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Can we hector parents? Yes we can!

By making parental attitudes central to his vision for education, Barack Obama is blaming moms and dads for the US State’s school failures.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

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It’s 28 February in Beaumont, Texas. Barack Obama is giving a speech about education. It’s the same speech he’s given in a number of places around the country, but with this predominantly African-American audience he slips into the cadence of a Southern Baptist minister, starting and stopping, his pronouncements interspersed with applause and vocal agreement.

He’s wiping the floor with the ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy. But then, that’s pretty easy to do. Everyone wants high standards but no one wants education to be reduced to ‘teaching to the test’. It’s a no-brainer to criticise the neglect of the arts and the humanities in schools, and just about everyone agrees that teachers are the crucial component to a good education. They need better pay. They need opportunities for professional development. So far, so good.

And then he stops. He hopes that what he’s going to say next doesn’t offend anyone (though he knows it will do nothing of the sort). ‘It doesn’t matter’, he continues with the confidence of a man preaching to the converted, ‘how much money we put in, if parents don’t parent’. The crowd goes wild.

‘It’s not good enough for you to say to your child, “Do good in school”, and then when that child comes home, you’ve got the TV set on… You’ve got the radio on. You don’t check their homework. There’s not a book in the house… You’ve got the video game playing… You know I’m right.’ (Wild applause.)

‘So turn off the TV set. Put the video game away. Buy a little desk. Or put that child at the kitchen table. Watch them do their homework. If they don’t know how to do it, give ’em help. If you don’t know how to do it, call the teacher.’ He pauses just long enough for the cheers to subside.

‘Make ’em go to bed at a reasonable time! Keep ’em off the streets! Give ’em some breakfast! Come on! Can I get an amen here?’ There’s a chorus of ‘amens’.

‘And since I’m on a roll’, he adds, clearly enjoying the moment, ‘if your child misbehaves in school, don’t cuss out the teacher – you know I’m right about that… do something with your child….’ By this time the audience is on their feet, laughing, cheering and waving their arms. Obama is laughing, too. ‘We’re having too much fun’, he grins. Euphoria reigns.

After so many years of cynicism and passivity when it comes to politics, it’s hard not to be moved by the sight of any group of Americans demonstrating this level of enthusiasm. How long has it been since anyone thought politics might accomplish something for the greater good? It’s all the more compelling because Obama sounds like a man who has listened to teachers and parents. He seems to cut through the usual soundbites and say the sorts of things teachers might want to say to parents, but don’t. He appreciates the efforts parents make on behalf of their children and gives them a pat on the back. We all think we know what makes a good parent, and if all parents did what we do, we could make a difference: parents, teachers and government working together to transform education. It feels so good to be listened to, doesn’t it?

And yet, that’s exactly the problem.

It has been so long since a politician has listened to ordinary Americans, seemingly sharing their concerns in an authentic way, that discussion tends to falter breathlessly at the feel-good factor. But parents and anyone who cares about education should take the extra step of engaging more critically with Obama’s ideas about parenting, education and the relationship between the two. On closer examination, it is Obama’s empathy with parents and the policy proposals that spring from his empathy that will ultimately do the most to undermine efforts to improve education.

Obama has a detailed plan for ‘Lifetime Success through Education’. It covers everything from assessment, curriculum, teacher pay and recruitment to helping students to afford college. Though he emphasises different aspects of his plan with different audiences, he always comes back to the same point he made in Beaumont, the point he continues to make around the country: namely that none of it means anything if parents don’t parent.

His pronouncements on parenting, however, are strikingly banal. Conservative radio host, Rush Limbaugh, called the Beaumont speech a lecture on ‘basic child rearing’. But what Limbaugh and others miss is that Obama is not lecturing to his audience but rather affirming the five most fundamental beliefs about parenting that all Americans share to a greater or lesser extent:

  • TV and video games are bad;
  • Parental involvement is good;
  • You must read to your children;
  • Good food is good parenting;
  • You are responsible for your child’s success or failure in education.

Of course what these actually mean in practice is in the eye of the beholder. For some people, ‘good food’ means breastfeeding; for others it is organic produce. For many parents, it’s simply a home-cooked meal. For African-Americans, concern about parental involvement is about, as Obama styles it, ‘daddies acting like daddies’. For others, it’s about whether mom works or stays home.

However you understand them, everyone – even parents who question the conventional wisdom – take these assumptions as their starting point. It would be a mistake, however, to think these are about what parents actually do in any sort of meaningful way. They are tokens of faith, like a St Christopher medal pinned to the dashboard: a nice thought but not much use when you need to change a tyre or transform the American education system. The problem isn’t so much with beliefs about child rearing per se; it’s more the way that individual parents’ behaviour has become part of the public discussion of education.

The Obama plan for education seems so reasonable on the face of it. Education, he says, is about something more intangible than the dollar amount expended on it. ‘Children in China’, he reminded us in a recent rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ‘attend school in run-down buildings, with outdated text books and no computers’. Yet they do well academically because ‘they are hungry [to learn]’.

Obama’s plans include more money for early childhood care and education, recruiting a new generation of teachers with improved pay and better training. He wants the government to provide up to two thirds of the cost of an undergraduate degree and to increase the numbers of student grants. Perhaps most inspiringly, he talks about the need to ‘instil children with a love of learning’. He wants to make a historic commitment to education so that every child can approach school with a sense of joy and excitement. And who better than parents to inspire a love of learning in their children? But how would this work?

Apparently this isn’t something that can simply be entrusted to parents in the early years. Pre-Kindergarten, Obama believes, isn’t sufficient to ensure that kids will arrive at school ready to learn. ‘Children who don’t come to school knowing their colours, their numbers and their letters never catch up’, he says. His Zero-to-Five Plan calls for more intervention before kids hit school. It will fund everything from prenatal care to nurse visits. He wants to reach ‘at-risk’ parents in the hospital to ‘give them the tools’ to prepare their children for school, things like teaching them to read to their children, to feed them breakfast, to turn off the TV.

To hear him talk, you might get the impression that American parents don’t take education seriously, especially in African-American communities where children lag behind white students in a significant way. But if it were really only about the degree to which parents value education and try to instil that in their children, the most deprived sections of American society would also be the most well-educated.

In fact, all American parents value education and encourage their children to do well in school. There is some evidence to suggest that minority parents take it more seriously than their white counterparts. The fact that drastic inequalities persist suggests that the relationship between what parents do and how their children perform academically is not as straightforward as it seems, and that there are other important factors at play.

The danger of course is that having formally endowed parents with influence they don’t really yield, they will also bear the brunt of criticism if Obama’s education initiatives don’t deliver. But then that’s nothing unusual. As every finger-wagging busybody knows, when it comes time to lay blame for just about anything, parents are the usual suspects.

Ironically, the emphasis on parenting is a barrier to understanding and addressing less obvious aspects of the problem of education in the US. Why, for instance, is education posed as the answer to everything? Why is music education justified as a tool for teaching math? Why is physical education promoted as an aid to help children to focus in class? Why pose education as the cure-all for everything from America’s global decline to its crime rate? If we don’t value education in and of itself, does it have any meaning at all? Can we really expect students truly to love learning for its own sake if society treats it simply as a means to an end?

It’s not that Obama is consciously selling parents a bill of goods. We all tend to discover parental influence in retrospect, and Obama is no exception. For instance, he gives more credit to his mother for preaching the importance of education to him than his childhood in a white, middle-class community or the elite prep school his grandparents arranged for him to attend. His empathy with parents validates their beliefs but doesn’t really address the hard questions about education. Obama says that as president he would reform education not by ‘telling people what they want to hear but what they need to hear’.

Parents should return the favour.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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Topics Politics

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