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Educating the family

Poverty, undereducation and disconnectedness to society beget exactly those same things — a problem that has stymied policymakers since the advent of public education, which was supposed to be the solution. Four centuries of publicly funded schools in America have taught us, definitively, that education is much more than schooling.

All receive schooling, but in large part, those of the educated class get educated and those not of the educated class do not. In the absence of a well-educated, well-socialized parent, how do we expect any different of the child? Left-wingers think governments and school systems can do the job. Right-wingers think only those families with what it takes to do it on their own deserve an excellent education and inclusion into the upper echelons of society. The logical mind predicts a superior answer somewhere in-between.

"Parent University" is a superior answer, courtesy of some logical minds in the academic and educational fields. It is parent engagement taken to the next level, focused primarily on developing parents' ability to "engage" effectively. One school leader is pioneering this concept here in the Baltimore area.

Kathryn Kubic, principal of Northeast High School in Anne Arundel County, launched her "Parent University" this year at freshman orientation with a class for parents entitled "The Power of Effective Parenting." After the presentation, she informed the parents that they would receive "credit" for each course, event or volunteering opportunity that they attend at the school. The idea is, in the words of the program's mission statement, "to increase a child's success in their progression toward a post-secondary opportunity by engaging parents in activities that support their child's school program."

Ms. Kubic adapted her presentation from the groundbreaking work of Jelani Mandara, associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, who presented at a conference Ms. Kubic attended at Harvard University this summer.

A delineation of the same handful of parenting styles (neglectful, permissive, authoritarian, authoritative and strict authoritative) and their predictable effects on children have been widely accepted for some time, with only the authoritative type being consistently effective. However, there has been a common suspicion that these styles and their corresponding effects, as we understand them, are unique to white families (who have made up the vast majority of the study subjects) and not necessarily the families of different ethnic/racial groups. Mr. Mandara's study of approximately 5,000 adolescents, however, discovered the same five parenting types and in his words, "the profiles and effects of parenting type were consistent for African, European, and Hispanic Americans."

We have known for years, backed up by much data over decades of study, the type of parenting that produces the highest-achieving children. Now, we know that this understanding holds true for children universally, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

Using Mr. Mandara's work, Ms. Kubic produced a sort of parenting-style polar chart showing a full 360-degree view of the four interrelated primary-parenting styles, and the optimal mix of characteristics (parenting style tendencies) that produces the most effective, authoritative style and the highest-achieving students. For this initial course, each parent in attendance received one Parent University credit. Parents with 10 or more credits will be awarded a diploma at a banquet held at the end of every year.

The Parent University concept is being implemented on a large scale by Boston Public Schools and the School District of Philadelphia. Although I applaud the gumption of these school systems, I fear that a great deal of the potential value is lost in the sheer scale of these systemwide implementations, with operations based out of only a few facilities or even one large one. Such a framework assumes that only a small fraction of parents will take part. Ms. Kubic's example of the principal taking personal and direct charge of the development of the foot soldiers who will help secure the educational environment of her school is a superior model. It employs a more intimate contact with the parent pool, which should drastically improve turnout and which will foster important parent-administration relationships.

Nothing less than a cultural retooling — a near-wholesale cultural retraining — is the solution to America's educational crisis. And, it seems, there are minds among us, in academia and education, that are up to the challenge. There are educators and academics like Kathryn Kubic and Jelani Mandara, right now, who are doing the work and showing the way.

Let's hope that Baltimore has similarly competent and dynamic school leaders to pick up this mantle and bring this work to the city. Let's hope that our parents care enough to wake up and actively take part.

Scott Carroll, a writer and former math teacher, lives in Mount Vernon. His email is hetep1@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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