Teacher accountability has been a big theme in the news lately–how to make teachers take ownership of their students’ achievements and work harder to improve test scores. There are a lot of issues branching off from that, but in my current school, one of the main ones I see is that while most critics are quick to point out the faults of teachers, no one is really talking about the ownership that parents, guardians, and families should be taking for student success (or lack thereof).
Obviously, teachers and parents do not have the same role in children’s academic development. Teachers have all chosen to work in our field. We have taken college courses in education, attended workshops, been evaluated and observed, and earn a paycheck for our service. Parents do not always explicitly choose to become parents, and rarely take courses or read many books about parenting prior to starting their work. Furthermore, many parents do not consider being a mom or a dad to be their primary occupation.
Procreating is, arguably, a human right. If consenting adults decide they’re going to have a baby together, there aren’t really any other requirements. No one can stand in your way. Once the baby is born, the standards for keeping custody of it, at least in the US, are usually pretty minimal. Food, water, shelter, clothing, some form of supervision and attention to the child’s safety and medical needs–that’s basically it.
What happens when a child is coming to school from a home where only those very most basic needs are being met? Academically, the results aren’t good. I’ve had students come to school in dirty, stained clothes; with unwashed and unbrushed hair; head lice or bed bugs; falling asleep at their desks because they share a bed with their baby brother who was up crying all night. I have more than one student who has at some point missed at least a month of school straight because their parents chose to take them to their home country while school was in session. Are these things illegal? In most cases, no, but they can all be very detrimental to students’ ability to focus and learn.
Students whose families are financially qualified receive free lunch and breakfast at school. Children (and often the parents as well) get free health care from the state. Although free vision and dental care are also usually available, children who need glasses and dental attention frequently don’t get it because their parents are unwilling or unable to take them to appointments. In an effort to solve these problems, an eye doctor and dentist occasionally visit each school to provide these services for free. Vaccinations are also sometimes given at school. All school supplies are provided for the children and we cannot require them to bring any materials from home.
On the one hand, it makes sense to provide these things for children. They need food, medical care, and supplies in order to learn. The kids should not be punished for their parents’ poverty or inattention to their needs. On the other hand, if a family can’t manage to feed their children, clothe them properly, and provide them with minimal health care–if Medicaid, Food Stamps, welfare, subsidized housing, and other forms of government assistance aren’t enough–should the children remain in that family’s care?
That’s a complicated question, because public schools are, in a sense, a form of government assistance. Since all kids are required to attend school, it makes sense for schools to be places that provide these services to children. However, given the high expectations now being placed on teachers and students alike, I believe it’s time to raise the bar for parents as well. Minimal standards have been deemed unacceptable in schools; they should also be unacceptable in homes.
I’m not saying any child from a less-than-perfect home should be immediately put into foster care, of course–but I am saying that if a child whose family gets food stamps AND free school meals is still coming to school hungry every day, something is wrong and it should be investigated and addressed promptly. If every effort has been made to get the parent to take the child to get glasses so he/she can see the board in class, and after months it still hasn’t happened, we can’t just shrug and say “Too bad the mom is so irresponsible.” To me, these are examples of neglect, and I would support the child being removed from the home in both situations, not as a punishment for the parent but as a natural consequence of failing to care for the child that is their responsibility.
Yet, this is not what is happening. I know of multiple cases where children are remaining in unhealthy or dangerous home environments, despite having been reported and investigated by authorities. This impacts heavily on their schoolwork in ways that even the best teaching cannot realistically overcome. If teachers’ jobs are going to depend on raising their students’ test scores, there must be an element of parental responsibility for their kids’ basic (and not-so-basic but essential for school) needs as well.
How does this work in other countries? What does the government provide for needy families, what do public schools provide, and in what situations (if any) are children removed from the home?