Sen. Obama Is Right: Parents Are the Key to Fixing Schools

More money won't save our troubled public schools

Forget about the village: It takes parents to educate a child, says Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL).

“Parents if you don’t parent, we can’t improve our schools,” Obama recently said in Gary, Indiana. The parents clapped and cheered.

“You’ve got to parent. You’ve got to turn off the television set in your house once in a while, you’ve got to put the video game away once in a while,” the presidential candidate told the audience, which cheered louder.

“You should meet with the teacher and find out what the homework is and help that child with the homework,” Obama continued. “And if you don’t know how to do the homework, don’t be embarrassed, find someone to help you.”

By now, almost everyone was yelling.

“And the last thing is, if your child is misbehaving at school don’t curse out the teacher. You know who you are. It’s not the teacher’s fault that your child is misbehaving. That’s some home training…Don’t blame the teachers, and the government and the schools if you’re not doing your job.”

The message of personal responsibility was something many parents need to hear. But in some ways Obama was preaching to the choir. People who turn out for political rallies tend to be homework checkers. What about the teacher-cussing parents? How do schools help get their kids ready to listen to the teacher, play nicely and learn?

Plenty of parents would do better if they were told explicitly what they could do to help their children succeed. No one is teaching the parents. How much sleep does a 10-year-old need? Many parents don’t know. How much TV is enough on a school night? Which shows are educational? Teachers and schools should empower parents with this information.

A Mexican-American mother told me she’d learned in parenting class that “homework matters.” She’d thought it was just busy work. Once she started making her kids finish their homework before they could play or watch TV they became good students.

The best schools and teachers don’t take it for granted that parents, especially low-income families, know how to help. These schools use homework hot lines where children or parents can call to get quick answers to their questions. Lesson plans and homework assignments are being posted online with links to assistance. And an increasing number of schools will loan cheap computers to parents who don’t have a home computer to receive e-mail or go online.

Years ago, I met a teacher who knew many of her students’ parents were poor readers. She sent home a video of herself reading a book to a child with a copy of that book, so any mother could watch the video, follow along with her child in her lap, turn pages, point to pictures and enjoy a cuddly reading experience. They loved it.

Policy-wise, the best way to get parents involved is school choice. Expanding school choice energizes passive parents. Middle-class parents decide whether to move to an area with good schools or pay for private school; they know how to work the system to get their children into a good school. Poor parents often are stuck with the local district-run public school. The more choices they have — via vouchers, charter schools or accessible magnet schools — the more involved they’ll be.

Let’s say School A requires parents to volunteer one hour a week. School B has an eight-hour school day and lots of homework. School C emphasizes science and technology but offers no music and arts classes. School D offers lots of field trips, but test scores are low. Which one’s the best choice for your kid? Parents, it’s not up to the system to decide. It’s on you.

Parents can’t do it all though. When inner-city children go to dangerous, disorderly schools staffed with poorly trained teachers, even students who do their work and try their best may fail. Low expectations are a hope killer. But Sen. Obama is right on this one: More money won’t save troubled public schools if parents aren’t parenting.