School Reform Starts at Home:
Why and How Parents Should Impact Their Children’s School Experience
James L. Casale, Ph.D.
Three Reasons the Federal Government Should Not Be Intruding in Public Education
It would be easier to saddle up a python and ride off into the sunset than reform government schools.
- According to the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Two obvious questions loom like an ominous rain cloud: 1) Why was the Cabinet-level Department of Education (USDOE) created? 2) Does the United States need two bloated bureaucracies to lead and manage government schools? The answer to the first question was revealed by Jimmy Carter. The answer to the second is no.
Statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reveal that, generally, efforts by the USDOE and state DOEs have made little progress in improving education:
The 2019 average score was lower for reading and not significantly different for mathematics compared to average scores for these subjects in 2015. Over the long term, the national average score for reading was lower compared to the first assessment year (1992), whereas over the long term, the 2019 mathematics score was not significantly different from the score in 2005.
Think of the billions of federal tax dollars spent on education in the past 50 years. It’s better not to think about it.
For strictly political reasons, the USDOE will not be abolished, but less intrusive contributions can assist states in their quest for reform: research and development, block grants, and funding for special programs and projects, like parent academies and Pell grants.
- Politicians have no real talent for assessing educational priorities and leading reform efforts. They rely on key advisors who are influential but usually chosen for political reasons. Few secretaries of education have had a suitable background in public education. With the possible exception of Arne Duncan, the Obama appointee who defied the teachers’ unions, secretaries of education have been complicit in the presidential babble when it comes to reforming schools.
Most presidents tout the standard mantras of the uninformed: every child can learn, education is important, quality schools are needed, competent teachers must be hired, accountability and achievement are critical, standards must be high, and alternatives to government schools need to be provided. Add increased funding, and abracadabra, school improvement is possible. Don’t believe it for a minute.
A brief history from Carter to Biden
President Carter committed the most egregious political act of any president regarding public education. When he bowed to the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union, and established a Cabinet-level Department of Education, he set government schools on an irreversible downward course. Any hope of chipping away obstructionist union power and making gains now lies with the states and parents. Politicians don’t “owe their soul to the company store,” as the song goes. Instead, they owe their soul to the obstructionist teachers’ unions and their millions of members.
Compounding the problem are the billions in federal tax dollars that have been spent to reform public education, which is the purview, according to the United States Constitution, of the states. The greedy states, who are almost always seduced by federal money, are part of the debacle, as is Carter’s predecessor Lyndon Baines Johnson.
LBJ opened the federal coffers by creating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and handing the reigns to the NEA. He, and all succeeding presidents and secretaries of education, ignored one of the most comprehensive documents ever to emerge from Washington, one that had the most critical and valuable reform ideas for public education: the Coleman Report.
The 737-page report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, by researcher James S. Coleman and his colleagues, was a comprehensive document filled with charts, tables, and “head-pounding” analyses of the disparities between black and white students attending government schools and their effects on student achievement. Released in 1966, the report identified families—not schools—as the key drivers of student achievement. John Gardner, LBJ’s secretary of health education and welfare, reminded us, “The smallest school in America is the family.”
Most presidents gave lip service to parental involvement but didn’t have a clue about what to do to encourage parents to be their children’s first teachers and role models.
Reagan’s vision for public education was grandiose but unrealistic and, as with most presidents, flawed and complex. Abolishing the USDOE was a good idea, but even he knew it was an impossible political feat. Why would you want to start your reform movement by angering the powerful behemoth, the teachers’ unions, and their millions of members?
He forged ahead anyway, probably on bad advice, while also ignoring the blockbuster report A Nation at Risk, which Education Week touted as leading to reform efforts. Reagan did emphasize high standards and school choice while also focusing on parental responsibility. He didn’t accomplish much, but he might have planted seeds with his successors, who “saw the light” on the above and some of his other proposals, like school vouchers, education savings accounts, and tuition tax credits.
Even if a president appoints a credible secretary of education, like Bill Bennett, the pollical agenda of his opponents stands like a brick wall against the pebbles he throws at it. Isn’t that one of the reasons the executive branch should not be intruding on the states’ responsibility? Isn’t it just too political at the federal level?
George H. W. Bush
“I want to be the education president,” Bush Sr. declared at a Manchester, New Hampshire, high school. He wasn’t. But unlike his predecessor, he wisely did not offer more strictly regulated federal programs. His America 2000 plan was a strategy to influence the rightful authority in charge of public education, the states. He garnered bipartisan support for alternatives, such as charter schools and school choice, as well as national goals and measuring progress.
Influencing states is a tall order, depending on which political party is in charge. When it comes to education police, there is a distinct difference between states governed by Democrats and those governed by Republicans. The good news is that limiting the federal government’s role would mean less bureaucracy. That is always beneficial for communities and parents trying to change how their children are educated.
Clinton’s agenda was predictable, with national standards, school choice, and charter schools, but it included a proposal that angered the teachers’ unions. How dare you, Mr. President, suggest that teachers should be subject to a standard test before they are certified? That would place teachers in a professional stratum with accountants and lawyers, who undergo rigorous testing before they can claim their entitlement. The NEA sued the administration in court and lost.
There is a national teacher certification, but it is voluntary. It is rigorous, and fewer than one percent of the three million teachers nationwide have attained it. When I was the principal of Purchase School in Harrison, New York, several of my teachers volunteered for national certification and passed with flying colors. This was no surprise to me since they were among the best teachers on my staff.
Standardized tests are no guarantee that every test taker is eminently qualified and will perform at a high level, but rigorous testing could eliminate those who should be in another profession. The teaching profession is rife with incompetence, which outstanding teachers and the unions know but never talk about. I will talk about this in Chapter Three.
Clinton did get a few things right, but neither he nor his advisors were creative enough to figure out how to approach parental involvement. “Learning begins in the first days of life,” and, “We should start teaching our children before they start school,” he correctly proclaimed. Actually, research supports the notion that learning begins in the womb.
The overall results of Clinton’s agenda were also predictable: more tax dollars were misspent on proposals that expanded federal authority and bureaucracy but did not shine a light on how to best reform government schools.
George W. Bush
Nothing is inherently wrong with a presidential agenda that proposes standards and benchmarks, high expectations, accountability, school choice, and charter schools. But Bush’s proposals, namely the No Child Left Behind Act, were too complicated and intrusive, and they placed student testing on a level that revealed ignorance, naivete, and bad advice. His secretary of education, Rod Paige, had impeccable credentials in public education. Did he approve of all these layers of testing without protesting? I’ll never know. What I do know is that doing what the boss wants may trump everything else.
The Announcement of Education Bill sent to congress on January 3, 2001, declared that “the agents of reform must be schools and school districts, not bureaucracies.” Excuse me, Mr. President. You are leading the largest bureaucracy, which routinely interferes in school reform. States and school districts are also bureaucracies, but they are officially charged with policy making. The union bureaucracy is the other stumbling block to reform. Agents of reform should be parents, but no president has figured this out or knows what to do.
Bush’s policies, despite some early spikes in test scores, angered teachers and lacked public confidence. Though out of office in 2010, his brother Jeb, governor of Florida, pursued the rigorous testing scheme while also deciding to grade schools as A, B, C, D, or F. This was a huge mistake.
Barak Hussein Obama
I respected Obama’s choice for secretary of education. Arne Duncan had public school credentials, and more importantly, he had the courage of his convictions, which resulted in angering the obstructionist unions, as I described earlier. But he also had the unfortunate task of managing Obama’s Race to the Top (RTT).
RTT was Obama’s attempt to distance himself from NCLB and fashion his own brand of nonsense. Billions of federal tax dollars poured into public education with no measurable results other than waking up those states that had been asleep at the wheel when it came to standards, student achievement, accountability, and building data systems to measure student progress and inform teachers and principals how education could be improved.
But even Obama managed to annoy the unions. Gee, what a surprise. His proposal to rate teachers and principals based on test results was not what the unions had in mind. On this issue, I agree with the unions. Rating teachers on test results demonstrates total ignorance of what teachers are confronted with on a daily basis.
Few, if any, of the federal and state policymakers ever stood in front of a class of 25–30 government school students with a variety of backgrounds and experiences, different needs and learning styles, or dysfunctional homes in lawless neighborhoods. If they had, they would have known that rating a teacher on test results is a non-starter to school reform.
Donald J. Trump
I should have apologized earlier if much of this sounds redundant. Trump also supported school choice alternatives, charter schools, and vouchers, as if these “abracadabra” ideas were magic potions that would increase student achievement and result in a better education for all children. Some of the alternatives to government schools are effective, but not all. This will be explained in Chapter 4. But If parents want to raise a child to become a lifelong learner, a person of character, and an upstanding citizen of the United States of America, they need to look no further than their home.
I supported Betsy Devos, but Diane Ravitch was right when she said Michelle Rhee was a better choice. I followed Rhee’s attempts to reform the Washington, DC, government schools. She was brave and smart, but she got beaten down by the union and later the politicians governing that city. Change is unacceptable to teachers’ unions unless it comes from them, and politicians are politicians.
Some of Trump’s proposals, like making higher education more accountable, make sense, but moving colleges and universities to do anything is like relocating Mount Rushmore. If parents want better schools, they need to make a poster of John Gardner’s quote, frame it, and hang it where everybody can see it. I also suggest that parents create a poster of their beliefs, values, and expectations and hang it in a conspicuous place for all to see. Keep it brief. I call it a family mission statement. More about this in Part Two. Stay tuned.
Other Trump proposals, like banning the teaching of critical race theory, are being adopted by states. And to foster patriotic education, the 1776 Commission should be promoted by all states.
Between the pandemic and the Ukraine War, President Biden’s education agenda has taken a back seat. But what we have gotten from this president is more of the same talking points that any liberal Democrat would spew. He supports teaching CRT, caters to the unionists, and is willing to spend, spend, and spend tax dollars while not knowing how to repair public education and reform government schools.
- 3. Parenting is not quantum physics, brain surgery, or completing a marathon: It’s more complex and enduring.
The real reformers of government schools are the parents who accept their solemn responsibility as their children’s first teachers and role models. Parents should not rely on federal and state governments or local school boards to do their bidding. Actively participating in your child’s education does not mean doing their homework or attending PTA meetings. It does mean creating a learning culture at home that values lifelong learning and raising children to become men and women of character while closely monitoring their school experience.
I do think there is hope to improve public education by loosening the tight reins held by federal and state governments and the chokehold of teachers’ unions. Parents can impact policy, but they shouldn’t wait for atrocities to happen, as they did in Parkland, Florida, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
Currently, parents around the country are protesting against school boards that adopt controversial textbooks, allow controversial books to remain in school libraries, and think that teaching critical race theory and gender identification is acceptable. They have been labeled domestic terrorists by the current secretary of education, who also called for an investigation.
The bad news is that too many parents are naïve, apathetic, and ignorant. I recommend using tax dollars that target parent education. Let’s inform, encourage, and inspire parents to fully participate in their children’s education by offering ideas on how to create a learning culture at home. For starters, establish some version of parent academies in each school district or regularly conduct seminars and workshops that focus on how to create a learning culture at home. In real estate, the focus is on location, location, location. At home, the focus for parents is to model, model, model beliefs and expectations.
My version of parent academies or workshops would not require parents to mimic professional teachers, but to learn the strategies that create learning environments. Parenting is difficult enough, especially for working parents, single parents, and blended families. The five strategies needed for a positive parenting experience include but are not limited to:
- Learning how to accept your responsibilities and remain positive.
- Stating, posting, and modeling your beliefs and values.
- Developing a written plan.
- Learning some basic leadership skills.
- Evaluating your performance.
Parent academies and regularly scheduled seminars and workshops will reap more benefits than all the proposals announced by government officials, including school boards. I also suggest paying parents to attend. The hard part will be to construct an appropriate curriculum and find enough talent to staff these institutions.
Dr. Casale is a state and national award-winning educator and the author of three parenting books. He is currently working on his fourth parenting book, is available as a speaker, and blogs on his website, www.theparentsolutions.com. He has two children and six grandchildren.