How should parents be held accountable?

Two vastly different items in the news in locations 800 miles apart have both led to the same question: Where does parental responsibility start and stop in matters of school life?

On Monday, the Minnesota Senate passed a bill eliminating seniority as the guiding yardstick in deciding which teachers should be cut.

The move earned an “attaboy” from the editorial board of the Star Tribune today:

To be sure, experience matters. The proposal doesn’t throw out seniority altogether — rather, the changes are limited to the role tenure plays in layoffs. And even there, teachers with the same effectiveness rating will be laid off in reverse order of seniority. But the plan rightly recognizes that the number of years on the job is not the only or best way to judge who should remain there.

Teacher union opponents of the change say it would encourage districts to lay off older, more highly paid teachers to save money. And there is concern that without state seniority protection, layoff decisions would be left to the whims of administrators who might not be very effective themselves.

If a student doesn’t learn, it’s the teacher’s fault. But what about parents? What are they held accountable for?

That question is also being asked in the wake of yesterday’s school shootings in suburban Cleveland, where a third child died today. How, an educator and psychologist ask at Time.com, can we talk about school violence without any recognition of where the violence was conceived and nurtured?

Politicians and taxpayers like to hold teachers accountable for their students’ failures. Most of the public’s dissatisfaction with education seems to circle back to what’s wrong with teachers, and the assumption that drives our endless rounds of flagellation and reform is the belief that a child’s fate rests largely in the hands of the teacher in whose care he or she spends approximately 1,000 hours per year.

Yet the remaining 7,760 hours are on someone else’s watch: the parents. That’s right, children spend on average only about 11% of their childhood lives in school.

But we rarely talk honestly about what can happen during the other eight-ninths of their waking and even sleeping hours. Children arrive at school poorly nourished and too fatigued to work. They spend too much time on television and too little on exercise. They are poorly socialized in ways that inhibit learning and kindness. They also bring unsecured weapons to school and use them on innocent people, including, sometimes, themselves.

There’s an eerie void in our discussions of school violence. Where are the adults? Where is the same cry for accountability in parents when things go wrong at home that we have for teachers when things go wrong at school? We aren’t suggesting that one human being can be responsible for every misstep a child makes. Nor are we suggesting that parents shouldn’t be allowed to make their own, often serious mistakes without fear of being criminalized.

  • It’s easy to look at tragic situations and think “I know what happened and who is to blame.” It’s therapeutic too. It protects us from having to completely come to grips with the fact that bad things can happen in completely senseless ways.

    The problem is that these situations are too complex for easy answers to be useful to anyone but the far-off observers. Parents and teachers both play a role, but the extent of their influence depends on a lot of factors that none of us are privy to.

    Speculation can be fun, but often it’s more a process of externalizing the concerns of the speculators than of seeking an honest understanding of what actually happens in reality.

  • Eric Larson

    Schools primary focus should be on educating students. That, in and of itself, is a difficult enough job. Schools cannot be everything for everyone. They cannot be parents, social workers, counselors, and mediators of social justice when the levels of students without basic needs and skills are as high as they are in many public schools. To pretend otherwise is to be blind. If you don’t believe it, spend some time in your local public school today. Schools that have to provide everything for high levels of students can succeed at very little. There are good things happening there, but at low rates. Schools cannot make up for society’s ills.

  • Kassie

    The bill that allows school districts to lay off people without regard to seniority is well and good, but don’t most school districts have union teachers? And wouldn’t those union contracts only allow lay offs based on seniority? So, exactly what does the law do? It probably only hurts long time teachers in charter schools and small private schools. I’m sure it will be a wonderful feeling for a teacher to be fired one year before they can collect their pension. It will definitely keep costs down for those schools.