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Lloyd Omdahl, Published May 10 2010

Omdahl: Parents often the problem

As American students continue to flounder in world rankings, parents of failing children are eagerly searching for someone to blame for the inability of their children to reach the top. They have convinced the education policymakers that the blame must be laid at the door of poor schools and incompetent teachers.

As a result of parental pressure, new demands are being made for better performance and more accountability in the classroom. And, if that doesn’t happen, they intend to support more radical surgery, such as occurred in Central Falls, R.I., where the superintendent fired all of the classroom teachers.

The action attracted national attention and left little doubt in the public mind that teachers should be blamed for failing schools. This view has been reinforced by both the Bush and Obama administrations. Both administrations have proposed government programs that focus on “fixing” teachers and establishing accountability at the school level.

There is little doubt that the teaching profession has attracted a certain number of marginal communicators who are in education for the jobs. Since colleges and universities are not screening out these incompetents, it behooves state and local education leaders to adopt evaluation systems that will weed out the low performers.

That being said, punishing teachers for everything that is wrong with our education system is misguided and unfair. Going back to Central Falls, we find that English was a second language for most of the students and median income in the community was $22,000.

The income figure correlates with the level of education in homes. A recent study in Minnesota indicated that children from high-income homes performed significantly higher than children from low-income homes. It’s not the money; it’s the commitment of the parents.

This brings us to the root cause of failing school systems. When education is not a value for parents, it is not a value for children. And by value we mean parents investing time reading with children, doing homework, and sharing school academic events. If parents are interested primarily in television and recreation, the children will emulate those priorities.

The National Institute for Literacy found that children whose parents are involved in their education perform up to three times better than children whose parents are not involved.

Ivannah Perez, a recent Central Falls graduate, put her finger on the problem: “It’s the students,” she said. “They don’t want to learn.”

In the vast majority of cases, the determination to learn starts in the home, and in the homes of failing students that commitment just isn’t there. Under the Bush and Obama plans, a handful of failing students can drag down whole schools, just as they are doing in many of the so-called failing schools across the country.

Most of us in North Dakota can recall bright students coming out of small-town high schools that would have been condemned under the George Bush “No Child Left Behind” or Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top.” You can bet that these outstanding kids are coming from homes where education is a strongly held cultural value. So when push comes to shove, it’s the home more than the school that needs attention.


Omdahl, Grand Forks, is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science professor. E-mail ndmatters@q.com