The Problem with "Failing Schools"
Most states define “failing schools” as those with a certain percentage of students scoring below grade level on state tests. In other words, a failing school is a school with a large percentage of failing students. However, since no politician would define the problem as “failing children,” the debate centers around “who is failing these students and why is that failure concentrated in certain schools?”
Contrary to the political focus on teachers and their unions, according to a recent Associated Press-Stanford University poll, 68 percent of adults believe that parents deserve blame for problems in the education system, while only 35 percent blamed teachers. The picture below mimics the polls results by suggesting that we have paid too little attention to parents. While parenting may be a popular answer for poor educational performance, even drained of its moral implications, sociological research finds this trope too individualistic and ultimately too simple.
Still, no one doubts that parenting matters for educational outcomes. Children spend the vast majority of their waking hours outside of school where parents are responsible for their well-being. Children from different socio-economic backgrounds begin school with different levels of educational readiness. In addition, public schools narrow the gap between rich and poor students only to see that gap expand in the summer. The question then is not whether parenting matters but how and why it matters.
As Annette Lareau (2003) found in her observational study Unequal Childhoods, middle class parents practice a form of parenting she calls “concerted cultivation,” while working class parents practice what she terms “natural growth”. Concerted cultivation, characterized by adult-coordinated activities, adult intervention on behalf of children, and a resulting “sense of entitlement” on the part of children is linked to better educational outcomes than “natural growth” which allows for more unstructured activity, less adult intervention on behalf of children, and a resulting “sense of constraint” among children. In other words, parenting styles impart varying forms of cultural capital, which like economic capital (e.g. money), increase opportunities for children.
This research might leave some with the impression that there are good parents and bad parents, with the latter concentrated in the lower classes. Parents matter because the cultural capital they pass onto their children matters. However, culture is not freely chosen but instead conditioned, if not determined, by the structural positions of parents. While individual morality and individual choices may explain why one similarly situated child does better than another child, culture simply cannot explain the social patterns that give rise to “failing schools”.
A recent article by Val Gillies entitled Childrearing, Class and the New Politics of Parenting looked at attempts to focus on parenting in the United Kingdom. Rather than propping up what the cartoon above suggests is the third pillar of education, Gillies (2008) found that childrearing prescriptions “are detached from the lives and values of those they are directed at.” Policymakers have attempted to artificially import middle class cultural values into the homes of people without the “middle class economic, cultural and social resources” (1087) that make middle class culture effective and practical. While a detached focus on teachers or principles is flawed, adding a detached focus on parenting seems likely only to further push public attention away from the poverty and racial isolation that most failing schools face.
Perhaps our public debate would be better served if instead of arguing about whether teachers, principals or parents deserve blame for education problems we asked if equal educational outcomes are realistic in a society of growing inequality. Are social networks that facilitate the flow of cultural capital to currently disadvantaged parents and students possible without broader economic change? Could schools build connections between education professionals and low-income parents (who are unlikely to be neighbors, friends, and relatives of such professionals)? In other words, can we alter the structural position of poor and working-class parents without challenging the overall structure of the capitalist system?