Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Parent-Teacher Learning Gap

Heh. Here's a news flash: Many parents and teachers don't see eye-to-eye on a variety of issues:
From discipline to standardized tests to the quality of high schools, parents and teachers disagree on basic aspects of education, an AP-AOL Learning Services Poll finds.

They come together, though, on the need to hire and keep good teachers.

Parents and teachers literally see children differently. The setting at home is often not at all like the one at school, where kids hang out in groups and social pressures climb.

In the poll, for example, less than half of parents say student discipline is a serious concern at school.

Teachers scoff at that. Two in three of them call children's misbehavior a major problem.

Over 14 years of teaching, Carol-Sue Nix has watched discipline problems trickle down from the fifth grade to pre-kindergarten. A parent-teacher conference usually follows.

"Some parents will work with us. If you talk to them, you see a change in the child," said Nix, who teaches second grade in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And the rest of the parents? "They say, 'We'll deal with it,"' Nix laments, "and nothing changes."

Jeff Gillette, a retired respiratory therapist with two children in school, wouldn't mind if teachers had more power to take charge of unruly students.

"When I went to school, they could actually paddle you or put you in detention," recalled Gillette, 50, of Phoenix, Arizona. "Teachers can't do that anymore. It's a loss of control."

The survey also found:

73 percent of teachers say they know more than their students about learning tools available on the Internet. On this topic, 57 of parents say they know more than their kids.

71 percent of teachers say class work and homework is the best way to measure academic success; 63 percent of parents say the same. A minority of both groups favored test scores.

79 percent of teachers say high schools do a good job, if not better, in preparing students for college. A smaller but still strong majority of parents, 67 percent, agree.

On testing, the poll found teachers are much more likely than parents to say standardized exams get too much emphasis. Yet most parents and teachers agree testing has weakened the ability of educators to give individual attention to students.

Dottie Hungerford is one of those parents.

"I don't see where the testing is going to come in handy for 90 percent of students down the line," said Hungerford, a truck loader from Syracuse, New York. "For science-minded kids taking English tests, I don't think they care where the period goes when you are up in space."

Speaking of English, teachers cite it as the one subject students should study more in school. Parents disagree, but not by much. They put English second, behind math.

Overlapping roles:

What troubles Jason Cleveland, a 34-year-old teacher in East Troy, Wisconsin, are the students who show no interest in learning. "How do you motivate somebody like that?" Cleveland said. "They are kids who, for whatever reasons, don't see a connection for themselves."

This is where things can get sticky, as parenting and teaching overlap.

In the poll, 43 percent of parents say low expectations of students is a serious problem; 54 percent of teachers say the same, including almost two in three teachers in high school.

So who sets the expectations?

Parents look to teachers to challenge and reward their kids. Teachers look to parents to instill manners, respect and motivation. Sounds like a natural partnership. Not always.

"I hear these parents saying, 'Well, my children aren't doing very well, so you must not be a very good teacher,"' said Mike Randall, 48, who teaches abstinence-based health courses in Montgomery County, Indiana. "Wrong. Sorry. It's more like, 'If your child would follow the curriculum, open the book and apply himself, you would see how good this could all be."'

In Columbus, Georgia, custodian Billy Hicks still thinks about the teacher who didn't get along with his 16-year-old son. "The teacher is there to teach and help the child," he said, "not show animosity toward an individual student."

Even grading can be grating.

A total of 46 percent of teachers say a parent or student has asked them to change a grade even if it wasn't deserved. It happened about eight years ago to Steven Weisman, who teaches social studies in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.

He sent a note home about one boy's struggling grades. When the student eventually failed, the parents asked Weisman to change the grade. Turns out the boy had intercepted the warning sent home, which got him in double trouble. Now Weisman makes parents sign a receipt.

Teachers can take heart in knowing that parents do, ultimately, appreciate their value.

The poll asked about overcrowding, discipline, low expectations of students, violence and gangs, poor building conditions, availability of sports facilities. Yet the problem that ranked highest for parents and teachers was getting and keeping good teachers.

The AP-AOL Learning Services Poll of 1,085 parents and 810 teachers of children in kindergarten through 12th grade was conducted online January 13-23 by Knowledge Networks after respondents were initially contacted by using traditional telephone polling. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for parents, 3.5 points for teachers.
As a classroom teacher, I've always found it interesting how many times I've noted that parents are all for having "strict discipline" in public schools. That is, they're all for strict discipline until it involves their child. Then, it seems, many parents indicate that there's some sort of special circumstance that explains their child's violation of the disciplinary guidelines and that their kid should be exempted from the prescibed consequence.
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