What Obama's 'Era of Responsibility' could mean for education

For an education watcher, the most striking parts of President Barack Obama's sober, yet stirring, inaugural address weren't the oblique references to our schools (which "fail too many" and will be "transformed" to "meet the demands of a new age"). Rather, it was his old-fashioned call for us to usher in "a new era of responsibility--a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly." That's because, in this Age of Accountability, too many of us in the education policy world have been loath to talk about "responsibility," particularly "parental responsibility." It's high time that we did. 

"A parent's willingness to nurture a child...decides our fate," Obama said this week. In his big education speech last May, and on the campaign trail, he was more explicit: "There is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child's education from day one. There is no substitute for a parent who will make sure their children are in school on time and help them with their homework after dinner and attend those parent-teacher conferences...And I have no doubt that we will still be talking about these problems in the next century if we do not have parents who are willing to turn off the TV once in awhile and put away the video games and read to their child."

It's hard to imagine anyone disagreeing with these sentiments, particularly coming from the most famous (and powerful) father in the world. Yet they challenge the most important unsaid assumption held by policy wonks of all persuasions: that many parents, especially poor parents, will be irresponsible in the raising of their children--and that there's not much that the government can do about it.

That assumption isn't entirely crazy. There are plenty of parents falling down on the job, and there are also lots of reasons to be cynical about past efforts to get the government--especially the federal government--involved in this territory. For instance, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has long required Title I schools to put in place "parental involvement plans"; but does anyone think that mandate is actually leading to greater parental engagement? In a land of liberty, how does society impact what happens inside the home? The truth is that it's bloody hard to do.

And then there are less defensible reasons that many of us avoid the parent issue, related to what President Obama might call "worn-out dogmas." On the left, it's considered uncouth to talk about "bad parents" (versus those that are merely "disadvantaged"), since it's akin to "blaming the victim" and dismissing "institutional racism" and the like. Meanwhile, the right--particularly the libertarian right--tends to see parents as mere "consumers" in the "education marketplace"--and beyond reproach or government interference in whatever choices and decisions they make for their kids, however foolish. And for reformers of all stripes, it's risky to discuss parental irresponsibility lest it appear that you believe that schools may thereby be let off the hook. President Obama might call that a "false choice."

So we all avoid talking about parents and instead debate how to compensate for their failures. On the one side are those who think that schools alone will have to do the job via benign paternalism (see David Whitman's recent book), and on the other are those who believe that schools plus social service agencies are the answer (see the Broader/Bolder manifesto).

But maybe it's time to challenge the assumption that there's nothing policymakers can do to encourage, cajole, or enable parents to play their own roles better. Perhaps we'll never reach "100 percent parental responsibility," just like we'll never reach "100 percent proficiency" in reading and math. But maybe, just maybe, we could do dramatically better than we are today in getting parents to show up for their job as their child's first and most important teacher. 

If KIPP schools can get ten thousand parents to sign contracts promising to be full partners in the learning process, why not launch a national effort to get 100 million parents to do the same? Call it a "responsibility covenant," and let pastors, rabbis, imams, community leaders, and others join the president--and teachers and principals--in asking parents to sign. Put Bill Cosby in charge.

Or why not hold "parent responsibility summits" that highlight innovative ways that schools and community groups are making parents feel like welcome partners in the learning process? Or ask for contributions of desks, lamps, and computers to create conducive learning-and-homework environments in poor homes? Or expand the Harlem Children's Zone's "Baby College" program (that instructs new parents on how to nurture their young children) to sites nationwide, and provide refreshers for parents of elementary, middle, and high school students, too? 

To be sure, "responsibility" isn't just for parents. All of us in the education enterprise have to "take responsibility" for our piece of the puzzle. (Even we think tankers and other researchers, who have a duty to wield data responsibly, not to be blinded by ideology but to be willing to change our minds depending on the facts.) Educators have a duty to get good results in student achievement, but also to do it responsibly, without "shortcuts" (another Obama term) and without violating, again in Obama's words, the "values upon which our success depends: honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism." Read that list again and ponder the stories of schools narrowing the curriculum, getting rid of everything but reading and math, squeezing out history and civics, forcing children to suffer through weeks of test prep--and telling weak students to stay home on test day. A "New Era of Responsibility" would put an end to all of that.

"Accountability" remains an important concept in American education reform, and Obama himself uses it frequently. Adults that fall short, particularly those employed by the education system, should be held accountable. But that term connotes blame and recrimination. "Responsibility," meanwhile, connotes honor and an appreciation for our duties to one another. Obama has urged us to grow up, to "set aside childish things." Perhaps it's time for school reform to grow up too, moving from accountability alone to a new partnership of accountability and responsibility. These twin ideas--or consider them two parents if you like--might be exactly what we need in order to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." Are you ready?

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