"I agree that parental involvement is the key," reader Neil Harrison wrote in response to a recent column. "But involvement in what?"
It's a terrific question, and I've seen it answered in dozens of ways. For some teachers (and principals) parental involvement means showing up to paint classrooms, clean playgrounds or run booths at fundraising fairs. For others it means reinforcing discipline. For many it means little more than showing up on "parent night" to hear teachers talk about goals and tests and "behaviors," but without reference to particular children.
Seldom does it mean what Harrison describes as involvement in their children. And yet, as he understands, that may be the only sort of involvement that matters very much.
It's a point David Seeley, an education professor at City University of New York, has been pounding for nearly 20 years.
"It's the most important thing there is, when it comes to our schools _ and the hardest one to explain," Seeley said in a phone interview the other day. "Everybody talks about parental involvement, but I'm convinced that the schools' bureaucratic system militates against parental involvement of any serious kind. Teachers see themselves as the responsible professionals, with their specialized knowledge of pedagogy, brain research, new and improved curricula and all that stuff that only the trained experts know. So where is the role of the parent _ other than to just get out of the way?
"And none of that is going to change until teachers come to understand that they are not going to have the success they crave unless they make parents real partners. Because parents are the ones who transform their interest in their children's well-being into the kinds of behavior that makes them successful learners."
Seeley recognizes that he's in danger of slipping into cliches, when he's almost desperate to be heard and understood. He reaches for help in the writings of business guru Peter Senge of MIT on "systems thinking," abandons Senge, then . . .
"What we need is a learning community," he tries again. "I mean a team of responsible adults, including parents and others, who keep working toward the same goal, who are willing to learn how to cooperate and work together and catch kids who are falling behind. . . ."
Strangely enough, I think I do understand him. Maybe it's because he seems to be headed toward an approach I've long advocated. Or maybe it's because I'm still impressed by something I heard him say 16 years ago: "If a student wants to learn, and is competently taught, the results are virtually bound to be successful, regardless of almost any other factors."
The "competently taught" part is what we keep straining for in our new emphasis on training, testing and certification of teachers. But "wants to learn" may be the more important piece of the Seeley formulation. Children who want to learn _ who come to value learning, who delight in discovery and who believe themselves almost infinitely capable of acquiring new knowledge _ are a delight to teach. And parents may be the teacher's greatest ally in creating and reinforcing that love of learning.
Teachers may say they believe all their students are capable of learning. Parents actually believe it _ at least until the schools certify that they're not.
But there's more to Seeley's "learning community" than a rapprochement between parent and teacher.
What seems so clear to me (perhaps clearer because no one else seems to believe it) is that we are unlikely to make much progress in public education until we come to schools as just a part of a vastly bigger enterprise: the raising of the next generation, in effect the perpetuation of ourselves.
We are wasting time and valuable energy in partisan squabbles over vouchers and suspension rates and SAT gaps when we ought to understand that we adults are failing our children (and therefore ourselves) on a number of fronts. Poor children are less likely to do well in school, of course. We see that. But increasingly, children rich and poor are also less likely to be invested in the future we yearn for and, therefore, less interested in the values we espouse. They are more violent, less hopeful, less happy _ at least in part because they know they are less likely to be at the center of our concerns. Our responses _ expulsions, isolation, trial as adults _ suggest they are right.
What we need, it seems to me, is to commit ourselves to catching a generation of children who are falling behind _ rich kids and poor, city and suburban, black, white, yellow and brown.
Do I really think that would improve public education? Yes _ and a great deal more.
William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist.
Washington Post Writers Group