Cell Phone Disconnect

Schools are back in session around the country, and at some, there’s a notable absence: cell phones. Students’ almost-constant phone use has long vexed teachers fighting for kids’ attention. Now, citing studies connecting the use—and even mere presence—of cell phones to diminished performance, administrators have taken a range of approaches to limiting their impact. Some require phones to be turned off and put away; others ban their presence on school grounds altogether.

The French government has prohibited school phone use by students until their mid-teens, allowing high schools to decide whether to adopt the rule after that; restrictions will soon be implemented in Ontario. But in the US, such legislative measures have so far been unsuccessful. Four states—Arizona, Maine, Maryland, and Utah—attempted to enact a school cellphone ban or restrictions in the past year. Legislation failed in them all.

Many parents object to schools’ attempts to ban cell phones, citing fears of being disconnected from their children in the event of a school shooting. In addition to sometimes expressing dissent at the idea of school-wide restrictions, parents can be among the biggest offenders in terms of initiating the distractions teachers complain about.

In a recent column in The Wall Street Journal, Julie Jargon described how parents often text their kids throughout the day—sometimes about urgent matters, but usually not. Most check-ins—questions about how tests went, reminders to drink water, or queries about items needed from Target—are not critical; parents just like to connect. And according to the students in the article, their parents usually expect a quick response.

“My parents tell me the reason I have a phone is so I can text them and call them. You’re supposed to respond to your parents because if you don’t, you’re scared you’ll get in trouble,” Mia Byrd, a 16-year-old from Montgomery, Texas, told Jargon.

If schools want to minimize the distraction of cell phones, it’s vital that they get parents on board—perhaps adding an encouragement to curtail daytime texting to the usual list of back-to-school-night reminders.

In fact, parental buy-in is important in all aspects of school culture. Whatever policies a school tries to implement or character qualities it seeks to instill, the school’s success will be impacted by a student’s family—and adults in every other social setting, from sports to neighborhoods to places of worship.

In the book The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation, James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson call this dynamic “social ecology.” When students receive the same messages from multiple places, this is referred to as “social density.” Research suggests that a strong partnership between all influencers in a child’s life has the potential to form character more powerfully than when they clash. For example, in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau asserts that communication between parents and schools commonly improves student outcomes.

As schools seek to rein in the distraction of cell phones, they will be wise to enlist the help of parents—not only to limit their texting to students during school hours, but to reinforce the schools’ messages about the value of undivided attention.

The Same Page

America’s schools are various and diverse, but one concern seems ubiquitous: ensuring parental backup. At one point or another, most teachers have seen their efforts in the classroom undermined by a student’s home environment. While some educators feel their hands are tied, other schools address the issue squarely.

In a revealing new book, Robert Pondiscio asserts that the achievements of the famed Success Academy schools are nearly impossible to replicate. Pondiscio writes, “What will prevent anyone else from achieving Success Academy’s results is that few other schools—not even the other famous charters—would make such relentless demands on parents.”

At Success Academy schools, parents receive written evaluations of their school policy compliance. They must agree to leave work when there is a problem at school, read with their children daily, and make sure their children adhere to a strict dress code. Many parents, presumably upon learning of the expectations, decide not to send their children once admitted.

But Success Academy is not the only school that requires parental buy-in. Waldorf schools are widely known for their low-tech approach to education, and at Sacramento Waldorf School, the lower-school parent handbook recommends “no media at home through fifth grade and limited access, accompanied by clearly defined family policies and monitoring, for older children, stating ‘none’ is the optimal condition for young children and less is better than more.” Similarly, some Montessori schools ask parents to limit technology at home and provide a nutritious diet that is low in sugar.

In The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation, sociologist David Sikkink notes that at an evangelical Protestant school he studied, parents were challenged to read scripture with their family during the week; they were even offered a discount on tuition if they attended a Christian parenting seminar.

At public schools, parents may not be required to adjust household practices to school paradigms. But they are still asked to sign syllabi, participate in back-to-school nights, stay current on parent portals, and review homework assignments.

In varying ways and to varying degrees, almost all schools encourage parental concurrence with the school’s mission and priorities. The reason behind this is an idea we call “social reinforcement”—the truth that students are shaped best when there is strong overlap among the key adults in their lives.

Just as schools rely on parents to review multiplication facts after they are taught in class, so there must be a united front when it comes to character. The most valiant efforts to teach honesty in the classroom can be undermined by a casual attitude toward lying at home. And when parents model and reinforce a school’s moral messages, the power of those messages is amplified—all the more reason for school leaders and teachers to reach out, in every possible way, to parents.

Scripps Spellers and Social Ecology

On May 30, eight—yes, eight!—cochampions bested the Scripps Spelling Bee in a shared victory of unprecedented size. The competition has seen six two-way ties in past years, but never such a massive stalemate. Among the final words they spelled were “bougainvillea,” “erysipelas,” and “auslaut.”


The kids who win Scripps have a lot going for them, including intellectual curiosity, self-motivation, and great long-term and working-memory skills. But they also have something else: family support.


In a recent New York Times piece, Pawan Dhingra, an Amherst College professor who is writing a book on the growth of extracurricular academics among young children, recounts the following:

I have met with scores of families, attended multiple spelling competitions and visited the homes of competitive spellers. These are happy, energetic, committed children. The notion that they are forced into this by their parents is a myth….I have sat with parents as they quiz their children on German root words, break for lunch, and then continue for hours. Families create their own word lists based on their appraisal of likely words. They purchase word lists. They read through books of nothing but prefixes. They hire coaches.

It’s clear that achieving success in a competition as fierce as the Scripps Spelling Bee would be impossible without parental encouragement and backing. For many participants, there’s a sense of cultural backing as well.


Seven out of eight of the 2019 Scripps winners are Indian Americans; in fact, every winner since 2008 has been of Indian descent. This phenomenon was explored in a Los Angeles Times article by Shalini Shankar, the author of Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s Path to Success and a Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. Noting that the culture itself is invested in competitive spelling, she writes,

Such deep involvement in a language arts activity may seem unusual for an immigrant community known for its prowess in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). But I learned there is community prestige in placing competitively in spelling bees and great familial pride for having participated in something so challenging at a young age.

The South Asian Spelling Bee, a lesser-known contest held throughout the US for South Asian students, is often the first stop for future Scripps Spelling Bee winners. As interest in competitive spelling has grown within their community, Indian Americans have founded a variety of spelling coaching companies. And the appeal of academic competitions extends beyond spelling. Shankar writes,

Since 1993, the nonprofit North South Foundation has enrolled Indian American children in a variety of bees, including spelling, vocabulary, math, and geography. The 92 nationwide chapters were founded through word of mouth with no marketing or publicity—evidence of how this immigrant community shares information and knowledge about academic enrichment activities. More than 16,000 students compete each year.

Not only are these students receiving the message from their teachers that spelling is a worthwhile pursuit; they are also hearing the same (in spades) from their familial and cultural communities. The transmission of the same values from multiple sources compounds their power.


The kind of support that Indian American students enjoy from their parents and community is an example of what scholars James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson call “social ecology.” Hunter and Olson explain this idea in the book The Content of Their Character, a study of character formation in American high schools, concluding that this dynamic has a broad impact on students both as learners and as people. They write,

There is considerable evidence that strong social support contributes crucially, if not decisively, to their academic success in school, whether that support comes from parents and family, youth organizations, or religious communities. The thickness of social ties also bears positively on the formation of a stable self-identity and, by extension, a child’s moral character.

For the Scripps spellers, the impact of their environment appears to have positively shaped their character as well as their spelling prowess. They rooted for one another in the last rounds, giving hugs and high-fives when others spelled their words correctly. Competitors have formed lasting friendships.


In his book The Death of Character, James Davison Hunter writes,

There is a body of evidence that shows that moral education has its most enduring effects on young people when they inhabit a social world that coherently incarnates a moral culture defined by a clear and intelligible understanding of public and private good.

In other words, although children like the Scripps spellers have strong support from home and from within their culture to be good students and good people, the attending encouragement from their teachers and other school leaders is vital. All elements of a “social world” work together as a single moral ecology in shaping character. And even when a family culture is healthy, the impact of a teacher is irreplaceable.