Last week, I heard a teacher comment that one of her students came to kindergarten unable to identify the color red.
"Didn't anyone at home ever say to this child, 'Look at the red fire engine'?" she asked.
While the importance of teachers cannot be underestimated, parents play an absolutely crucial role in students' educational success. No amount of education reform can replace the chemistry of teachers and parents working together.
Discussing this critical cooperation recently, a colleague pointed out the challenges faced by single parents and parents working multiple jobs. While a reasonable concern, the response of my team leader, a revered educator who was raised in a financially strapped household in the South by his hard-working single mother, was swift. "Parents always make sure their children have a meal on the table," he said. "They need to make education as much of a priority, because education is what is going to feed their children in the future."
Without parents who respect teachers and work diligently with them, high academic achievement for all children will remain out of reach for our public schools. Yet how can teachers expect the esteem and cooperation of parents when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been quoted as saying Connecticut has "huge achievement gaps that we don't want to sweep under the rug"? When the country's top education official suggests foul play, it is no wonder that some believe quantitative data is necessary to prove that teachers are doing their jobs.
It disturbs me that policy-makers with no experience in public school teaching are advancing their political agendas by blaming teachers for the failures of public education, and, as a result of their mandates, students are paying the price. Teachers are not creating the problems. As another of my colleagues says, "It's like going to the dentist with a toothache and blaming the dentist for your cavity."
Current discussions about education are centered on the performance of teachers and the need to quantify student learning to prove progress is being made. Little regard is being given to other factors that deserve significant consideration in assessing the state of our public schools.
What do students need for real learning to occur?
Without question, they require skilled teachers, those who not only know how to deliver curriculum but who inspire students to be inquisitive and persevering. Schools must have reasonable-size classes, giving teachers time to know each student personally. Students learn best from teachers they trust: ones who make a point of knowing what makes them tick, ones who convince students that praise and penalties are both signs that a teacher cares.
Our children, no matter what their age, need to believe that teachers see them as something more than data on a spreadsheet.
Learning, however, is not the sole purview of schools. Children also need parents who make education a priority. If closing the achievement gap is a primary goal of education reform, then all parents — busy as they are — must strive to participate in their children's education.
Parents must insist that children do schoolwork and homework to the best of their ability and issue real consequences when that does not happen. They must demand that children follow school rules and the instructions of teachers and administrators, without excusing bad behavior and disrespect. And now, more than ever, they must do everything they can to support school personnel, recognizing that teachers and administrators are professionals who know what they are doing and who share parents' belief that children deserve the best.
Parents intent on raising high-achieving children find the energy to be educational leaders in their homes. They read to young children and ensure that students of all ages spend time with books, not just electronic games. They require children to memorize multiplication tables, insist that homework be done carefully and spend time helping students organize school materials.
Educators are trying to provide solutions, but computerized testing of already struggling students and an atmosphere of teacher mistrust are not the answers. With true involvement and unwavering support of parents, confidence of government officials and guidance from talented administrators, teachers can put public schools on the right track.
And that's what's best for children.
Elizabeth A. Natale of Glastonbury teaches English and language arts at Sedgwick Middle School in West Hartford.Copyright © 2015, CT Now