Looking in the Mirror

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Thank you for that gracious introduction President DeGioia—and thanks to Parenting magazine for sponsoring not only this special event but for honoring the critical importance of parental involvement in our nation's schools.

Let me start with a quick story from President Obama. Last fall, the President was in South Korea, where he had lunch with the South Korean president, President Lee. President Obama was aware that South Korea's economy has expanded rapidly in recent decades. So he asked President Lee, "What is the biggest education challenge you have?"

Without hesitating, President Lee responded: "The biggest challenge I have is that my parents are too demanding."

Now, when President Obama tells that story, he often gets some chuckles. But I think President Lee's comment is a revealing one. He was not exaggerating. South Korea has had to import thousands of foreign language teachers–because all parents, even if they are dirt poor, insist that their children have to start learning English in elementary school if they are to be successful.

I think we all recognize why that story makes Americans chuckle–and perhaps even wince a bit. We cannot say that our biggest educational challenge is an insistent demand from all parents for excellence in the schools. The challenge facing South Korea is one, quite frankly, I would love to have here.

Yet I think that everyone would also agree that Americans strongly believe that good parenting and family involvement in schools are essential if children are going to flourish and fulfill their dreams. The extraordinary accomplishments of the mothers in this Mom Congress are testament to that belief.

So there is a paradox when we talk about family engagement in schools, and it is this: Americans celebrate good parenting and family involvement, yet they feel that all too often parents ignore their responsibilities.

To borrow a metaphor from the educational consultant Rick DuFour, parents and educators have been looking out the window, rather than in the mirror. Inadequate parental engagement is seen as a problem for other people's children–and not our own.

The debate over parental involvement reminds me of a story that Warren Buffett likes to tell about a man who is new to town. This stranger walks into the town square, where he sees a man sitting on a stoop reading a newspaper, next to a mean-looking German shepherd.

The newcomer asks the man: "Does your dog bite?" The man replies, "No."

So the newcomer reaches down to pet the German shepherd–only to have to dog lunge at him and tear the sleeve of his coat to shreds.

"I thought you said your dog doesn't bite!" he says. The man on the stoop looks up from his newspaper and says: "I did. THIS is not my dog."

I'm here to say today that we have to stop treating the issue of family engagement as if it was not our dog.

One of the best-known survey findings in the field of education is that parents think well of the school that their child attends. But they believe, at the same time, that public schools in general are not as good as they should be.

The same split vision of education is evident when Americans are asked about parenting and family engagement at school. Overwhelming majorities of parents say that their parenting skills are solid and that they are actively involved in their child's education and school. But they are also convinced that other parents are falling down on the job. Other parents, they believe, help out too little with homework, fail to discipline their children, or leave their children alone too much after school.

This cognitive dissonance has troubled education reformers of both political parties for years because it breeds an insidious paralysis in civic life. Most parents think their own schools and family engagement is fine, fostering complacency about challenges close to home. But the challenges at other schools often seem too distant or overwhelming to tackle.

Lamar Alexander, my good friend and predecessor in the first Bush administration, once lamented that this "I'm OK-You're Not" syndrome was "the overwhelming obstacle to everything we are trying to do. Too many [people] say…'Schools are bad, but my school is good. Sorry to hear about [the low] math [scores on national tests] but my Johnnie is doing fine'."

As Rick DuFour points out, when educators and parents look in the mirror, they are forced to develop a "can-do" list of actions for how they themselves can improve schools and better support children.

When they look out the window toward others, they produce an "if only" approach to reform–one where children can be helped if only others would take action to become better parents, teachers, or school leaders.

The fact is that almost every parent, regardless of their race, class, or zip code, wants what is right for their children. But how do parents figure out if their school is doing a good job of educating their children? I am a big believer in looking at data to track what is going on. But the acid test for me is personal.

Good schools engage not only parents but the surrounding community. When I was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, you could walk into a school and in five minutes figure out what was going on and get a sense of the school culture.

I have an eight year-old daughter and a six year-old son. And if I walk into a school and it feels good enough for my children, then I think it's a good school. If it's not good enough for my children, then it's a school that needs some work. In education, for far too long, we have created schools that are good enough for somebody else's children but not our own. And so this has to be personal. If it's not, we will simply perpetuate the status quo.

As President Obama points out, all of the innovative educational programs and expanded opportunities that the Administration is providing "will not, in and of themselves, make a difference if each of us, as parents and as community leaders, fail to do our part by encouraging excellence in our children."

I learned about family engagement in schools firsthand at my parents' feet. In 1961, several years before I was born, a neighborhood pastor on the South Side of Chicago asked my mother to teach summer Bible study to a group of nine-year-old girls. The group had only one Bible, and my mother figured everyone could read a few sentences and then pass the Bible to the next girl. My mother was horrified when she discovered that not one of her students could read.

She decided to do something about that—and opened a free, after-school tutoring program in June of 1961. A half century ago, after-school tutoring programs were not the norm in Chicago. In fact, my mother couldn't get any school to let her set up shop because Chicago schools shut down at 2:30 in the afternoon. So she opened her after-school program in a church basement in a poor neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. And we stayed in one church basement or another for the next 40 years.

From the time we were born, my brother, my sister, and I all went to my mother's after-school program every day. When we were little, the older students tutored the younger kids, and as we grew up, we tutored the younger students. Her philosophy was that everyone should be both teaching and being taught at the same time. After we were done with our studies and chores, we played basketball together. Everyone knew our program was a safe haven where kids were nurtured, respected, and taught right from wrong.

From the corner of 46th and Greenwood, some remarkable success stories emerged. The teenager who tutored my group when we were growing up, Kerrie Holley, today is an IBM engineer who was named one of the 50 most important black research scientists in the nation. Another student became a brain surgeon. Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dreams in Hollywood, where he starred in "The Green Mile." Ron Raglin eventually helped me manage the Chicago Public Schools.

In those church basements I learned that a high-quality tutoring program can be a good thing. But a high-quality tutoring program run by caring adults is a great thing. It can literally help transform lives.

Parents will always be a child's first and most important teacher. And parenting is the most important job that every parent takes on. No other activity in our lives carries the same degree of responsibility or influence.

But educating a child also takes caring and talented principals, teachers, and guidance counselors. It takes non-profits that provide opportunities for recreation; it takes government agencies that provide health care and counseling; it takes mentors from the community and the churches who teach children the virtues of art, science, community service, leadership, and self-discipline. And yes, it takes high-quality after-school and early childhood programs.

Now, with the exception of my brother, my sister, and I, all the students in my mother's tutoring program were African-American. Despite the challenges they faced growing up in a violent neighborhood, my fellow students in the tutoring program just wanted a chance to succeed. To see the extraordinary potential that every child has, no matter where they come from—that is what I learned from my mother's work–and that is what drives me today. We cannot let any child fall through the cracks, regardless of what is happening in their homes, regardless of the obstacles they face to becoming successful. Poverty is not destiny.

My vision for family engagement is ambitious. As I said earlier, I want President Lee's problem. I want to have too many parents demanding excellence in their schools. I want all parents to be real partners in education with their children's teachers, from cradle to career. In this partnership, students and parents should feel connected–and teachers should feel supported.

Parents can serve in at least one of three roles: Partners in learning, advocates and advisors who push for better schools, and decision-makers who choose the best educational options for their children.

When parents demand change and better options for their children, they become the real accountability backstop for the educational system. Parents have more choices today than ever before, from virtual schools to charters to career academies. And our schools need empowered parents.

We need parents to speak out and drive change in chronically-underperforming schools where children receive an inferior education. With parental support, those struggling schools need to be turned around now—not tomorrow, because children get only one chance at an education.

Sometimes it can be hard for parents to envision a better future—but not always. In fact, we have extraordinary parent leaders all over the country. I met one on Friday in Texas, Marina Mendoza, who refused to accept excuses for her kids or her school.

She demanded that the school turn around–and do whatever it takes to give her kids the education they need and deserve. Just two years ago, through pain, and hardship, and difficult change, that school did turn around. Today, that school is a model of reform that every school can learn from. And Ms. Mendoza is a hero who shows us all what the power of parents really means. That's the power we need to harness, if we are going to transform public education in America.

Now, parent engagement is a two-way street. Parents, in part, disengage because schools sometimes fail to welcome their input, making parents feel intimidated about speaking up. Often, parents come in to school only when there is a problem—rather than touching base regularly to see how students are progressing.

A good parent and family engagement program removes obstacles that parents face–and encourages them to be good role models for their children.

In communities where adults need better literacy and language skills, more schools should be running family literacy programs where adult education classes take place afterhours–with transportation and child care provided so students can study at school, too. For families where no one has attended college, I want middle school and high school teachers and principals providing guidance about the courses and instruction children need to be college-ready. Families should be visiting college campuses starting in middle school.

The nature of parental involvement in schools has changed since I was a kid. More parents today are single parents–and fewer families have stay-at-home moms. Parents are sometimes working two, even three, jobs to try to make ends meet, or desperately looking for a new job to support their family after getting laid off. It is tough out there today.

I was fortunate to grow up in a family with two well-educated parents who read to us each night. But not all parents grew up in middle class families where they acquired information along the way about how to support student learning.

Schools should be places that honor and respect families, that meet parents on their own terms—even if it means teachers giving out their cell phone numbers to field questions at night and calling back the single mom who missed her parent-teacher conference because she was at work. Unfortunately, that mutual support and engagement is still missing from too many schools.

School efforts to curb childhood obesity are just as spotty. As First Lady Michelle Obama has said about childhood obesity, "our kids didn't do this to themselves." She points out that "our kids don't decide what's served in the school cafeteria or whether there's time for gym class or recess. Our kids don't choose to make food products with tons of sugar and sodium in supersized portions–and then have those products marketed to them everywhere they turn."

We have a long way to go before all schools support student learning and healthy growth. But parents aren't off the hook here either in this partnership between schools and families.

President Obama often urges parents to turn off the TV and shut off the Xbox. But many parents think that warnings about the impact of heavy electronic media use really aren't for them but rather for other parents. I couldn't disagree more.

Earlier this year, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study that showed the problem of heavy media use and lax supervision is far more pervasive than many people imagine. The study's findings almost defy belief: The average tween and teen today spends nearly 12 hours a day using media. The figure is even higher for Black and Hispanic teenagers–and includes almost six hours of television every single day. By contrast, teens spend about 25 minutes a day reading a book.

One of my predecessors, Richard Riley, once said that the "eight magic words [from children] that can solve all of our education problems are: 'Shut off the TV—I'm trying to read." As you know, we don't often hear those magic words–and the days where families shared food and lessons learned at the dinner table are fading fast as well. Two out of three young people say they usually eat dinner with the television on during the meal.

This oversaturation of electronic media has been matched, step for step, by overly permissive parenting. Only about a third of the parents in the Kaiser study reported setting any rules on how much time their adolescents can spend watching TV, playing video games, and using their computer.

Children can naturally rebel against the limits parents set, whether it's removing sweets from the dinner table or insisting that children finish their schoolwork before playing video games. But it's a time-honored fact that the job of parents is to parent—to lovingly give a child direction and to set reasonable limits. Too many adults are abdicating that role.

Now, the promise of new media is still real, and potentially transformative. Children can play educational games, take online courses, research online, and watch educational TV programming. They can make connections online or through chat groups to explore interests and other cultures. They can learn to socialize, communicate, and write through social networking sites.

But it is fair to say that the hopes of new media proponents have only been partly realized, and that heavy electronic media use often impedes student learning. In the Kaiser study, students who made heavy use of electronic media were more likely to do poorly at school, spent less time reading books, and got into more trouble.

I'll admit that I was not raised in the vanguard of the technological revolution–quite the opposite. I grew up without a TV in the house. When other kids were tuning in the Chicago Bulls, we read books. My friends thought it was crazy that we didn't have a TV.

Today, three-fourths of junior high and high school students not only have a TV in their bedroom, but a profile on a social networking site. I may be a pop culture dinosaur but I am not naïve. We are never going to put the electronic genie back in the bottle. Nor should we try.

Yet parents can do a better job of setting limits on children's use of electronic media–and work toward using it more creatively to support student learning. There are extraordinary examples of using technology to better engage children in their own learning.

Thankfully, more and more parents are concluding that media oversaturation, and addiction, are real problems for their children. These are not just modern-day afflictions that affect other families. It is time for all of us to look in the mirror, not out the window. And that absolutely includes the Department of Education.

For 45 years, ever since the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government has required or encouraged states, districts, and schools, especially those with large numbers of low-income students, to promote parental involvement in children's education. Parental involvement, for example, has been a cornerstone of Head Start. Yet the department has done a mediocre job of supporting parental engagement. We have been too concerned with monitoring for compliance–and not concerned enough with improving student learning and boosting meaningful family engagement.

Part of the problem has been the parade of parental involvement policies in the last half-century. At various times, Congress and the department have promoted parent advisory council meetings, volunteering in school, school-parent compacts, and helping children learn at home. Yet these and other policies have rarely been shown to move the needle on student achievement.

It is well-documented–and plain common sense–that parental involvement in a child's education boosts student learning and improves both behavior and attendance. We know that children with parents who are engaged in their education are less likely to drop out.

There is surprisingly little research, however, to show what works and doesn't work in family engagement programs to accelerate student learning. Yet there are many promising programs across the country. In Springdale, Arkansas, the National Council for Family Literacy is funding a family literacy program, primarily for Latino and immigrants parents in eight schools. Parents spend two hours a week in class with their child learning model literacy practices for use at home. The reading scores of both children and their parents have risen significantly as a result.

In Chicago, the Comer School Development Program has boosted reading and math test scores, using parent involvement as a core tenet. Other cities like New York and Boston, as well as states like Florida, are empowering parents with information about their child's school and education as never before.

New York is holding monthly Parent Academies on Saturday for parents. They provide childcare, easy bus and subway access–and translation services in an array of languages, including Haitian Creole, Urdu, and American Sign Language. With the benefits of data transparency, parents in Florida can determine not only if graduates of their local high school are going on to colleges and jobs, but how their college and job market performance compares to that of other high schools in the state.

Our blueprint to reauthorize ESEA supports family engagement in a host of ways. It enhances information and transparency in school report cards about academic performance and school climate for parents. It empowers families with additional high-quality school options. It supports programs that actually ask families how they feel about their child's school and educational experience–giving parents a real voice and opportunity to engage.

It increases the number of schools that serve as community centers. And it provides more than $200 million for Promise Neighborhoods, which will have excellent schools at their center and comprehensive social services, from cradle to career. As the PTA thoughtfully recommended, our proposal allows family engagement to be included as one measure of success in teacher and principal evaluations. And it would define professional development of teachers and school leaders to include working with families.

Finally, we're putting even more resources into this important set of activities because we need to do more–and we need to do it better. So today, based on feedback we received about the blueprint, we propose to double funding for parent engagement– from one to two percent of Title I dollars–or a total of $270 million.

At the same time, in order to drive innovation – we will allow states to use another one percent of Title I dollars – about $145 million — for grant programs that support, incentivize, and help expand district-level, evidence-based parental involvement practices. We want districts to think big about family engagement–to propose new strategies and hone in on best practices that raise student achievement.

We will allow our Parent Information and Resource Centers to compete for these funds, along with districts, community-based organizations and other non-profits. In tight budget times, we must justify every dollar and insure that it is serving our students.

The truth is, we don't have all the answers yet about how states, districts, and schools can effectively support family engagement. But I am so struck by the extraordinary success stories of the delegates to the Mom Congress. It is not just that so many of these moms serve on school boards, volunteer regularly in their schools, and work as Parent Information Coordinators.

Seated behind me is the future. On this stage are moms who crafted programs to train teachers to work with special needs students. We have moms who created textbooks for kindergarteners and detailed curricula for community service. We have a pediatric dentist who developed a program to improve literacy for boys by providing strong male role models who enjoy reading. We have nutrition educators who are helping to get junk food out of school lunches and vending machines. We have mothers who run summer programs that provide arts education and academic enrichment.

So today, I want to honor all the incredible, strong women here, Ms. Mendoza in Texas, and my own mother–who, 49 years later, is still running her after-school program. All of you have shown, through your commitment, your courage, and your insight, that we can multiply your power many times over. We can build our capacity and knowledge to help parents enable every child to learn and live to their full potential.

Thank you for your vision, thank you for your hard work, and thank you for the example that you set for all of us. As a nation, we must educate our way to a better economy. And collectively, you are helping lead our country where we need to go.