Friday, January 02, 2009

Arne Duncan on Making the Parents Care

By David Nather, CQ Staff

A bit of congressional testimony from earlier this year provides an interesting window into how Arne Duncan, President-elect Barack Obama ’s choice to be the next Education secretary, might provide a counterpoint to Obama’s thinking on how much of the schools’ success is up to the parents.

Obama has been vocal about his belief that parents need to take more responsibility for making sure their kids take school seriously. “No education policy can replace a parent who makes sure a child gets to school on time or helps with homework, and attends those parent-teacher conferences,” Obama said at today’s press conference announcing the Duncan selection. “No government program can turn off the TV or put away the video games and read to a child at night.”

In testimony at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing in July about urban education, however, Duncan — currently the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools — said policymakers are often too quick to blame the parents and that they should be focusing instead on finding ways to encourage the parents to get more involved in their kids’ education.

“I think so often it’s very easy to — to criticize parents and say they’re not engaged enough or that’s part of the problem,” Duncan said. When he directed a program that tried to improve inner-city education, Duncan said he found most of the parents actually were “extraordinarily interested in their children’s education.”

The real problem, he said, was that “historically we’ve had a culture in which, frankly, parents weren’t invited in. They were supposed to drop their children at the school door, you know, come pick them up at the end of the day, maybe come a couple of times a year for report card pick-up, but they were really kept outside, and what we’re trying to do is dramatically change that culture.”

One way to do that, Duncan said, is through the “community schools” Chicago has created, which offer classes not just for the kids, but for the parents as well — including computer classes, GED classes and family literacy courses. “The more we open our doors, the more we get a mindset in which parents are welcome and needed, I think we can reach the vast majority of parents,” Duncan said.

It’s a subtle point, and one that focuses on one of the factors that is hardest to address in national education policy. But even if Obama just intends to use the bully pulpit to appeal to parents’ sense of responsibility, Duncan’s influence might convince him to round out his message.

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