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.