It's the Adults, Stupid

Both parents and teachers are needed to educate kids.

The New York Times announced the startling news that American schools are failing our students:

America’s 15-year-olds have not been distinguishing themselves in the PISA exams compared with students in Singapore, Finland and Shanghai.

"Not been distinguishing themselves" puts it tactfully.  The Alliance for Excellent Education says:

Today, the United States’ high school graduation rate ranks near the bottom among developed nations belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And on virtually every international assessment of academic proficiency, American secondary school students’ performance varies from mediocre to poor[emphasis added]

Bad schools might have been tolerable before the Chinese and Indian governments decided to allow their citizens to join the world economy, but today's workers compete with a billion Indians and more than a billion Chinese.  China has more honors students than America has students; China has more English-speakers than America, and a quick walk down any American city street will tell you that they may not be all that much less proficient at speaking it.

This educational shortfall has dire implications for our future.  As the Telegraph observed, there simply aren't many jobs left for the ill-educated:

... many of our school leavers (and even many of our university graduates) are "fairly useless"; it is hardly surprising that they fail to get jobs.

Our survival as a society depends on just about all of our children being educated well enough to provide not only for themselves, but to earn enough to pay taxes to fund government.  We can't afford masses of people who can't support themselves:

Even if we have the resources, relying on an ever shrinking proportion of the population for the taxes which clothe, house and feed the rest is not politically sustainable.

Waiting for Superman?

The solution even liberals are starting to talk about is a) break the teachers' unions, b) replace incompetent teachers, and c) wait for the Utopian millennium.  There are problems with this approach - although school kids may spend more time with their teachers than with their hard-working parents, parents have a great deal of influence, for good or for ill.

The Times discussed a recent study by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA):

“Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all. The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socioeconomic background. Parents’ engagement with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance in PISA.”

PSIA has found that helping kids get a good education isn't rocket science:

“Just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring. It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”  [emphasis added]

How can expressing parental interest help a child more than hours of tutoring?  Children know that parents care for them out of love and duty, whereas everyone else - tutors, teachers, cops, social workers - do it for money.  Besides the built-in advantages of biology, parents have enhanced credibility because they aren't getting paid.

The Korean Educational Experience

Expressing interest helps; Korea shows that parents can do a lot better than that.  Being a tiny country next door to China concentrates the mind wonderfully - the Korean system was the first to run high-speed Internet to all schools.  Korean schools tied with Finland for top rating in 2010.

Finland and South Korea are culturally uniform; there are no battles over what schools should teach.  Parents are on the same page and can encourage each other's children.  Diversity of language is increasing, however.  So many girls who grow up on farms are moving to cities that rural men find wives online.

Asian educational systems assume that mothers stay home and push kids to excel in school, but mail-order brides from China or Vietnam don't speak Korean as well as natives.  They can express interest, but they can't help as much.  The New York Times reports:

According to the Education Ministry, the dropout rate of mixed-background children from elementary school is 15.4 percent, 22 times the national average. Part of the problem, social experts say, is the mothers' lack of Korean-language skills, which prevents them from filling the expected social role of guiding children through the nation's high-pressure education system.  [emphasis added Note - even American public schools don't have a racial gap that big!]

Test scores show a major difference between children whose parents both speak Korean and children with a foreign-born parent.  Non-Korean parents can express interest and make sure homework gets done, but they don't have the language skills to discuss the material and help their kids learn as effectively as natives.  Having parents go beyond expressing interest by delving into the material helps kids even more.

Not Just Education

History and common sense argue that adult involvement is essential for proper child development.  This is backed by scientific research.  Science News discussed a study by Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist:

Not all poor neighborhoods become incarceration hot spots, Sampson emphasized. In earlier research, he and his colleagues found a link between reduced violence in some poor Chicago areas and a willingness among neighbors to act as mentors to local children and otherwise intervene on behalf of the common good.  [emphasis added]

Shock! Amazement!  Adult involvement keeps children from crime.  Adult interest helps kids in school.  Parental involvement in discussing material makes a measurable difference in how well kids learn.

I saw this in action in a Tokyo suburb.  Some kids stepped off the sidewalk into the street for no good reason.  My friend had never seen the kids before, but he remonstrated with them.  They apologized and got back on the sidewalk.

Japan has only one culture.  My friend knew how they were supposed to behave and the kids knew he knew.  Having all the adults singing from the same sheet of music helps kids learn the culture.  An American parent who tried that would likely be sued for harming the child's self-esteem, if not beaten up.

The educational achievements of Japan, South Korea, Finland, and other culturally-unified places shows the importance of the cultural end of the culture - technology axis.  It doesn't matter how much technology we put in schools if parents won't support what teachers are trying to do or if kids, who watch TV as much as anyone, figure out that the adults can't agree on what they're supposed to learn.

High-speed Internet helped Korean students because it enhanced an effective educational culture that was already in place.  Without a solid cultural matrix in which to operate, buying technology is a waste of money.

Not a Quick Fix

We know how to improve our educational system, but the well-known three-step formula needs a new 3rd step: empowering better teachers isn't enough.  The complete formula is a) break the teachers' unions, b) replace incompetent teachers, and c) get parents deeply involved.

Involving parents effectively in education requires a huge time commitment.  Kids need quality time, and they need quality time in quantity.

Alas, when all the women went to work, doubling the labor supply depressed men's wages - it's hard for one working parent to support a family.   Raising children properly is so much work that many women are opting out of childbearing entirely.

We know how to fix our education system, but can we summon the will to do it?  There's an old prayer, "May God grant us vision to see the right, wisdom to choose it, and strength to make it endure."

We've seen the right and some schools and parents have chosen it.  Have we the strength to make it endure?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

The 3 mantras of Offensicht are The complete formula is a) break the teachers' unions, b) replace incompetent teachers, and c) get parents deeply involved.

There are a few more but not one as important as number 1. There has to be discipline in the schools. One cannot learn when there are interruptions in the room. Beginning in the first grade with a slight rap with a ruler on the knuckles will straighten out most kids, it did when I was coming along. As they get older, send them to the coaches, they swing a mean paddle and if that fails there is always the principle. 2. Allow students to fail a grade and send them to summer school. Kids don't want to have to leave their friends, this is a strong incentive. 3. Only teachers can sue parents, parents cannot sue teachers. 4. Teach capitalism starting in elementary school. 5. Allow students who are not quick with the books to learn a skill starting in middle school, this is the time to keep them in the system. By the age of 13-14 everyone knows whether or not a student is good with the books. Besides, if the student is good with the books this might just be the wakeup call that he/she needs to apply themselves to the books. 6. No more free breakfasts, lunches, or suppers. They must work for it in order to eat. Kids did it when I was coming along and they all learned a lesson that there isn't a free lunch, they all had jobs after graduation. We are teaching the wrong lessons.

November 22, 2011 11:59 AM

The PISA test?

You do know that if you normalize for childhood poverty, the US is actually doing rather well on the PISA test, right?

You do know that many parts of the USA have no teacher unions already, right?

You do know that those areas, like South Carolina, aren't exactly national front runners in education, right?

I would suspect that Eli Broad might have made a generous donation to Scragged in the recent past, but for that main point that parental involvement is a significant factor in student achievement. The Broadies would have us believe that it is ONLY the teachers who have any significant impact on student outcomes, and that if we just beat them about the heads and necks a little harder, things will change...

Not too long from now, we will have finished "breaking the unions" and our public school system will have been replaced with a voucher-funded, privatized system of for-profit schools (owned by Broad, Gates et al). That is what the national scrutiny of our school system is really all about.

When that day comes, we really will be done with having to read abysmal media reports about our horrible education system. The venture philanthropists will then be running the show, you see, and their money will have shifted from financing scrutiny and pseudoscientific criticism to financing advertisement and pseudoscientific praise. Few real student outcomes will actually have changed, but most people won't be aware of that.

November 22, 2011 4:42 PM


"Not too long from now, we will have finished "breaking the unions" and our public school system will have been replaced with a voucher-funded, privatized system of for-profit schools (owned by Broad, Gates et al). That is what the national scrutiny of our school system is really all about."

I doubt that is the case but would love if it were so. Sadly, there is far too little attention given to abolishing public education and going private across the board.

As with medical care, "for-profit" would revolutionize education in ways the public system cannot dream of.

"Few real student outcomes will actually have changed, but most people won't be aware of that."

This is totally false. Not only will MANY students have experienced real change (which is axiomatic of the few voucher programs that currently exist) but the most important people will be aware of it - the PARENTS. Whether the academic and political world care or notice is immaterial. Parents will, and they're the only ones that matter.

November 22, 2011 4:48 PM


Some background on myself -- I teach ESL in a public school in the town next to Central Falls, Rhode Island.

I break ranks with many of my colleagues in that I actually don't think that scrapping public schools and replacing them with voucher-funded for-profits would be the end of the world. Neither do I think it would change much.

If you do some research you will see a lot of evidence for the current hullabaloo over education in the USA being driven by venture philanthropists like Broad and Gates in an effort to create a new field for them to invest in. You are aware of the amount of money spent on education in this country; there is the potential for a LOT of profit for investors in voucher-funded for-profit schools.

We are in the middle of a political war over our schools, between these venture philanthropists and those who for various reasons support the current public school system. Teachers and their students are in the spotlight but in reality they are merely the grass that suffers when elephants fight.

I wish it would end. I do not even care who wins. It needs to end.

I notice that you did not comment on my point that many union-free districts in the USA already exist and are not exactly doing well on outcomes.

You seem to claim that existing voucher-based school systems are doing very well -- may I ask which systems you are talking about? I would really like to read about them.

As I have pointed out, a switch to voucher-funded for-profits would CERTAINLY result in a shift from venture philanthropist funded propaganda like "Waiting for Superman" (created specifically to trash public school and funded by both Broad and Gates) to venture philanthropist funded propaganda created specifically to make the schools run by said venture philanthropists look great. Numbers from PISA and other test scores would be massaged and manipulated to demonstrate how effective the for-profit schools were, even if they didn't change at all (I have already mentioned one easy way to do this -- normalizing for childhood poverty).

We would all feel a lot better about education in the USA, including parents (and teachers!). That is not the same as "real change".

November 23, 2011 2:59 PM

Normalize is another term for "scaled". Normalization is not good for a standards-based curriculum or society. I'm assuming all real-life things, like cars, bridges, and roofs are "standards-based". Besides, the number one creator of poverty in the U.S. is............ DIVORCE!!! Do y'all see the key influence of parents in the equation?

November 25, 2011 8:35 PM
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