Memo to parents: Do your homework

August 21, 1996|By Mona Charen

IT IS ONE OF the marks of our confused age that we seem to require studies to prove what should be intuitively obvious.

One of the newest crop of studies reveals that teen-agers who lack a close connection to their parents do poorly in school. The study also found that peers are generally a negative influence on one another, discouraging academic excellence.

Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, followed 20,000 ninth through 12th graders over a 10-year period and concludes that school reformers who focus on curriculum changes, extending the length of the school year or other education reforms may be barking up the wrong tree.

Parents who are less and less engaged with their children, Dr. Steinberg told the New York Times, are responsible for poor pupil performance.

The study, which included white, black, Asian and Hispanic families, found that at least one in four parents were "passive, preoccupied or negligent."

Fully half of the high schoolers questioned said they could bring home grades of C or less without causing concern at home.

One-third said their parents had no idea what kind of grades they earned. And 40 percent said their parents never attended school functions.

The influence of peers (surprise!) was not found to be salutary. One of three high school students said they would like to be a member of the "partier" crowd. One in six chose the "druggies."

Twenty percent reported that they did not apply themselves to schoolwork for fear of what their friends might think.

Of course, these are merely aggregate numbers, and the trends they reflect obviously do not apply to every high school student.

Some peers, in fact, exert a beneficial influence, pushing one another to excel. And none of this bad news applies to Asian immigrants, who appear to be true to their legend -- they work impossibly long hours yet find the time to check their children's ,, homework and demand effort.

According to Dr. Steinberg's survey, Asian Americans spend twice as much time on homework as other students. And (note well, Pat Buchanan) children from all immigrant groups performed worse as they assimilated.

Conservatives may find the results of these data unsurprising. We know that families provide the key ingredients not just for academic success but for life success. We know that neglectful parents put their children in grave danger.

But what a study like this -- and the evidence of our eyes and ears -- must force us to grapple with is this: If large numbers of American parents are failing to do their duty by their children, how can we place so much confidence in reforms such as school choice?

School choice, rests upon the assumption that competition will produce excellence. Give parents an education voucher and the XTC freedom to redeem it at any school meeting certain minimum criteria, and a great flowering of educational innovation will ensue.

The dead hand of the teachers unions, which have dumbed down the public school curriculum and injected so much politically correct nonsense, will be removed.

Schools that produce results, meaning well-prepared young ladies and gentlemen who can place the Civil War in the correct century and know that E = MC2, will prosper while schools that teach multiculturalism will founder.

Engaged parents

But for the system to work, parents must be engaged, concerned and on top of things.

Membership in local Parent-Teacher Association chapters has dropped from 12 million in 1963 to just 6 million today. Many parents, working full-time, recovering from divorce and concentrating on their social lives, have less time than in the past for their children.

It is ironic that the Baby Boomer generation, which exalted youth while young, has now entered middle age and appears to be neglecting its own children at rates unseen in our century.

The data on parental disengagement cannot be dismissed. They remind us that the most important problems facing America now are moral, spiritual and cultural -- and will not yield easily to political solutions.

Mona Charen writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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