Guest Column

Raising Accountability for Parents Too

by Stanley Bippus

What is most interesting in the big debate over how to improve public education is the lack of discussion over parent accountability.

The truth is that except in extreme cases, school officials do not come close to having the impact on a child’s success as does a parent. Between birth and age 18, children spend only 10 percent of their waking hours at school with the bulk of their time spent in the home environment where, with no standards of accountability, parents may choose to be unsupportive and uninvolved in the education process.

Why are there not more efforts to hold parents accountable for meeting child-rearing responsibilities when public schools face intensifying pressure?

Public school officials welcome accountability on a level playing field. We fully recognize the comparative statistics showing the United States ranking below other industrialized nations in science, mathematics and reading attainment. The low ranking of our students naturally is unacceptable to the general public, the news media and especially the politicians who believe high test scores are the most important indicator of school excellence and the only way to hold schools accountable for performance. The answer to a low ranking one year seems to be even higher academic standards that are verified by even more high-stakes testing the following year. But there’s rarely a mention of parent accountability.

The answer for some is to spend more money on charter schools, vouchers, open enrollment and privatization. The underlying logic of this competitive approach is that when public schools are forced to compete for students, teachers will become motivated to change their practices and course content. For those who believe competition drives quality, the role of parents in improving academic performance is left out of this formula completely.

Parenting Ills

Even when educational reformers do consider what may be done to help children being raised by irresponsible parents, they generally focus instead on strategies to hold schools more accountable. Instead of addressing parent accountability, the reformers ignore the worst of parenting:

• Parents who never read to their children, review a spelling list or monitor homework assignments;

• Parents who assume no role in monitoring what their children watch on television, how much sleep they get or what they eat;

• Parents who lie to school officials about attendance and fail to teach manners to their children by attaching no consequences to misbehavior;

• Parents who refuse to attend a parent-teacher conference or even respond to requests to discuss the progress of their children;

• Parents who do not teach their children basic vocabulary, how to count to 10 or the difference between left and right; and

• Parents who allow a 6-year-old to smoke.

Reluctant Enforcers

Parents are expected to send their children to school on a regular basis due to compulsory attendance laws. However, it is nearly impossible to determine whether children are kept home because of sickness or because they are needed to baby-sit younger siblings or watch an ailing grandparent. Little to no effort is made to hold parents who violate the law accountable because it is time-consuming and costly.

It is not politically correct to refer to some parents as irresponsible when there are no standards for parenting as there are for 4th-grade math or 7th-grade English. After all, there is not a parent anywhere who has not made mistakes in raising a child, so lawmakers who themselves may be parents are reluctant to consider legislating specific parent responsibilities--even though research, as well as common sense, tells us children benefit from parents who read to them, who ensure they eat and sleep properly and who supervise homework.

Nancy Kerr, president of the National Children’s Reading Foundation, said, in an interview with Education Week: “From birth to kindergarten, a child who is read to at least 20 minutes a day absorbs 600 hours of structured language. With this wonderful daily experience, most children will acquire the pre-literacy skills essential for learning to read. They also learn to love books and are eager to become good readers.” Parents who do not read to their child on a regular basis or establish good work habits at home are irresponsible but not accountable.

Schools must open dialogue to determine what schools and parents should expect from each other. A process determined collaboratively with parents should outline what will happen if a teacher, parent or administrator does not live up to agreed-upon expectations. While government bodies will probably never hold parents accountable, it is essential that our schools continue to try.

Stan Bippus is superintendent of the Salem Community Schools, 500 N. Harrison St., Salem, IN 47167. E-mail: sbippus@salemschools.com