Lying to parents

“Your son is behind in his math.”  What do these words mean and how are they typically understood by parents?  Of course that varies from classroom to classroom and district to district, but one message seems lost in the translation, “Parent, you need to pitch in here or this situation could have serious consequences in the long run.”

There are several reasons the message is not clear. We must not upset the parents.  Upset parents call our supervisors and show up at board meetings, often demanding the teacher be punished.  If the board does not pay attention to parents, the community is less likely to support the schools.  If the schools are not supported, property values tend to go down, and then the system we have in place to support a healthy community crumbles.  Since virtually all school systems have the potential to self destruct, it is not unreasonable to be discrete when sharing unpleasant news.

Even if the message is clear, parents are often at a loss as to what they can do.  Private tutors that can diagnose and remedy a child who is deemed “behind” can easily run $35-$75 per hour where I live.  Being less than clear meets the obligation of informing the parent while allowing time for the school system to try to support the child through gradual improvement.  Parents often interpret “behind” as just that:  eventually the school will fix it, so no need to worry.  A parent who perceives there is reason to act may start talking to the child more about numbers as they grocery shop or buy a workbook for extra practice. In spite of all that is known about the need for strong math skills in the 21st Century economic culture, though, often little is done develop a structured plan to reinforce math skills outside of the normal classroom.

US Education Secretary Arne Duncan is often quoted for publicly accusing the educational system of lying to parents (Duncan, 2010).  While I would not call it “lying,” it is fair to point out that educational systems strategically avoid self-destruction by the words they use to inform parents whose children are not performing at grade level.  Most notably, high school math courses are tactfully listed in course catalogs such that the next step is clear but the remedial classes are positioned as reasonable options for students who find math less than intuitive.  A district is wise not to include the explanation, “Taking this class instead of the other will set your student another year behind in math and cut their likelihood of success with college math in half.”

Of course the best option for students is to have a plan in place, at each grade level, to support students who are not mastering grade-level content.  One would think that with all the software that has been developed to help students with math, it would be a simple thing to develop such a plan.  However, all that technology needs to first be mastered by the teacher.  The teacher must carefully analyze where the deficiencies occur.  Then time must be found within the day for the student to use the technology.  In some communities, parents will pitch in and set aside time outside of school to use teacher-prescribed tools; but that is usually the exception, rather than the rule.  Within the school day, the same students who need help with math are often behind in their reading, and there is only so much time in the school day for extra help.

Those who truly care that children are not left behind, then, need to talk.  Parents need to ask the question, “What can I do to help?”  Teachers must ask the question, “Are you in a position to ____________ at home?”  Districts need to ask teachers, “What training do you need to make help more accessible to your students?”

There is always room for improvement: teaching, learning, leading, and parenting.  The way to real progress is through positive communication.

Duncan, A (2010, March) Reform, Accountability, and Leading from the Local Level: Secretary Arne Duncan’s Remarks to the National League of Cities’ Congressional City Conference.  US Department of Education. Retrieved from

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