Schools need better parents

Schools need good teachers — and better parents, writes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “Parents more focused on their children’s education can also make a huge difference in a student’s achievement,” he writes.


The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has data to back up common sense.  Students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school earned much higher test scores at age 15.

(Andres) Schleicher explained to me that “just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring. It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”

Reading, telling stories and talking with children raise scores more than just playing, the study found.

Not all parental involvement affects academic performance to the same degree, agrees a study by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education.

“Monitoring homework; making sure children get to school; rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to college. These parent actions are linked to better attendance, grades, test scores, and preparation for college,” (Patte) Barth wrote. “The study found that getting parents involved with their children’s learning at home is a more powerful driver of achievement than parents attending P.T.A. and school board meetings, volunteering in classrooms, participating in fund-raising, and showing up at back-to-school nights.”

OK, we already knew this. What we don’t know — and should be trying to figure out — is how to help poorly educated parents support their children’s learning at home and in school.


About Joanne


  1. The middle school I used to work at once had a grant that allowed (and may have demanded) us to set up a parental institute where we taught parents what happened in schools, who was responsible for what, how to interact with the school and how they should be interacting with their children on educational issues.

  2. Christina Lordeman says:

    I agree that this whole issue is “easier said than done,” but since when does it take a college degree to read to your kids? I don’t mean to undermine genuine hardship parents in low-income communities face, but sometimes I wonder if we’re not also undermining them by assuming they can’t lead their kids on a path to academic achievement because they didn’t go to college themselves.

  3. Good. Next, sales managers can demand better customers, ie ones who are easier to sell to. Generals can demand better enemies, ie ones who are easier to defeat.

    Public school administrators and teachers are *employees* of the taxpayers; parents are not. The owners of an organization have the authority and ability to make demands upon the performance of the people inside that organization that they do not have for people outside the organization.

    There are surely things that can be done to encourage parents to do a better job in supporting their kids’ schooling, but achieving a national revolution is parental attitudes toward education is a “boil the ocean” type of project.

    • But I wonder if expecting/demanding that teachers do it isn’t bound to be as effective as pushing on a rope. Maybe sales managers can’t demand better customers, but businesses can pick and choose their customers – Nieman Marcus and Macy’s overlap I bet. Schools are like the ER – they have to take you no matter what.

    • Close, but not quite on target – teachers and administrators are employees of those who voted in the last school board election, a notoriously thinly attended event. Since the “employer” exerts such inconsistent and untimely control the direction of the organization’s largely the function of the legislature and the employees.

      As for the original post, parents are responding to the conditions which face them which, as an entitlement, obviates to a great extent any responsibility they might feel for the outcome; it’s someone else’s job and how a parent acts, good, bad or indifferent, is largely immaterial. In a sense parents are acting like teachers – what they do isn’t valued so only the direction dictated by their internal compass guides them. If it’s different behavior that’s required of parents then the circumstances of their relationship to the organization with which they’re dealing has to change. Until that occurs the complaint about parents is just an excuse for maintenance of the very unpleasant but long-accommodated status quo.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It’s a common meme that parents want a “better life” for their kids than they had.

    But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the parents actively don’t want the child to do better than them — either consciously or unconsciously — and therefore do not take actions that they damn well know would help their kid out. If the kid were to succeed in school and go on to become filthy rich doing currency arbitrage, it would just make the parent have to vividly face their own shortcomings.

    I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes. It’s… disturbing.

  5. But yet the findings are encouraging, because these are steps that any parent from any socioeconomic group can choose to take. And the fact that this turns up in a Thomas Friedman column just goes to prove the old adage that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

    Pretty amazing, though, that many of the comments on his piece ignored the point of it, and instead claimed that working parents don’t have time to ask their kids how their school day went. Or blamed the Bush tax cuts.

  6. Finally, I’m beginning to detect a ‘movement.’ An honest view of what we need in schools besides good teachers. We need good parents. While maybe late to the party, it’s good that more people, like Mr. Friedman, are finally here.

    Good parents, apparently, read to their children and talk with their children about school and encourage their children in their school work. So says, this op-ed. All that is probably true–though I’m not that convinced about reading to children….

    There’s so much to parenting—feeding, clothing, enjoying, discussing, and putting children to bed at a reasonable hour. On that latter point, I keep remembering that principal of an excellent elementary school I visited. Yes, she said, the teachers are good, the school is nice, the children study, and all that works, but, “If only I could get the moms to put their children to bed at night.”

    Tired children don’t do well in learning. Yes, that, too, is the role of good parents.

    Mr. Friedman, welcome to the party!

  7. If only I could get the moms to put their children to bed at night.”

    you go to school with the families you have, to paraphrase someone.

    So, is it the state’s role to make better parents? If so, how might it do so? If the state takes over more and more of obligations previously expected of parents, does that encourage or discourage parents to be good parents? What parental behavior is being incentivized when schools feed children every meal, are responsible for health care, teach character ed values, etc.?

    replaces the parents

  8. Bill Leonard says:

    I sometimes wonder whether either the Deep Thinkers who come up with this stuff or the Pontificators such as Friedman who quote them ever have actually raised kids.

    Yes, we read to our kids; yes, we talked with each about his day in school; yes, we tried to keep an eye on the homework and how it was going, including whehter it was being done.

    But at some point, usually the teenage years, rebellion sets in and the teens are likely to do pretty much as they wish, no matter what parents try in the way of either inducements or punishments. The only thing parents know for sure is that nothing works forever, or even very long.

    Eventually, even the best parents can only urge, cajole or cheer on their kids. The kids simply have to do the work — or not. As it happened, each of our kids turned out pretty well because or in spite of education and our efforts. But ultimately the child has to do the work; no parent can for any length of time.

    • Bill:

      I will concede your point. However, if we substituted the word “teachers” everytime you wrote “parents” in your last two paragraphs, wouldn’t those points be just as valid?

      Yet no one is willing to cut teachers any slack based on your point.

  9. exactly gahrie! Thank you for writing that. elegant and thoughtful.

  10. The OECD study is junk–on a par with claiming that a child’s increasing shoe size causes his increase in vocabulary. Of course reading to your kids helps, that’s what literate people do. If the illiterate did so, they wouldn;t be illiterate, would they?

    Perhaps Tom Friedman could go to China and bring us back some better parents.

    Failing that, maybe some of us teachers might motivate our students to occasionally read a friggin’ book–all the way through. After all, they’re going to be the next crop of parents, any day now.