Th Broken Compass

I have lived in four different countries in the last eight years, and because I’m a parent, that means I have spent a fair bit of time learning about and navigating through a variety of schools, each with their own take on the meaning and practice of quality education. I always try to get involved, befriending teachers and offering support, partly in an effort to know what is happening in the classroom – in terms of the daily activities and underlying pedagogy – and also to glean insights about how my own child is managing under each new dispensation.

Photo by Jens Wessling via Flickr cc
Photo by Jens Wessling via Flickr cc

So I read with interest last week’s article in The Atlantic, “Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework,” on a newly published meta-study by two sociology professors called The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education  (Harvard U Press, 2014).

The study flies in the face of North America’s assumed wisdom on education, finding that parental support does basically nothing to improve a child’s academic achievements. In middle school, parental help with homework can even bring test scores down.

The study finds only a very few habits that, under scrutiny, seem to yield results: reading to your young kids, and talking to teenagers about their college plans. The rest – the helping with homework, the class visits, the rewards/incentives/pressures we try to apply – on average don’t work.

In the Atlantic article, the authors of the report offer their own guesses as to why. Clearly, parents, who may have long-since forgotten the finer points of algebra or the American Revolution, might make a muddle of middle-school homework. And yes, over-involved or controlling parents can cause anxiety in their children, especially when they punish for poor marks. And rich kids are sometimes encouraged to talk back and question authority in a way that poorer kids are not given space to, but on this point, I know the opposite is also often true.

I believe the data, but I don’t buy the conclusions that these folks are drawing.

I come back to the good habits, the reading to your kids, and the talking to them about important life decisions. And I think about how important relationships are in education and in childhood development generally. We create safe spaces to allow our children to grow, learn, risk, fail, and try again. And I could really give a damn about test scores, which can often be a very poor indicator of the quality of learning taking place.

The Atlantic article refers to the trend, in America, of government spending to encourage parental involvement at school, dating back to the 1960’s and more recently as part of No Child Left Behind. This can be seen as public education as a part of the democratic project, an essential tool to try to make society more just, more equal. But the question remains: How? How do we ensure that kids from poor families get access to an education of equal quality as that of rich kids? As it turns out, more parent involvement isn’t the answer.

If you think about it, of course, parental involvement skews the field by masking poor teaching: educated parents compensate for inadequate schooling by helping their kids at home. This can actually perpetuate inequality because only kids with educated parents can get this kind of support. Likewise, a blanket policy enforcing, or even encouraging, more parental involvement at schools risks crowding and stifling the efforts of educators. I’m thinking here of the parent groups across North America who are busy repealing the Common Core Standards. My own experience with trying to change and improve schools has been that parents can be a significant obstacle and that great care must be taken to educate them along with the kids, so they can learn how to be supportive and, also, how to get out of the way. To be fair, parents should act, in the lives of children, as an essential counterbalance to power to schools, but not as micro-managers. The role of parents, in all their diversity, is to give to children love and daily support, and to teach their children about things they value and think are important. They can demand better schools without being expected to know how to run them.

But somebody needs to lead here. As educators and educational leaders, we need a deeper understanding of the process of learning and a better vision of what schools can be. Education is our way of initiating children into our human culture and helping them to understand and be able to contribute to our shared and continuing endeavors. The art of institutionalized, public education is that the school needs to have a better grasp on this process of learning than the average family has on their own. We need better schools.

And then there is Finland. An article on titled “Why are Finland’s Schools Successful?” describes a system characterized by better trained teachers who receive ongoing professional development and support, and at the same time are given respect and latitude. There are clear curriculum guidelines, but room for flexibility and an emphasis on individualized learning. They aren’t obsessed with tests (claiming to be quite surprised when PISA came along and ranked them among the very best in the world).

The Atlantic also carried an article, last week, on Finland: an interview with Finland’s Minister of Education, Krista Kiuru, “Finnish Education Chief: ‘We Created a School System Based on Equality’” in which she describes the measurable success of Finland’s educational reforms: “Regardless of a person’s gender, background, or social welfare status, everyone should have an equal chance to make the most of their skills… We have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others, because those individuals need more help.” And on how Finland deals with social inequality: “We support [struggling] schools by investing more in them… But you know, money doesn’t make for a better education necessarily. We don’t believe that spending on a particular school will make any one of them better so much as focusing on the content of what we do and giving children individual support.” They teach better.

We need to figure out how to teach better too.