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Did Your Mom Eat Your Homework?

Saturday, April 1, 1995

P arents and politicians tend to blame the education establishment for the sorry state of learning in American public schools. The educrats are not taking this lying down. They've found their own scapegoat: parents. Public-school boosters have decided that lax parental involvement is the reason children fail. And so some have begun turning the schools into Big Mother.

The newest trend in education "reform" is the inclusion of parental-education programs and curricula that require parental involvement in student activities. President Clinton's Goals 2000, enacted last year, includes an entire section on "parental assistance," also called "parent training." Some schools even require parents to sign a pledge that they will perform assigned, pseudo-educational tasks, which could include playing "Simon Says" or rolling cookie dough with their third-grader.

Of course parents should be involved in their children's education. And, of course, problems at home--messy divorces, absent fathers--can cause problems for children at school. But the "parent education" movement seeks to blame all parents for academic failure, not just parents who are neglecting their kids or destroying their own families. The movement does not seek to make parents more demanding of their children, nor, no surprise, of the schools. To the contrary, new curricula urge parents to be nurturing and uncritical--sort of the way public-school officials would like parents to treat them.

This philosophy is becoming institutionalized in California. Consider the math curriculum rated most highly--a perfect 100 percent--by a state education panel that chooses which textbooks should qualify for state subsidies. "Investigations in Numbers, Data and Space," from the Dale Seymour Publications Series, appealed to the panel because it included home assignments that require parental involvement.

New New Math

Under this curriculum--call it New New Math--which eschews rigorous memorization of multiplication tables, teachers send home periodic "Dear Family" missives to third-grade parents with the following advice:

  • "Don't worry if your child doesn't use a ruler accurately yet--it's a skill that will develop over time, with more and more opportunities to measure."
  • "Children have very interesting ways to figure out these problems. You can help by asking your child to tell you how he or she got an answer. There are many ways to do these problems--and no single `right' way. What's important for your child to know is how his or her own way works."
  • "When your child has an assignment to do at home--such as collecting data about the ages of pets and oldest relatives--offer your help, and ask your child about what he or she is doing in class."
  • "There is one thing we ask you not to do. We won't be using some of the step-by-step methods of addition and subtraction in this unit that may be familiar to you--nor will we be teaching borrowing or carrying. All too often, we have found that children this age memorize these step-by-step procedures and do not learn how to apply the processes of addition and subtraction. This year we will support students in developing several strategies for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, and we prefer that they do not memorize a single set of procedures."

Educational Relativism

This New New Math adds up to a new way of letting schools off the hook for not teaching children. It's not enough that we have moral relativism in English and Social Studies. Now we have it in math, too.

The Dale Seymour third-grade program instructs parents to "make roll-out cookies with your child" to explore shapes, include children in family math decisions (such as how many floor tiles to buy) and explore "fair shares," which is politically- correct educratese for "sharing food." Clearly the intent of these instructions is to force parents to spend quality time--at least as defined by educrats.

So what's wrong with that? Supporters argue that parents, especially single parents, may not spend enough quality time with their children and would benefit from programs that nudge them to do so. But not all parents need this nudge, and some object to the schools' sledgehammer approach. And many may object to a pervasive touchy- feely, there's-no-such-thing-as-a-wrong-answer attitude being foisted upon parents.

In Petaluma, California, a mandatory high-school course called Human Interaction, or HI!, has provoked an angry reaction from some parents.

They resent take-home assignments that tell them how to be parents. The program's take-home and in-class "teen/parent" worksheets have included these queries for ninth-graders:

  • Whether "how much money your parents make" is a private issue or can be discussed in class.
  • Whether any "close relatives" has ever suffered "alcoholism" or "mental illness."
  • Whether students "feel OK about crying" and "allow" themselves to do so.

Other questions explore whether students recycle, eat fast food, use public transportation and "accept the way [they] feel about things."

According to administrators, the course is a hit with kids. You can see why. No boring memorization or flexing of the gray cells here. Student assignments encourage teens to go with their feelings. "Denying" them, they are told, is passive behavior. A class worksheet on "family systems" assures teens that "open" families are "`pure' democracy," while "closed" families are "hierarchal."

Federal law prohibits schools from asking children for highly personal information without parents' permission. The district explains that teens are meant to fill out the worksheets for their own private use, but at least two teachers in Petaluma told students to turn in signed worksheets. And Stephen Collins, the assistant superintendent of the Petaluma School District, admitted last fall that, once such worksheets are passed out, it is very likely that these topics will be discussed in class.

Petaluma parents Jay and Tura Avner pulled their two children from HI!. "They want to be surrogate parents," Tura Avner complains. She especially resents the district's assumption that "unless the schools taught me how to manage my kids, they'd be running wild in the streets."

But the Avners' efforts to liberate their children have not been easy. The district would not assign the Avners' son to an alternative, academic class. Instead, he was forced to be a counselor's aide for that period. Worse, the district dragged its feet for months before granting a "waiver" from this program. So much for "voluntary" parental education.

District administrators sometimes insinuate that dissenters are right-wing religious fanatics. These days, that is a standard response to complaints. State law allows parents to pull their children from classes for reasons of religious belief or moral conscience. The Petaluma district, however, wouldn't let parents remove their children without a fight. Last year, the superintendent's cabinet, the district counsel, and HI! officials crafted a waiver form requiring parents to list their "reason(s) why they did not want their children to attend, and declare that they would provide appropriate alternative educational experiences" on HI! topics. This tactic clearly was designed to prompt parents with religious objections to proclaim themselves, giving administrators potential grist for the anti-fundamentalist mill. Yet California law clearly protects parents' right to keep private their reasons for objecting to a class.

The kicker: Until the Rutherford Institute, a religious-freedom advocacy group, threatened a lawsuit, the district proposed that parents sign the waiver forms "under penalty of perjury." The penalty for perjury in California is a jail term of up to four years. Was the district planning to arrest parents who don't teach their children recycling? "I don't know that we were going to do anything," assistant superintendent Collins explained at the time. "We knew that when we went into this it was going to be revised."

Collins was forthcoming in his defense of HI!'s "individual growth, physical growth, and social growth" curriculum. It is "pretty generally believed," he said, that most parents don't communicate with their children. Then there's the if-schools-don't- teach-this-children-will-die argument. Collins explained that the board determined that HI! "was a matter of life and death." "If students don't have the tools to deal with the pressures" and destructive elements in life, he said, the board feared teens "would make the wrong choices and it would be fatal."

This thinking betrays a strong anti-parent bent. Parents, apparently, fail to instill their children with self-esteem or AIDS awareness, so the schools must fill the void. Educrats have concluded that children who ignore their oafish parents' words on, say, safe sex will miraculously heed their teachers. Worse, HI! assumes that teens will build more self-esteem by talking about their feelings than by learning to speak a foreign language or play a musical instrument.

Similarly, New New Mathmeisters seem to have a Rousseauesque view that children will grasp math intuitively if not distracted by narrow-minded parents or teachers. For example, the California math-curriculum panel disapproved of exercises that are "generally under the direction of the teacher." That Californian teachers' unions have supported this shows how far they have moved from their support of traditional pedagogy.

Why Have Schools?

Maureen DiMarco, Governor Pete Wilson's education adviser and a critic of the New New Math, is baffled by this natural-learning approach. If kids learn so well by themselves, she asks, why have schools? "The assumption that, if children wander aimlessly they will automatically find all the prizes that are out there educationally is totally ludicrous," she says.

Despite the rhetoric about parental involvement, administrators favor things that parents don't like. A poll by Public Agenda found that 86 percent of respondents want students to learn arithmetic "by hand" before they use calculators. But a 1993 survey found that 82 percent of math educators thought that "early use of calculators will improve children's problem-solving skills and not prevent the learning of arithmetic."

If educators want parents to be involved in public education, it certainly isn't because teachers and administrators value their views. Parents in the Los Angeles Unified School District and elsewhere complain they have been systematically frozen out of power in school-based councils. The message: Be seen and not heard.

And maybe cough up some money for a field trip, books, or computers.

New New Math programs effectively freeze parents out in another way. Even as New New Math mavens ostensibly increase parental involvement, many new curricula don't even include textbooks. "The concept of what they mean by parental involvement in these materials implies the parents should be involved," says DiMarco, "but then tells parents not to impose their own math learning styles and knowledge on their children. And worst of all, when the student doesn't get what is going on in class and the parent has to help with the homework, too often the parent will be confronted with only a worksheet. There is no textbook that explains the work to be done--leaving the parent and the student without another alternative than just the teacher's explanation."

Sadly, parents are often the first to embrace parental education, even if their parents rarely helped them. A generation ago, it was believed that children learned best by working through their studies on their own. Somewhere along the way, educrats abandoned that notion and began to insist that parents assist with the homework.

In addition, the proliferation of AIDS, teen pregnancy, and single-parent families have led many to demand that schools take on responsibilities that parents 20 or 30 years ago would never have dreamed of giving up. Today, the generation that believed in questioning authority is asking the authorities to raise their kids.

Wrong Target

Brace yourselves--things may grow worse. Petaluma has begun a pilot program for grade-school counseling called SUCCESS, an acronym for "Self Understanding Can Create Everlasting Secure Selves." Counselor Susi Brodie told the Petaluma Argus- Courier that counseling children often involves counseling parents.

Big Mother's attention wrongly falls upon functioning families. Neglectful parents aren't going to roll out the cookie dough to teach shapes; only families who already bond with their children will. Troubled students largely lack structure, not attention.

Two years ago, I rode in a van operated by the San Juan Unified School District, in Sacramento. The 35-foot van housed the district's mobile Student Attendance Review Board (S.A.R.B.). According to Carolynn Salter, the district's child welfare and attendance counselor, the district purchased a van for S.A.R.B. hearings because parents frequently failed to show up for their children's truancy hearings.

The four students the van visited that day were in elementary school. One kindergartner had missed 57 days, while his second-grade sister had missed 66. Their prognosis was frightful: They were both to be kept back a grade. The boy couldn't even use scissors.

Schools and government should intervene in such clear-cut cases of severe child neglect. But Big Mother does not have the stomach to deal with these messes. A bill sponsored by the late B.T. Collins, a GOP assemblyman, that would have ended welfare benefits for parents with truant children never made it out of committee.

Instead of getting tough with parents who don't provide their children with basic needs--nutrition, shelter, education, stability--the schools have turned their attention where it is needed least.

They target parents who provide for their children and are well-meaning and gullible enough to be taken in by faddish curricula. The parental-involvement movement seeks to teach parents to value self-esteem over academics. This is a clever ploy by a system that is shortchanging American children.

As happens in so many areas these days, the government is treating good people like bad people, while letting the worst problems fester.