Abdication of Education: How can we Re-engage Parents?

It isn’t a decision that any of us made consciously or willingly, it’s more the result of circumstances, but as a society we have abdicated the education of our children to a specialized segment of society. That segment has taken the responsibility we’ve given it and created an intricately structured system of learning as well as a system of administration of that learning. So now, here we are, dissatisfied with the cost and effectiveness of those systems and wondering what we can do about it.

It didn’t happen because we didn’t want to be involved, it’s more the result of the pace of our lives and the structure of the educational system which makes it very difficult to be involved. By the time our kids are teenagers, the closest some of us come to being involved in education is dropping them off at school or a bus stop.

Every parent starts out being the most important teacher in their child’s life. We teach them how to walk and talk, we teach them how to act around others. Most of us will read to our children and teach them how to count. The day we drop them off at kindergarten that role begins to change. We go from being their primary teacher to being their assistant teacher and later, even less than that.

Just to be an effective assistant teacher we have to dig through backpacks for forgotten handouts or click through multiple web pages to find homework assignments and any relevant information. The truth is that the better a student is at keeping track of their assignments the less likely they are to need our help and those students that need our help the most are the worst at knowing what they need to be working on at home. Unless you’re a stay at home parent, which I believe, is a very low percentage of parents today, it’s very difficult and time consuming to keep track of those assignments and be involved in your child’s education.

Under-performing teenagers will actively resist probing questions from parents so if the on-line information isn’t complete, detailed and easy to find it becomes even more difficult to be an involved parent. At this point, parental involvement in many families is reduced to ‘nagging’ about homework which undermines relationships with teens at a time when those relationships are already feeling the stress of adolescence.

Nobody is in a better position to support the learning process than parents but to be effective as assistant teachers we need easier, more complete access not just to information about homework assignments but to the lessons themselves. We live in an age where information is everywhere but we, as parents, don’t have access to the information we need to help our children learn. Even now, as schools are rated on Average Yearly Progress and grades are being posted on-line, none of that helps parents know what their child needs to be working on tonight and tomorrow’s assignment is the only thing we can hope to have an impact on. Even with it posted somewhere on-line, every page that a parent has to ‘click through’ to get to relevant information has a cost in terms of the number of parents who won’t get there. Until school districts realizes the importance of ‘pushing’ that information out to parents through email, parents will never be as effective and involved as they could be.

The recent independent evaluation of the Anchorage School District’s kindergarten through eighth grade (k-8) math curriculum highlights another way that parents are shut out of the educational loop. Aside from the absurdity that parents need training on how to help their children with ‘everyday math’, the district is limited in that it can’t freely distribute the math program itself because it’s proprietary (copyrighted) information. Think about it, nobody owns the intellectual property rights to 1+1 but if you put it in a book you can copyright that book, make schools pay for copies of 1+1 and restrict the distribution of 1+1. We, as the owners of our school district, should not stand for that. The underlying problem that prevents more effective parental involvement is access to the actual lessons being used to teach our children.

Thankfully, other people have realized that same thing are are doing something about it. The administrators of our school district aren’t among those but two people who do realize the importance of free curriculum are Salman Khan and Arnold Schwarzeneger.

Salman Khan is changing the world with his free website khanacademy.org. Salman Khan’s videos, originally posted on Youtube to tutor his relatives in another city, have grown organically into a non-profit foundation that has been honored with cash prizes from Google, grants from the Gates Foundation and has been featured by major news organizations such as CNN, CBS News, NBC Nightly News and PBS Newshour. Salman Khan’s videos are available for free to anyone who has an Internet connection, for those who don’t they can be downloaded for off-line viewing and are available on disc. There’s even a Khan Academy app for smartphones. The site now has more than a million registered users from all over the world watching over 200,000 videos a day.

Salman Khan’s video model has the effect of ‘flipping the classroom’ and gives teachers more quality time, more one-on-one time with students. Everyone should watch the twenty minute video in which he explains how he got started, how it grew and how it’s changing math education. (Video here.)

During his tenure as Governor of California, Arnold Schwartzenegger did something that will have a positive impact on that’s states education system for generations to come. He supported the California Free Digital Textbook Initiative.

That initiative spurred the development of communities of highly qualified individuals who authored a growing collection of textbooks that meet California’s educational standards. The CK12 Foundation was responsible for the largest number of these books and through their website CK12.org they offer something they call ‘Flexbooks’ which can be tailored, by copying, pasting or deleting chapters from various books, to create whatever is needed to meet other states educational standards.

Innovations like these two are popping up all over the Internet and hold the promise of revolutionizing the way educational materials are distributed and presented. When school districts adopt these innovations and realize the impact of using the technology that is, literally at their fingertips, to ‘push’ assignment information to parents through regular emails, student success is guaranteed to improve. All we have to do is convince the school district’s administration. That’s the hard part.