05/23/2011 03:02 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2011

Move Over Teachers: It's Time to Blame the Parents

It's been a tough few days for education reform. Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, we've ascended to new heights of desperation.

Flying home from Kenyon College, from which my daughter just received her B.A., with Martha Nussbaum's remarks about pluralism, democracy and the value of a rigorous liberal arts education fresh in my mind, I was brought abruptly down to earth by Michael Bloomberg's latest riposte, in response to a lawsuit challenging the closure of 22 poorly performing schools. "Unfortunately, there are some parents who just come from -- they never had a formal education and they don't understand the value of education," he remarked on his weekly WOR radio report. What's more, he evoked -- and declared dead -- "the old Norman Rockwell family," implying that its culture and values were alien to the poor, immigrant families of color, who rely on the schools he intends to close.

While our mayor was busy alienating his multicultural, diverse and angry constituency of NYC families, in the tradition of his departed chancellor, Cathie Black, parenting pundit Lisa Belkin offered a glimpse at a new, national trend of "legislating parenting." Belkin highlights the evolution from the "accepted truth" of "teacher knows best" -- from that mythical time, presumably, of those Norman Rockwell families -- to today's prevailing attitude that teachers are the root of the problem. Her research has revealed a number of bills, introduced across the country that, among other things, fine, or bring charges against parents for their childrens' recurrent absences. And an interview with a Republican Florida state representative turned up a piece of legislation requiring that parents' grades for involvement be posted on their kids' report cards.

Don't we have enough scapegoats? And isn't it time we focused on engaging, rather than alienating parents?

Family involvement is a sine qua non of children's development and school success. As the Harvard Family Research Project points out in Beyond Random Acts: Family, School, and Community Engagement as an Integral Part of Education Reform, nearly half a century of research confirms the positive impact of family engagement on readiness, academic achievement and graduation rates. Long on the margins of education reform, family, school and community engagement has recently gained traction as a viable strategy for school turnaround efforts and promotion of systems change writ large. The framework is based on a foundation of shared responsibility, including an intentional flow of information about child development and learning as well as positive parenting practices (playing with children, book reading, conversations about occupational aspirations); family involvement with schools, which means attendance at parent-teacher conferences, communication with teachers and volunteering; parent participation in school leadership and governance; and advocacy, in the form of collective organizing and mobilization, which places parents right where they should be: at the heart of education reform.

As usual, the road from advocacy to policy-making is filled with potholes. On May 17, fellow blogger Valerie Strauss, at the Washington Post, did a helpful, little inventory of cuts to education. Forty-three programs are on the Republican chopping block, among them those that take a two-generation educational approach (yes, that's parents and children): the Even Start Family Literacy Program, which received $66.5 million in fiscal years 2008, 2009 and 2010, was not funded in the final 2011 budget agreement, and was consolidated in the President's 2012 budget request, as well as Parental Information and Resource Centers, which received $38.9 million in fiscal year 2008 and $39.3 million in both fiscal years 2009 and 2010, but was not funded in the final 2011 budget agreement, remains consolidated in the President's 2012 request, and -- take note -- has been deemed duplicative of ESEA Title I parental engagement activities. You can't have too much of a good thing, can you?

Fortunately, enlightenment prevails on some corners of the Hill. Concurrent with Republican collective axe-wielding, Senator Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, introduced The Promise Neighborhoods Act, authorizing five-year renewable grants for partnerships between schools and communities to provide, among other things, prenatal education and support for expecting parents, high-quality early care and education and meaningful family engagement and support.

Five hundred organizations -- a nice cross section of the village that it takes to raise a child -- have signed on to support Harkin's proposed legislation. The elders must be smiling. Including Edward Zigler, psychology professor emeritus at Yale, former U.S. Child Bureau Chief and architect of Head Start. Undermining parents, whom Zigler calls "the most significant lever of human development" is a zero-sum game. And punitive measures, like fines and legal action, just won't change the score.