Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Closing the Parenting Gap

Update 7/20/2012: I was made aware of a great PBS Frontline story about a middle school implementing a program with parallels to the concept I talk about below. (Imagine how much more powerful their counselors would be if they could follow a child all the way through their education from K to 12).

Closing the Parenting Gap: Closing the Achievement Gap With A Focus on Its Single-most Important Factor -- Parents

Summary: Diligent, Active Parents = High Test Scores

Here in Los Altos our school district is the top-ranked in California. When educators, politicians and philanthropists talk about the "achievement gap", most would agree that our District and others like it are the other side of it. We could be considered, in a sense, the goal of education reform: to lift up lower-ranking schools to the level of our top-scoring schools.

So what makes our schools here tick? Why does the Los Altos School District perform so much better than Districts only a few miles away?

I submit that the one factor that is greater than any other is parents.

Many education experts agree and the data proves this out as well. You might even surmise that if one of the schools in a District like ours were magically "flipped" with a low-performing school then the high test scores would follow the kids and the parents of the high-performing school and not the school programs, the teachers, the facilities, and all of the other things overtly purchased by our tax dollars.

My conclusion, then, is that our tax dollars should affect the things which produce better outcomes--but this means we need to figure out how we can foster (and/or simulate) the great parenting found in top-ranking schools and bring those benefits to less advantaged areas.

The Affluent Parent Index

We've all heard of "API scores", and this article on API scores says it all: the richer the area, the higher the schools score in standardized tests. Hence the quip, "the Affluent Parent Index" when describing API scores.

Mere "affluence" is probably not the end of it: we also enjoy a deep commitment to education here in Los Altos and I suspect that is true for other high-scoring areas. Our area is very fortunate, yes, but for the most part our citizens didn't gain their relative affluence by having a great singing voice or looking suave in front of the camera: we're high-tech people and we owe it all to education. So yes, we even outperform other wealthy areas handily.

In broad terms, however, affluence is a pretty good indicator of educational outcomes including standardized test scores. So the bad news, it seems, is that better educational outcomes seem to be a matter money.

This conclusion certainly flies in the face of the "snake oil" remedies offered by the many "education reform" advocates and politicians: just blame everything on "bad teachers" and pay them a lot less money, less benefits, and offer less job security. Doing this, say these reformers, conveniently kills two birds with one stone: we drastically reduce spending on education (lower taxes!) and we increase positive educational outcomes. It sounds too good to be true and it is: the results of Charter schools across the country are mixed at best.

What are the financial results? As for saving money, while it's still too early to tell, firing lots of experienced teachers and replacing them with less experience teachers is inevitably going to save money (in the short run anyhow). The question is, for who?

As privatization is a key part of this "reform", the money we save by hiring less experienced teachers will simply flow directly to corporate profits, not the taxpayers in the form of lower taxes. Private companies are very crafty at lobbying the government for more money--often far more so than public employee unions.

As for educational outcomes, that's a mixed bag as well, and it's tainted by the creaming problem. Today so much of the "education reform" discussion is taken up by the Charter School approach, and charters naturally gravitate toward parents with higher "API" scores--so teasing apart the actual benefits of the Charter model is nearly impossible.

Real education reform that is not snake-oil is going to require investment--an unpopular assessment of the situation because nobody likes government spending when it means taxes either being raised (or not being lowered). Nobody wants to hear this, but most see the downside of our country falling behind in education--so in come the snake-oil salesmen to allow people to think they can have their cake and eat it too.

Since they are newer enterprises, Charter Schools will gather younger teachers who tend to be less expensive, and Charters do not have the overhead any organization that's been around for a long would have e.g. pensions and older employees. So the shift to charters can create a temporary financial windfall for the system. The keyword is temporary. Longer-term Charter schools have no structural advantage over public schools yet spend taxpayer dollars without public oversight. This will only lead to a "crony capitalism" system of corruption and will not lower costs.

Blaming teachers, unions, and school programs is pointless compared to the enormous difference parental affluence makes. Simulating the benefits of affluence--making parents better and/or investing in state-provided surrogates--will operate on the largest factor in the equation and thus will have the most leverage.

The Details: What Are "Affluent" Parents Actually Doing?

The first order of business of improving education, then, is to observe what parents at high-ranking schools actually do. What exactly then is it about richer, more diligent, more involved parents that makes educational outcomes better and those of less advantaged parents? I bet if we get very specific about this, we might learn a thing or two about really closing the achievement gap. 

So our central question is: what do higher API parents do that lower API parents don't do? I've personally observed three major factors, which I'll talk about here, but I'd love to hear more suggestions:
  • Management -- Parents can provide a "layer of management" for teachers that brings them to parity with other professions in terms of oversight.
  • Judgement -- Parents can provide the human judgement necessary to make decisions that tests, rules and guidelines cannot make--or often make very badly.
  • Encouragement -- Parents can provide the encouragement (in various forms) to children to help them succeed.


Here I'm indebted to a commenter to an article written by Bill Gates in the New York Times on high-stakes testing. In this article Mr. Gates was talking about firing teachers based on high-stakes testing. In the article Mr. Gates implied that you don't treat people this way if you want excellence--and you don't.

One commenter for that article said (and I paraphrase from memory since I cannot find the exact link) that Mr. Gates could not compare the level of people management at a company like Microsoft to that of a typical public school teacher who is mostly isolated in a classroom all day with only children (not adults) to judge his or her performance. It is not, the commenter said, like a typical engineer or manager or other professional at Microsoft or any other corporate environment. In just about any sort of profession you are constantly interacting with (and thus being implicitly or explicitly evaluated by) adults in the form of co-workers, customers, partners, and so on.

Yes, teachers are evaluated in many ways, even to some extent by students themselves as they get older. Yes, they are occasionally "visited" by the school principle (who has, on average dozens of teachers under their purview, as opposed to a typical professional team in a corporate environment maxing out at ten or so), but that interaction is sporadic at best.

Many private schools--having vastly more resources--have two teachers per classroom, which certainly goes a long to close the "management gap" between teachers and other professions. Clearly this is not realistic for resource-constrained public schools (or is it?).

How do top-ranked school districts solve the problem? One way is parental involvement in the classroom. At any given time, our schools in our District have dozens of parents on campus and interacting with teachers.

Beyond classroom hours, parents in our area are very apt to take a very active role in a teacher's activities for a given day. Parents ask questions and actively "meddle" in what is going on in the classroom even if they are not there themselves. They put pressure on teachers to be accountable for what they did, and parents are better informed as well, making them better equipped to judge.

Management, as any good manager knows, is about knowing what's going on. Not only does it allow the manager to make the right decisions, it instills an implied accountability on the managed one. A "feeling of being watched" if you will. Teachers in schools with heavy parental participation know that parents are "present" and are ready and able to make informed decisions on their performance. The great thing is that this input only needs to be voluntary to work. Parents don't need actual "hire/fire power" over teachers, they just need to have an informed presence to be effective.


Any teacher or experienced parent will tell you that the whenever a "situation" crops up with a child, the assessment and the subsequent required action is "contextual". The proper response depends on the situation.

If a child is not doing his homework, is it because he is lazy? Is the subject material too easy or boring? Does he not have time? Are there other problems at home? Does he not understand the material, and if so which of the several possibilities is causing that?

Take also conflicts between students: whose fault is it? Again, a context--which can only be gleaned from a consistent and detailed interaction of the student--is necessary to make a valid judgement and thus select the proper course of action.

In short, there's simply no substitute for time, and time means labor--labor from not just from one parent, but the aggregate of the time given by a number of parents (which brings up an interesting aside to research: I suspect that just one advantaged parent in a sea of disadvantaged ones will not achieve the sorts of gains you see when high-API parents are put in one place--here again you can see the compound effects of creaming).

Deep parental involvement helps judgement, which drastically increases the quality of education by keeping the inevitable number of small issues, small.


This is the most "obvious" difference between high-scoring and lower-scoring parents, but it's nonetheless critical. I won't spend a lot of time on this subject other than to say that the exact nature of this encouragement could certainly be the subject of a lengthy study unto itself.

There are many forms of encouragement, including and especially about a value system that shows kids that education--being "smart" or "educated"--is more important that being strong, or being able to play sports well, or being beautiful, being "tough", and so on.

The Surrogate School Parent

Many kids in the USA are lucky enough to have great parents who take an active role in their education. Many of these great parents aren't even necessarily wealthy and are often far from it--but it's a lot easier to be "supermom" (or dad) when you have more money, time and education.

With that I'd like to add the following to the conversation about school reform: the Surrogate School Parent. This would be a taxpayer-funded individual who would simulate the effects of the great parents we see in high-ranking school districts. I'd submit that such a program would actually be best served out of the Federal government as it should necessarily be independent from local and state policy--just like a real parent. I suggest we assign an SSP to children identified as low-performing for whatever reason, and assign SSPs to low-performing schools in order to turn them around.

I'd suggest we drop expensive Federal programs like NCLB and RTTT and use that money to fund an army of SSPs.

Now, clearly the exact definition of an SSP should be carefully researched based on a much deeper examination of the factors I've talked about here and others, as well as research to sort out all of the practical details with this sort of role. Clearly this is not something that should be done hastily and without thinking it through, as many of our current "reforms" no doubt have.

A Call For Papers -- and Solutions, and Policy

As you can see, I'm only scratching the surface here. This idea can represent an entire line of research, the end of which would answers questions like:
  1. What exactly are the most predictive factors for positive student outcomes in parenting?
  2. What are the network effects between parents? How do they compound the benefits?
  3. Which if the highly predictive factors can be replicated by "artificial" means (viz. state-provided "surrogate education parents" if you will)?
  4. What metrics can be apply to parents (or their artificial counterparts)?
  5. How can you make the SSP idea work (because there are a lot of details to work out)?
The policy implications here involve a shift away from the focus on teachers and programs and towards that of measuring and improving and augmenting parenting.

In other words, we need to stop blaming teachers and programs for bad outcomes and start focusing on parents and the role they play. We're going to find out that the solution to closing the education achievement gap in the USA is hard work and investment, not cutbacks and snake oil.


  1. I like the idea of making a place in the institution for what you call a Surrogate School Parent. I'd probably choose another name like Ombudsperson or Child Advocate or Parent-School Liaison, as I don't know how some parents might perceive having a "surrogate." Would they feel insulted at the implication that they weren't doing enough or doing it "right"? Would they feel they've outsourced all responsibility, as opposed to found an intermediary tasked with helping them solve a problem? And so on.

    Depending on the school, there are also active District and school-based English Learner Advisory Councils (DELACs and ELACs) and site councils which are more for parent input into policy and governance, but not necessarily set up for an advocacy role.

  2. Great point. I agree "surrogate" is a bad-sounding word--and that the "positioning' of this role would be very important. Parent-School Liaison is better. Clearly you need to involve real parents as much as possible, when possible--and this role could be something of a teacher for parents as well.

    Although there might be a place for "advisory councils" what is really needed here in the 1:1 individual attention which more fortunate parents are allowed to give. This is somebody that knows the context of each of their subjects in detail--again, just like a parent. I'm also assuming the role of the traditional "guidance counselor" doesn't go far enough. In particular, you'd want somebody who operates independently of any single school (again, just like a real parent).

  3. Franklin GrosvenorAugust 18, 2012 at 10:14 AM

    Hi JJS,
    I'm choosing to reply here versus the FB forum since I see this is a separate, though clearly related, topic. I fully agree with most of the points you raised above but would like to point out a couple of observations and suggest some additional things for you to consider.

    1. I agree with you that the "parent gap" as you described is clearly a major factor and I think the "surrogate" role you described is an interesting idea. My concern with that notion is how long would it take for the SSP to "go native" and become aligned with either the unions or with the administration. Part of the effectiveness of parent involvement is that it is almost without exception, motivated exclusively by what is in the best interest of the students. The challenge in most low income areas is that even if a parent really, really wanted to be involved in the school as a room mom, literature docent, yard duty, etc., it's often the case that both parents have to carry full time jobs just to support the family.

    2. Whether the approach is a role like the SSP or incentivizing increased parent engagement, the key skills provided by parents that you outlined above (management, judgement, encouragement) may be sorely lacking in low income communities. LASD is blessed with many MBA's, PhD's, lawyers, doctors and even stay-at-home-moms that were educated at places like Stanford or Berkeley. I question whether you will be able to replicate the quality of that contribution in low income areas or with an SSP. The first two skills are in very short supply in areas where most people work "blue collar" or other low income types of jobs, and the last one (encouragement) is on of the major cultural gaps between rich and poor areas. Now, if you could construct a program like the SSP that provides relevant skills training (and funding) for the role, but recruited *parents* only, and created a fire-wall between SSP, union, and administration, some of these issues could be mitigated.

    3) I think I can infer your political leaning, so am not surprised by this, but you seem to gloss over the very real issue of quality and accountability of teachers a bit. While it is always dangerous (and arguably immoral) to apply stereotypes to individuals, stereotypes exist for a reason and are usually based on some basic truth. While the majority of the teachers my kids had at LASD were really good, I agree with you that the level of parent oversight probably helped contribute to that. There are clearly many teachers nationally that were drawn to the profession because they got summers off, had relatively short work days, generous pension benefits, and a chance to earn tenure. Pretty appealing trade-offs for lower salary if you are inclined to be either lazy, or just don't prioritize career as high as other things.

    I think we absolutely need reform on this side of the equation too. I think teachers should be paid twice what they are paid now. But they should also be required to have a masters degree in their primary subject area (or in early childhood education if they are doing K-3 or K-4) and should be subject to regular and objective performance reviews and that tenure should be abolished. Also, the cost of the salary increase could be partially offset by eliminating generous pensions and replacing them with 401K retirement packages like most of the rest of us have to rely on. It needs to be easier to remove apathetic or poorly performing teachers and to lift up the best and brightest. A structure like that might actually encourage more people with the ability to provide "judgement" "management" and "encouragement" to consider a profession in teaching which would also help close the gap you described above.

    Anyway, I think alot of what you wrote above is very insightful and absolutely worth looking at in the context of a balance approach at education reform. Just my $0.02.

    1. Franklin,

      Great discussion here. Let me try to continue it.

      1. There's always a risk of corruption, no doubt, but I think one way to help prevent this is to make the posts at the *Federal* level. The Federal government already spends a fortune on (a bunch of things that don't work and meddle with the local machinery) but this "softer" oversight role might be a way for the Fed get involved but not directly order anybody around and thus leave local decisions to be local (which is not always perfect but I think it's still better than centralized control). I totally agree this is a risk of this position though--and preventing that would need to be a primary focus of setting it up.

      2. I think that Los Altos, CA is the *direction* we should send our schools, not a "finish line" we think we could cross. We'll never duplicate what we have here 100% but the question is can we take some of the most important ingredients (which, to be clear, I only offered some *suggestions* as to what those exact ingredients are in my article--this will require detailed research) and make these other areas *better* than they are now. And again, per #1, we need to do what we can to make this role like a true parent, advocating purely for the child. I also agree that *training parents* can be a big part of the overall program (or maybe even *be* the program).

      3. My political leanings are... complicated :-). That said, I'm not sure much of this discussion is partisan in nature. Clearly evaluating teachers is very important, just as evaluating any professional is very important. There's virtually no profession in the world that is evaluated strictly "by the numbers". It needs to be a judgement call based on the context in every individual instance--the kind that other professionals get.

      I think we're both saying the same thing though: we need to elevate teachers to the level of true *professionals* as opposed to driving them the other direction toward paid babysitters. I agree with paying them more and expecting more out of them--but again, that brings up the management and evaluation problem I mentioned above. We need a workforce of managers to make this work, and here we've got an army of super-smart parents to fill that role (and look how great that works). I think you're a businessperson as I am, and I've never seen anybody respond to a situation of low performance with pay cuts.

      I also agree that we need to eliminate "coddling" of teachers and so forth, but I think a lot of that is driven again by the lack of the management layer. Teachers who are simply teaching "to a number" will get very afraid for their jobs (because they know so much of that performance is out of their control) and thus will push for artificial barriers--which in turn are used for the truly incompetent to hide behind. As such, I'm pitching my approach as the *beginning* of reform--but certainly not the end of it.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.