proverbial drunk looking for his keys underneath the street lamp. The rankings promote the notion that the best high schools are the ones with the highest outcomes, and because AP success is the only outcome measure they have, they use it, even if the way the top schools generate those outcomes is dubious practice.

Several schools who outperformed the average in the USNWR study, specifically the BASIS charter schools in Arizona, push their students in the area that USNWR looks at — AP studies — so they will naturally look like they are turning out better results than schools that use other means of educating or getting students from A to Z, so to speak.

The problem with looking under the street lamp is that the rankings primarily gauge where students end up, not where they start from or how much they learn. The BASIS schools dominating the top ten push advanced academics hard and are transparent about the fact that the workload is not a fit for all students. Other schools in the top ten have GPA requirements for enrollment. It’s good that there are hard-charging schools for advanced students, but it’s irresponsible to ignore how selective they are. In focusing narrowly on AP outcomes, U.S. News leaves the impression that all schools have equivalent starting points when, in reality, it’s nearly impossible for non-selective schools to end up at the top of this list.

In fairness, U.S. News is arguably doing the best it can with the available data. Data needed to gauge student learning growth are not available in ways that could be applied to all schools. And the rankings do incorporate some measures of student disadvantage, although these only apply weakly in the first two steps. The problem is that their work is branded as ranking which schools are best, but their methods don’t back that up.

What to do about it? According to Malkus, the change has already started. With the Every Student Succeeds Act, states now have the freedom to decide on their own measurements of growth – including how far students have come – on top of mere proficiency to evaluate schools’ performance in educating children. Six of 18 states have plans in place for these measurements, as well as for consequences for schools that don’t live up to state standards.

More states need to come up with appropriate evaluations. And this new data offers USNWR another tool to determine which schools do the best job giving students an adequate education. From there, we can see how well our kids are doing by comparison when faced with a variety of challenges or limited learning options.

Read the full report on the U.S. News & World Report rankings.