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Randy Shumway: Schools should expect more of students, parents

Published: Tuesday, May 10 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In recent months, as I have discussed public education and proposed changes to improve student learning, I have neglected a critically related topic: the roles and responsibilities of students and parents.

The truth is that the best classroom innovation is not enough. We will never truly improve public education to the degree necessary if we don't effectively address student and parental accountability.

Three decades of research consistently demonstrate the correlation of parental involvement with important outcomes such as higher grades, test scores, graduation rates and enrollment in higher education, as well as improved student attendance and behavior.

Debates in education reform often plant excuses in the socioeconomic status of low-performing students, but parent participation in education is twice as predictive of student achievement as is socioeconomic status. This fact alone necessitates that we better leverage parent involvement as a tool for improving student outcomes.

Educators accurately claim that mandating parental involvement proves difficult. And kicking students out of school is a disservice to society at large; we all benefit from an educated populace.

But difficulty in requiring accountability doesn't mean the education community should lower its standards. My experience is that the teachers and parents who expect greatness out of their students, and out of themselves, often achieve it.

Many schools have improved student learning through a combination of four seemingly simple but critically important ideas.

1. Beginning in kindergarten, teachers remind parents and students repeatedly of the school's goal: for every student to ultimately achieve a college education. And, just as frequently, teachers reinforce the inordinate social and economic benefits of higher education. As early as 5 years old, students start visualizing themselves as college educated, believing they can achieve it and knowing that it is worth it.

2. Schools give parents incentives to participate in school activities that train them to implement best practices for student learning in their homes. The schools partner with local businesses to offer practical benefits, such as gift cards to local retailers, as incentives to economically struggling families.

3. No longer are once-yearly parent-teacher conferences an acceptable means through which public education cultivates effective parental involvement.

With minimal investment, the state can equip parents with online resources that outline measurable learning milestones that students in each grade-level should achieve; provide student assessments that can be administered at home; and provide learning activities parents can use with their children to support attainment of established milestones.

Achievement gains are greatest when parent involvement is directly linked to student learning. While these online milestones and resources will not be a panacea, they will further equip those parents who desire to be more engaged.

4. Teachers have the right to expect more of students — at every age.

My business partner is one of the brightest and most capable individuals I've ever known. With a Harvard PhD, few would accuse him of underachievement.

But he gets teary-eyed when he speaks of a teacher many years ago that gave him a C on a paper (he had never achieved less than an A on anything). When he objected to the teacher, the instructor refused to acquiesce. Instead, he spent an hour, one-on-one, teaching this student not only how to write better, but the value of effective written communication. This teacher's high standards for my colleague quite literally changed his life.

I've witnessed many teachers work magic because they had high expectations of their students. Not all students are willing in those circumstances to rise to the occasion. But often, many are.

Simply put, public education must do a better job of expecting the most from students and parents and then empowering both to achieve at higher levels.

Randy Shumway is the chief executive officer of the Cicero Group.

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