Over the years, I’ve been a big admirer of Rochelle Riley’s columns in the Detroit Free Press:
Last Friday, she had a particularly valuable piece concerning the Detroit Parent Network, which is developing parent resource centers and connecting parents with those who teach their children. “The result is that a third more parents attended parent-teacher conferences and parent meetings in (Detroit Public Schools) schools last year than the year before,” she concluded.
Riley quotes Network President Sharlonda Buckman: “There is a huge academic focus in terms of making sure we help parents understand what their children should be learning.” Detroit Parent Network, with 20 employees, volunteers and parent leaders, works with some 25,000 parents across Metro Detroit each year. The effort is funded in large part by a $1.2 million grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.
I’ve always been puzzled why much of the debate over schools has focused on teachers -- good or bad -- while tending to ignore the culture of a given school building and, equally or more important, the impact of parents and families on the learning success of children. Concentrating exclusively on teachers seems to be a perfect case of figuring out who to blame, rather than working to see how to fix the problem.
Research over the past 40 years has conclusively documented the positive impact increased family engagement has on educational outcomes. Students whose families -- parents, grandparents, guardians or other adults -- are involved in their education are “more likely to earn better grades and test scores, pass their classes, attend school regularly, have improved social skills, graduate from high school and move on to a postsecondary education,” according to the Education Issue Guide prepared by the Center for Michigan.
The Center has just kicked off a new public engagement campaign aimed at better understanding how best to improve student learning in our schools. Targeting some 5,000 Michiganders in community conversations and polling, it’s aimed at reaching out to the customers of the schools industry -- students, parents and employers -- rather than the specific interest groups that tend to dominate discussions about schools.
The Center’s guide suggests new approaches to family engagement, including hosting workshops to teach parents and caregivers the skills they need to support learning at home and involving families more directly in school improvement efforts.
That’s exactly what the Detroit Parent Network is working on in our largest and most troubled district. Something seems to be paying off; their survey found more than nine out of ten schools now have parent organizations. A year ago, it was only two-thirds.
Frankly, this should have happened long ago. Today’s kids spend around 70 percent of their waking time outside school,. It only makes sense to broaden the education focus to the family home.
Gov. Rick Snyder said in last week’s State of the State speech he wants to invest more money in Michigan schools in the coming year, explaining he wants to “invest more, not just spend more” by concentrating on “best practices” and measurable results. More detail is forthcoming when Snyder presents his 2012-13 budget to the Legislature on Feb. 9.
Much of the Lansing discussion of best practices so far has centered on sharing and consolidating services (particularly overhead and backroom work) between separate school districts. And some legislators have been mulling the idea that rapidly rising pension costs for local schools could be offset by directing increased state spending into retirement accounts, rather than the per-pupil foundation grant. So far, so good.
Another way to get a bigger bang for the buck is for the state to either invest directly, or encourage third party investment, in outfits like the Detroit Parent Network. With so many urban school districts in either educational or financial crisis -- or both -- concentrating on the family engagement side of improving student learning seems to target money where it can get a high payoff without running the risk of simply running up costs.
As Gov. Snyder keeps saying, thinking outside the box is important. If we confine our thinking solely to what goes on within the box of the classroom, we’re missing an obvious boat. The newly formed Office of Great Start, which concentrates on programs helping youngest children, shouldn’t miss this perfect opportunity to weigh in with the boss in advance of his budget and education messages.
Editor's note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan's dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power's own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.