The problem with public education, thinks Aaron Osmond of the Utah Senate (R-South Jordan) is that schools can only assign homework to students and not directly to their parents (see KSL article). Osmond says that our system focuses too much on forcing students to be in school for certain periods of time rather than focusing on educational outcomes.
While Osmond certainly has a point, his proposed solution offers yet another Big Brother top-down approach to a broad cultural problem that Big Brother has played no small part in fostering. Why is it that when statist policies fail to produce desired results, statists always see the answer as more statism, more government control over individuals, more coercion, and less liberty?
Osmond's proposal would, among other things "require parents to attend parent-teacher conferences and agree to support children in completion of homework assignments." Never mind the fact that many experts dispute the value of most homework as it is actually assigned. (Education experts know what productive homework is, but despite extensive training, educators persist in overwhelmingly assigning unproductive homework, insisting that their assignments have value.)
The policy Osmond has proposed is rife with problems. For starters, it is based on a faulty understanding of why parents don't attend parent-teacher conferences and buys into the education system's "deeply seated assumptions about parental involvement" that conflict "with the views of many parents" (see 1994 Educational Leadership article).
Osmond, along with many educators, seems to perceive that the parents that most need to attend conferences are often those that don't attend. This thinking reveals "an assumption that one of the main reasons for involving parents is to remediate them. It is assumed that involved parents bring a body of knowledge about the purposes of schooling to match institutional knowledge. Unless they bring such knowledge to the school, they themselves are thought to need education in becoming legitimate participants."
But non-attending parents usually aren't uncaring. Rather, their "school experiences, economic and time constraints, and linguistic and cultural practices have produced a body of knowledge about school settings that frequently" differs dramatically from that of educators.
These parents often feel that their concerns continually go unheeded and unaddressed. They feel like the system treats them as subjects to be commanded rather than actual partners. Osmond's proposal would enhance rather than assuage this sentiment.
Many parents feel that they have little voice in their child's education, which is managed by a massive bureaucracy that passes out mandates left and right and commands what they and their children must do outside of school hours. (Incidentally, some teachers feel the same way.) Parents might be excused for seeing this as an admission that the school is insufficiently competent to provide instruction in a seven-hour day.
The education system often views such parental concerns and issues "as serious problems rather than valued knowledge." What parent wants to show up for conferences where she is treated as inferior and deficient?
Underperforming students are disproportionately concentrated in lower income families, which are themselves disproportionately single-parent families. Lower income parents struggle just to put food on the table and to put clothes on their kids. Many work two or more part-time jobs. These economic constraints often prevent attendance at school conferences and events, even if parents would like to be there. How will Osmond's proposal help these people?
We have a child that by some measures was ranked in the top 1% of students in the entire nation for his age group. His educational outcomes were spectacular. His younger brother has a number of challenges that will prevent him from ever aspiring to such lofty heights. Almost everything school-wise is a struggle. This son requires a great deal more parental involvement than did his older brother.
Osmond's proposal would presumably generously allow parents to customize their agreements with teachers on homework to address differing needs, as long as outcomes rise to the level of some bureaucratically mandated goal. But what about when our younger son simply can't do any more homework for mental health reasons? What happens when our son fails to reach the mandated standards despite our best efforts? Do we go to jail?
Nor is the fact that both my wife and I are well educated always help. Teachers usually expect students to do assignments in certain ways—ways that are not always clearly reflected in the associated textbook or on the teacher's blog site. I can help my child with his English paper or math assignment, but unless I have actually been in class with my child, I stand a very good chance of helping him magnificently mess up his homework because my method may not agree with his teacher's method. Thus, mandating that parents help their children with homework is not guaranteed to be very helpful and can actually be harmful to the proposal's stated goals.
Educators may also object to the expanded role that would come with Osmond's proposal as they add law enforcement and audit roles. Does anyone think that parents under this new mandate will not demand expanded conference opportunities including more evenings and weekends, professionally scheduled appointments, and the like? Will educator unions put up with this without demanding higher pay? Does anyone think that schools won't have to hire agents to police the parents?
Taking time to customize a homework plan with each teacher could consume copious time. It would certainly require more than the 60-180 seconds that teachers can generally afford in a face-to-face meeting with a parent during open conferences.
A junior high teacher could have as many as 150-200 sets of parents to meet with each term. Affording each set 10 minutes would require up to 80 hours (including meals and breaks), where teachers now spend about 10 hours. I know a family that had five children in junior high and high school simultaneously. Meeting with each of each child's teachers under such a paradigm (including travel) would have consumed all of the productive hours in a day, if the teachers could even manage to arrange consecutive appointments.
And what will Sen. Osmond propose to put teeth in his bill, since a law without consequences is no law at all? Fines? (Yeah, that will help those low income parents.) Jail time, as was proposed in one Michigan district in 2010? (Johnny, we had to put your mom in jail because she allowed you to be such a lousy student.) Home "visits" by government officials to "help" parents? (My Dad witnessed such visits while growing up in Nazi Germany.)
How would any of these coercive measures actually improve a child's education? And even if there was some such hope, how could the asserted positive results outweigh the predictable negative results? Good intentions do not compensate for harm caused by those intentions.
I am reminded of C.S. Lewis having written, "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."
Sen. Osmond needs to go back to school and discover the realities of why parents don't attend parent-teacher conferences. As it stands, his proposal hews to C.S. Lewis' gibe on "running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood"
Osmond should ask senate leaders to repeatedly whack his fingers with a ruler until he gives up on trying to use coercion to improve educational outcomes. Senate leaders should put a stake in the heart of Osmond's proposal and bury it so deeply that it will never see the light of day. It is bad policy based on faulty assumptions and is designed to use the wrong tool to achieve its goals. Instead of interfering, government sometimes governs best when it gets out of the way.