Character Matters: How to Help Our Children: Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues
By Thomas E. Lickona, Ph.D.
Parent involvement is the leading indicator of school success. Parents' income level and educational background, the research finds, are less important for student success than parental interest and encouragement. And when schools and parents present a united front concerning character matters-respect for rules and authority, responsibility toward homework, honesty on tests and term papers, and sportsmanship at athletic events-students get a clear and consistent message and are more likely to take it seriously.
Yet in many communities across America, the essential alliance between home and school has eroded. Says the principal of an Oakland, California, middle school:
We had a parent calling this week to complain that her child's grade on a Spanish assignment was lowered because she didn't put a heading on the paper. The Spanish teacher had explained the requirement, but no matter. We have a lot of kids who are very good at getting their parents to believe that the teacher was mean or unfair. The problem we have with these parents is that they don't see their task as supporting the school.
In being aggressive advocates for their children, such parents seem not to realize that their constant interventions are likely to hurt rather than help their children-by leading them to be manipulative, less respectful of all authority, and unwilling to take responsibility for their actions.
Schools, for their part, also often act in ways that damage the home-school partnership. When the school fails to set high standards for learning and conduct and allows the children entrusted to it to get away with shoddy work and bad behavior, it damages the partnership. When a student is the victim of peer cruelty and the school does nothing to respond to a parent's complaints, it damages the partnership. When the school conveys a "We're the experts'' attitude about sex education and fails to take seriously parental objections concerning material that violates a family's moral or religious beliefs, it damages the partnership.
Fortunately, a great many schools, especially those committed to character education, are making an effort to build a strong home-school partnership. Such schools reach out to parents in a spirit of humility, asking, "What can the school do to help us work together to provide the best possible education for your child? How can we improve?" In such partnerships, the school and parents promote a shared set of expectations concerning children's learning and behavior. Let's look at twenty ways schools and families are working together to help young people grow in knowledge and virtue.
1. Affirm the Family as the
Primary Character Educator
The first step is for the school to be very clear about how it sees the complementary responsibilities of home and school regarding character development. Those responsibilities can be expressed in two simple statements:
1. The family is the first and most important influence on a child's character.
2. The school's job is to reinforce the positive character values (work ethic, respect, responsibility, honesty, etc.) being taught at home.
The reality, of course, is often otherwise: Many parents today aren't fulfilling their primary role in character formation. Regardless of the reality, however, the school should set forth-and work toward-the home-school relationship as it should be: The family lays down the foundation, and the school builds on that base.
2. Expect Parents to Participate
One way to increase parent involvement is simply to expect it.
Under its new principal, Vera White, Jefferson Junior High in Washington, D.C., dramatically raised its expectations of parents, 90 percent of whom are single parents, by asking each to give at least twenty hours a year in volunteer service to the school. The great majority met or exceeded that expectation. In the mid-nineties, Hilltop Elementary School in Lynnwood, Washington, began to ask each of its families to volunteer in a classroom for two hours a week. Seventy-five percent now do.
In Eugene, Oregon, at the Kennedy Middle School, winner of a 1999 National School of Character award, there are now so many parent volunteers that one parent serves almost full-time as the volunteer coordinator. Principal Kay Mehas describes parent involvement:
I have been an elementary and a middle school principal. During the first week of school, I tell my parents you need to be more involved in middle school than you were in elementary school. Students are figuring out where they fit in society. When they see you at school, it sends them a mes sage about your priorities. We also encourage parents to drop in and eat lunch with their students whenever they can. For example, one father arranged his work schedule so he could eat lunch here every Thursday.
3. Provide Incentives for
Along with raising expectations, some schools have provided incentives to motivate parental participation. New York City schools, for example, found that participation in parent-teacher conferences improved dramatically after a policy was instituted whereby only parents who came to a conference could receive their child's report card.
Scheduling parent conferences sooner in the school year provides another incentive for parents to come. Many schools now hold the first parent conference sometime in September rather than in October or November. Instead of "Here's how your child is doing this year (well in this subject, not so well in that)," the agenda becomes "What goals would you like your child to work on this year? How can we work together to make that happen?" Many schools also involve students in this early conference in order to help them take responsibility for goal setting.