November 22 2011

Thomas Friedman Solves Public Education's Problems

Libby Jacobson

"How about better parents?" That's the question New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman posed over the weekend, answering the calls in recent years for better teachers. (By the way, Tom, don't conflate generic calls for better teachers with demands for more accountability in public education). Citing some OECD research that links parental involvement with student achievement, Friedman makes the non-argument that better parenting leads to better outcomes.

 “Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] 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.”

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 To be sure, there is no substitute for a good teacher. There is nothing more valuable than great classroom instruction. But let’s stop putting the whole burden on teachers. We also need better parents. Better parents can make every teacher more effective.

On the one hand, Friedman is right. My heart goes out to all the caring teachers in the world who are frequently confronted with disengaged parents. Being 100% responsible for educating a child of parents who either refuse to support your efforts or even undermine them entirely must certainly be one of the most frustrating aspects of being a teacher. On the other hand, "be better parents" sounds like an exasperated plea from a wish-list of impossible demands. (While we're at it, can we demand "better people," "better bankers," "better politicians," and "better calzone makers"?)

It's no secret that conscientious parents produce children who do better than the chidlren of uninformed, disengaged parents. Academic performance and life outcomes are associated with parents' education levels, family income levels, and the age of the parents when they started having children (among several other factors). Educated adults who had the good sense to wait until they earned enough income, job stability, and time to support children are more likely to have academic achievers than, say, single parents with high school diplomas who had their first child at 19. (I'll go out on a limb here and guess that it's the former demographic, more so than the latter, that makes up the bulk of the Sunday Times' readership. Which in turn suggests that the type of parents who can't or won't do the bare minimum of what the OECD calls "parental involvement" - having conversations with their child about school - aren't going to be suddenly informed by a column they'll likely never read).

Instead on shifting blame back and forth between parents and educators, let's focus on the huge inefficiencies of our deeply flawed K-12 system. K-12 public education produces widely varying results depending on where a student lives. Poor students in inner-cities have a vastly different experience than rural kids in shrinking townships, or than upper-middle class students in affluent suburbs. Likewise, the children of first-generation, unskilled immigrants face their own unique set of challenges. Our blanket, one-size-fits-most education system is short-changing the children of our geographically and culturally diverse population. If we could liberate K-12 education from the national teachers unions and bureaucrats, and in its place allow a market in education to flourish (as I'm fond of advocating in the higher-ed sector), we would begin to see education solutions that cater to these unique social situations emerge. Perhaps instead of pushing for "better teachers" and "better parents" we should be demanding better education policy.

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