Parental engagement: Don’t blame the victims?

BY GOLIATH J. DAVIS, Ph. D., Contributor

ST. PETERSBURG — Let’s start with an obvious truth—some parents fail miserably in all aspects of child-rearing.  Additionally, some teachers are ineffective, uncaring and unprofessional.  And, while the operative word is “some,” far too often, sweeping generalizations are made that suggest parents from the lower socio-economic strata fail to engage and participate adequately in the education of their children and teachers are not caring or supportive of children of color.

Ironically, despite the early work of Jonathan Kozol and others, many in education and society appear to ignore a salient fact—fiscally challenged parents have the same dreams and aspirations for their children as parents of prominence and affluence.  And, not all teachers are ineffective or exhibit willful cultural biases.

One of the major issues in the parental engagement debate is how engagement is operationalized.  I frequently utilize my experience to make the point.  I am the eldest of 10 children, the first to complete high school, college and obtain graduate degrees.  When addressing educators regarding parental engagement, I frequently ask the following question: How many of you think I am successful?  Invariably, everyone responds affirmatively. My reply to the overwhelmingly affirmative response is always the same: If I were a student today, I would be a total failure in a system where teachers abdicate their duties and attribute poor student performance to a lack of parental engagement.

My mother, like other working mothers, was engaged.  She ensured I went to school each day and insisted I complete all homework assignments. However, her ability to assist with the assignments was limited by her limited educational experience. She entrusted me to the school, my teachers and the principal. She fully expected them to do their jobs.

Like my mother and others from her era, mothers today are engaged. However, their engagement is often misunderstood and devalued. The system expects their failed products, i.e. poorly educated parents, to perform reading, math and science miracles. The extraordinary efforts many parents make feeding, clothing and preparing their children to meet the educational experts each day are not factored into the engagement equation, but they should be recognized and appreciated.

I am the product of a total institution (school) where the actors performed.  They cared for the students, understood parental challenges and created an environment where failure was not an option. I continue to have the utmost respect for teachers. Like parents, teachers as a group are caring and engaged. Those who are not should never be allowed to overshadow the caring professionals. Likewise, engaged parents should be valued and never painted with the broad brush of non-engagement.

To the extent we focus so strongly on parental failures, we neglect to effectively acknowledge the Pinellas School District’s dismal performance in educating black children specifically and all children in general.  As evidenced by the Crowley and Bradley lawsuits, the achievement gap between white and black students speaks to the school district’s poor performance.  Data provided by the district clearly indicates that while black children have been more severely impacted, as a group, white children are also failing to make significant learning gains.

Educational leaders state unequivocally that teachers are the most important individuals in the classroom as it relates to learning. However, teacher training, support and preparation in Pinellas have not adequately met the educational, diversity, and social service challenges teachers face.

Prior to integration and busing, black children learned the three Rs (Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic) in school facilities deemed inadequate and with outdated books and learning materials.  Now, for some reason, with updated facilities and state-of-the-art teaching materials and methodologies, we cannot teach Johnny or Suzy to read.

Should parents consistently be singled out for blame, or does the school district have a greater responsibility? After all, we cannot mandate parental engagement, and more importantly, should a child be penalized for being born to parents who were previously failed by the system?

If we are to overcome our educational crisis, every segment of our community, black, white, business, etc., must engage.  South Pinellas County schools clearly illuminate the educational crisis for black children. Five elementary schools and far too many black children in middle and high schools in south Pinellas County are failing according to state measures.  We can no longer afford to create magnet and other accelerated programs in South County schools for the economically advantaged while ignoring the disadvantaged masses.

While some parents don’t engage, I believe the vast majority actively support the education of their children. We must recognize the extent to which the system has failed to educate generations of students who are now parents and lack the ability to tutor their children and the finances to pay for tutorial services.  It’s incumbent upon the district to stop blaming their victims and accept responsibility for what they are educated, trained and mandated to do by the State Constitution—educate all of Florida’s children.

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