Eric Stinton: If You Want To Improve Schools, Help Parents - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


I still remember a meeting with a parent when I was a new teacher 10 years ago.

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It was an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, meeting for a second grade boy during which his mother, myself, another teacher and a vice principal discussed how he was performing academically and behaviorally to come up with a plan to help him progress.

While we were discussing the boy’s challenges with reading and aggressive playground behavior, his mother interrupted with an exasperated and startlingly blunt question: “Isn’t this your job?”

She was only half correct. It is indeed the job of teachers to teach kids how to read and to not hit others because you don’t want to wait in line for the slide, but it is not only our job to do that.

What still surprises me about what she said was not that she said it, but that she said it out loud. In my experience since then, I’ve found her attitude to be fairly commonplace, but most people don’t say it directly to their child’s teachers.

Whether it’s looking for the next superintendent to come in and save the day or trying out new schemes to recruit and retain teachers, the public expectation seems to be that schools are solely responsible for all of our education woes. Few people will actually say that, but when news of low test scores from last year came out, the subsequent discussion was almost exclusively about what schools need to do and how schools need to change.

In a way that’s sensible. There are definitely reforms that will improve the education system, and we should absolutely implement them. But there’s more to it than that.

Pauoa Elementary School walk towards an open field for recess.
One thing we could do to change society for the better is to give more parents more opportunity to be actively involved with their kids’ education. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Putting aside the fact that a drop in test scores amid the delirium and heightened stress of a global pandemic is not as big of a deal as some are making it out to be, consider these questions:

What was the difference between students who thrived last school year and students who struggled the most?

Did some kids excel while others regressed because of the teachers, the curriculum or the education system as a whole? Or, maybe, were there other factors more responsible for those discrepancies?

In my own experience, the students who thrived and the students who floundered were often classmates.

I’ve had students whose parents sat with them during their online classes all day everyday, and students who missed school every week because their parents slept in. I’ve had students who have their own room at home with their own internet router and air-conditioning, and students who grab spotty Wi-Fi from their neighbors and sleep on a futon in the living room.

Even before the pandemic, I’ve had students who got their phones taken away for getting an F, and students whose parents told them that what they were learning wasn’t important. I’ve taught every core subject area, by the way, and have heard that sentiment in each of them.

Perennial Problems

All of these kids take the same tests, which are then aggregated and publicly decried as proof of a failing school system. Yet for all the talk about public schools vs. private schools in Hawaii, I think the more meaningful dichotomy is kids who have parents who do things like read to them and help them stay on top of their homework versus kids who don’t.

This is not an attack on parents by any means. I’m not a parent, and there are challenges of trying to raise a child in a hyper-connected, boredom-allergic world that I simply can’t appreciate.

Beyond that, it is rare that I truly know what’s going on in someone else’s life. Psychologists call it fundamental attribution error: we tend to ascribe people’s behavior to their personality or character instead of their circumstances. I later found out the woman who groaned that educating her kid was solely our responsibility had just gone through a messy divorce. She was a single mom working several jobs, with full custody of her son because the father was abusive.

At best we’ve been looking at education reform as a separate endeavor from social reform; at worst, we expect schools to reform society for us. But really we need to recognize that schools are part of society, and changing either will require interconnected reform efforts.

The question, then, is what do we need to change about our society to give more parents more opportunity to be actively involved with their kids’ education?

One clear, yet daunting task is pivoting away from our economic dependence on tourism, which typically generates low-wage work with irregular hours that take parents out of the house when their kids get home from school. That is a long-term effort, and in the meantime we must increase wages and benefits for workers in those sectors so that they can slowly build some socioeconomic stability.

Family Welfare

We can’t discuss family welfare without also discussing access to affordable housing and affordable health care, including paid paternity and maternity leave so parents can be more present with their children during those crucially formative early stages.

I’m personally a proponent of reducing work hours without reducing pay. The idea has regained some traction recently but goes as far back as the industrial revolution, when people realized we should be working less when we had machines capable of doing work for us.

How we do those things is another discussion altogether, one that has been ongoing in local and national politics for a while now. But only once we’ve recognized where we need to go can we figure out a way to get there.

I can already feel the accusations of naivete and idealism. “It’s hard enough to pass any meaningful education reform on its own,” I imagine them saying, “how are we supposed to implement these sweeping societal reforms?”

My response comes from Canadian economist Stephen Leacock, who in 1920 wrote that “nearly everybody” draws “entirely erroneous conclusions” that “because we cannot change the part, we think we cannot change the whole.”

“Because one brick in the wall is immovable,” he wrote, “we forget that the wall itself might be rebuilt.”

Every generation has relied on those with the courage and conviction to tear down walls that stood in the way of others who were too fearful and too cynical to see the possibilities of a better life on the other side.

We’ve organized society in such a way that we’ve prevented families from achieving the fundamental ability to be there for their children’s education. Too many are too quick to think of Hawaii’s school system as a sinking ship, and the response so far has been to blame schools for not bailing the water out fast enough.

But until we start being honest about the sources of the leaks, we won’t be able to find and repair them, and we’ll be perpetually stuck in the same debates about which buckets to use.


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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

 Good article.  I taught 38 years in Hawaii public schools so I understand it would be nice if everyone was pulling in the same direction.   Of course there are different cultural practices that influence what people desire from their schools and people's goals for their children.  Because Gov Ige's wife had been a public school teacher, I recall high hopes for his administration among teachers, but I don;t think they were ever achieved and his goals to change the education system seem to fade over the years.  

rbghawaii · 1 week ago

I want to thank Eric Stinton for his very thoughtful article about helping the parents. It has been obvious to me for many years that if parents can't or won't be involved with their children's schools, things aren't going to get better. Sending kids to private schools is not the answer. I was a single working mom, and it was difficult to interact with his schools because of my schedule. This warrants thoughtful consideration by everyone connected to our public school system.

DKGqhlQhr9Gw2Bs2xe5Y · 1 week ago

I would love to respond to this as to the positive points and the self serving points but when attempting to respond to previous "opinions" censorship has raised it's ugly head.Never were the rules of CB:  civil and respectful of others even if you disagree. Language and words are important so please avoid snark and put-downs. Name calling and mocking of people's names is specifically prohibited; so are personal attacks., violated.Opinion is the vehicle to open debate.  It is used to present alternative views.  Opinion is not journalism of fact and open to debate.This debate over censorship is a topic of today's social media that seems forming ideas and curbing opposing views.While I agree with much of the content of this opinion, it rings invalid with me when my opinion in the past has been voided.Now I will say reading this opinion I got the feeling that the blame for failing results of our children is placed on the parents.  It was interesting that comments that were acknowledged as from the education field also sought to transfer blame.   

anopenmind · 1 week ago

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