Parent Reform: The Next Movement in Public Education?

Lebanon sure isn’t Lake Wobegon where, as Garrison Keillor tells it, all the children are above average. Heck, this Lebanon, Pennsylvania school district is apparently so troubled by children, it’s decided to evaluate parents. Or at least that could be the way of things come next fall.

Seems that at a mid-January meeting, Lebanon’s Superintendent of Schools proposed the district evaluate parents based on the level of involvement in their children’s education. Seems, too, the district has had a “Parental Relations Policy” since 1996 outlining standards parents are to meet, indicators of success, timelines, and that sort of thing.

Not since the mid-1600s have educators, or their like, used such righteous purpose as grounds for intruding into homes to judge parental effectiveness. Back then it was the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans who were consumed with carving out a “community on the hill.” As luck will have it, these things come full circle. Now after only 350 years, we’re back to the ever-watchful selectman’s knock on the door. Who would stand against such intrepid commitment?

But there’s a clinker in the clockwork.

Let’s begin by understanding the mindset here. In making her proposal, the district’s superintendent explained, “We want to be able to say, ‘Yes, this parent is fulfilling his or her responsibility by doing the things outlined in the policy,’ or ‘No, he or she isn’t.’”

This is arrogance unrestrained. School districts have no charter to evaluate parents. It is neither their purpose nor their prerogative. Parents send schools the best kids they have. The notion that schools can turn down the thumbscrews and force parents to produce better children is fraught with ethical and legal questions.

Oh sure, some parents—regardless of income—are better at being parents than are others. And if schools could require all moms and dads to give their children four-bedroom Beaver Cleaver-style homes complete with a stay-at-home parent who devotes herself or himself to daily activities designed to support the school’s curricula, well, district test scores might be a good bit higher. But this is not reality for many parents, and, therefore, it is not reality for schools.

And for many teachers the reality is confusion. Superintendents jump from one sure fix to the next, and then they jump to a bigger district. For teachers, the environment is ever-changing and unfocused. Involving teachers in parent evaluations further confuses their purpose and takes teachers far from their principal duty: teaching children.

If we look at the cause behind the cause of what is really a push for parent reform, we might find that this latest educational flight of fancy is an effort to shift blame, divert attention, and disrupt legitimate plans that would bring real accountability to public education. Why accept responsibility for student learning and go to the hard work of leading teachers and principals through the trials and tribulations of education reform when a simple change of focus—and rhetoric—can transfer responsibility to parents? Voilà, life is good again.

One wonders how it is possible for this almost unbelievable ploy to grow from what most surely began as a behind-the-door gripe to become this in-your-face proposal. How is it possible for public schools to take it upon themselves to evaluate parents? This is not only upside down, it’s an assault on a basic premise of public education: educators work for and are responsible to the public (especially to parents), not the other way around.

This assault is possible because public education has no bottom line, and, therefore, there is no basis for real accountability. In this environment, where heaps of money flow automatically into the system and where there is no fear of going out of business and little fear of losing one’s job, people inside the system are free to play politics with each other and with people outside the system. With few restraints and little accountability, sooner or later school district employees come to believe they should tell school boards what to do. Thus, through regulatory capture, school boards’ powers and prerogatives are taken from them by the very people the boards are duty bound to direct, supervise, and hold accountable.

And troubling, indeed, is the unresolved question: What happens to parents who receive low evaluations or, heaven forbid, flunk an evaluation? Perhaps a new scarlet letter is finding its way into American life.

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Dr. G. Gregory Moo, a former teacher, high school principal, and educational administrator of 20 years, is an adjunct scholar with The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit