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Though Many Doubt Their Capacity, Parents Are Still Their Child’s First And Best Teachers

Forbes | April 9, 2020
By Jeanne Allen, Founder and CEO of CER

It was a simple statement I made on Twitter after seeing some less-than-nice comments about a parents’ ability to do education at home.

“Every family has the capacity to educate their children.”

It elicited many responses, some in agreement; others, not so sure:

“I think all families want their kids educated, but I have been personally talking to the neediest - homeless and [English Language Learning] and many are incapable by lacking basic literacy and severe emotional health right now. They are at a loss.”

“This is a nice sentiment and many probably can, but social workers don’t want us to forget about the families that they work with. There are also children with special needs that rely on expensive services.”

And this from a well-informed, respected education change advocate:

“After 2 weeks, I’m questioning this; not anyone else’s capacity, but my own. One thing for sure... 95% of Americans will better appreciate and understand our kids’ schooling. Dropping kids off for a full day feels like a luxury right now.”

Then there’s this commentary from a reporter in US News and World Report:  “Teachers who are also parents say that remote instruction is, unsurprisingly, quite challenging”What isn’t challenging to learn?

It got me thinking: as complex as it is to educate, those who question the capacity of parents to educate their own kids, which right now is the only option for most (even if some states disagree) may be overlooking one indisputable fact - that most parents are educating their kids in real time without even considering it education.

Potty training? Check.

Learning to walk & talk? Check.

Dressing, eating? Check.

How about the child’s first day of school? How to talk to others? Manners and living basics?

I know what some of you are thinking: But, Jeanne, this doesn’t happen in all families and children in dysfunctional homes don’t have what you describe.

As in everything, there is truth in that statement. However, it’s not universal.

Celebrated author  J.D. Vance argues in Hillbilly Elegy that while he grew up amidst a sea of family dysfunction, he did have one family unit - a grandparent - whose influence allowed him to develop and learn and to grow up and out of a beleaguered industrial town and dysfunctional community.

Todd Rose, a welfare parent turned Harvard psychologist argues in his End of Averageresearch that the very concept of ‘average’ relies on the assumption that there is one composite of a person that fits neatly into certain categories based on certain attributes (e.g., a poor family can’t educate). 

That misconception actually ignores the fact that a person’s capacity to do anything is not understandable without the full context of who they are. There is no average, as Rose argues, so we must put an end to generalizing people’s conditions based on some notion of average. The reality is there is no way to know of a person or family’s capacity to do something extraordinary in an extraordinary time.

More often than not, education is nothing more than influence. No matter what their lot in life, a parent’s ability to influence their kids is extraordinary. They may be able to impart lessons, or simply encourage them, or they may create the conditions for them to learn on their own. The bias in the policy and media dialogue today is that there is something inherently superior in having a traditional teacher, in traditional schools with brick and mortar propping them up, rooms divided by walls and desks and materials, highly prescribed programming and curriculum, and lots of other students there to make the entire experience enjoyable, or perhaps, depending upon the teacher, miserable. It is thought that this trumps having to administer home learning for one or just a few students. But a parent in her home right now need not be operating what we collectively conceive of as ‘school’ to have an impact on the education of their children. 

Many parents across all income levels are justifiably daunted by the present crisis.  They were not prepared or equipped with the knowledge or tools to continue for the entirety of a school ‘day’ all that is typically delivered, and expected, from lessons to assessment. And it’s no wonder. For generations we’ve told parents to butt out of school, leave it to the experts. For years, education has resisted change and innovations that make learning more personalized and less dependent on a 9 month, 180 day, agrarian calendar.

But they want to engage, and always have. A Gallup poll released this week found that 42 percent of parents are concerned that this crisis will have an adverse affect on their students’ learning. With most districts still not putting in place a plan for all students to be learning remotely, it’s up to families to pick up the slack. 

Here’s what we do know: Even if a parent can’t muster time or skills to do more than one or two subjects at most, every parent or caregiver in the nation can give their students agency, and provide the encouragement, space and tools (which are myriad and plentiful for free) to allow their students to drive their own learning during these stress-filled days confined at home.

The best case for this notion of student agency was made by Sugata Mutra, an education researcher and Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, England. 

Back in 1999 before technology was so ubiquitous, “some colleagues and I sunk a computer into the opening of a wall near our office in Kalkaji, New Delhi,” he writes. “The area was located in an expansive slum, with desperately poor people struggling to survive. The screen was visible from the street, and the PC was available to anyone who passed by. The computer had online access and a number of programs that could be used, but no instructions were given for its use.”

What Mutra and his colleagues discovered was extraordinary - that given the freedom, students can manage and discover their own learning. 

“Over the next decade we did extensive research in self-directed learning, in many places and through many cultures. Each time, the children were able to develop deep learning by teaching themselves. I decided to call the method of instruction we had developed Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). The rest of the world continues to call it the ‘Hole in the Wall.’”

Mutra’s findings are actualized in the work of Summit Public Schools, a charter network begun in east Palo Alto and focused on students with the most exceptional of needs. Diane Tavenner, the network’s founder, had her own personal challenges as a child, and she was determined to create a school that would be both sensitive to the traumas students endure and recognize and promote the individual learning needs of every student. While the story of Summit’s personalized learning approach becoming a widely embraced national model is in and of itself a story worthy of attention, it’s what Diane discovered about parents that is most germane here.

Bill Gates, one of Summit’s early supporters recounts: “It was unlike any school I had visited before. Some students worked on their own, moving at their own pace through their courses. Others worked together on projects. Instead of lecturing at the front of a class, teachers acted like coaches, providing one-on-one guidance to students. Everyone was engaged.”

Summit students are self-directed. They develop their own learning plans, assessments and projects. They learn at their own pace and have mentors who help them navigate their academic goals. And the result? “98% of graduates are accepted to at least one 4 year college and students complete college at double the rate of the national average.”

Summit Learning Blog: What Is Summit Learning’s ‘Secret Sauce’? Diane Tavenner Answers

Tavenner is among the successful educational leaders who believe not just in a students’ ability to learn, but in a parents’ predisposition to support that learning. Eva Moskowitz, another charismatic education entrepreneur has been both praised and criticized for expecting much from parents. According to Success ‘biographer’ Robert Pondiscio, her approach triggers “muscular expectations of students AND parents [by] attracting some number of families who are eagerly buying what she's selling. This enables her to create and sustain a culture bringing along for the ride families for whom this becomes their new normal (and some number who ultimately reject it or for whom it's too much).”  Witness the thousands of families competing in lotteries to enroll their students in Success’ schools in some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods.

Said Pondiscio, “the point is she starts with a critical mass as a pre-condition that allows her to turbocharge achievement.”

Serving students in the least advantaged communities in Washington D.C., Friendship Public Charter Schools’ leadership believes in the capacity of every parent to support their students’ learning. “Phase II of your virtual-learning materials,” they announced through all mediums. “Drive-thru pick up at every FPCS campus is on this Friday & Saturday, April 3-4, 8:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. School administrators will contact families with their pick up time.” Since then, Friendship teachers have been in touch regularly with students and parents are engaging substantially. Friendship expects parents will do what they can to help their students succeed and they rise to the occasion.

Some remain skeptical parents can pull ‘this’ off. “This massive rush to move K-12 education online is a mistake,” says CNN commentator David Perry. “It’s going to intensify pre-existing inequities and it just doesn’t feel necessary. Instead of pretending we can instantly create virtual classrooms for every American child, we should shut the school year down - meaning not even educate - until it's safe enough to return.”

Translation: Kids should do nothing while waiting until school opens again.

That’s nonsense, of course. Shutting schools altogether with no potential for students to learn not only guarantees learning loss, which is profound particularly for children from fragile communities, but it also creates anxiety in children through unpredictability. When students have anxiety, learning is that much harder! 

With a more hopeful outlook, Khan Academy founder Sal Khan argued recently that“coming out of this crisis might help equity in the long run - personalization, access to rigorous materials, equipment” and basic learning challenges we have across the education spectrum may finally be addressed as we go through this.

Every family has the capacity to help students learn and if we take the advice of the good doctor from India (among others) to heart, we’ll see that students can not only learn in this new environment but gain enormously valuable skills to guide their own education during this crisis and long after it is over.