Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Parent Trap ; around the World, Centuries of Tradition Shape Parent-Teacher Interaction

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Parent Trap ; around the World, Centuries of Tradition Shape Parent-Teacher Interaction

Article excerpt

Ask an American teacher why a student isn't doing better in school and "parents" are sure to place high on the list. In a recent Gallup poll, "lack of parental involvement" ranked as the No. 2 obstacle to improving US public schools - just behind school funding.

But such a response would be an anomaly in most other countries, where responsibility for schooling is squarely in the hands of a professional teaching corps and the state. And most parents have been happy to see it that way.

Worldwide, there's a vast range in expectations of how much parents should be involved in education. These views have deep historical and cultural roots. And experts are just starting to realize how critical parents are in strategies to boost education.

Japanese parents, for example, wouldn't think of mounting a full- scale assault against the official math curriculum, as California parents did in the 1990s.

"There is a division of labor assumed in Asian cultures between parents and teachers. Asians see teaching as a profession. Americans expect parents to teach and teachers to be parents," says James Stigler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Parents in China and Japan are not teaching their kids academic skills in the early years. They focus on nurturing and building up the emotional well-being of their children."

When asked to comment on videotapes of US classrooms, Japanese teachers are "horrified" to see parents helping out in the classroom, he adds. They view teaching as a professional experience, which untrained parents could derail.

Nonetheless, the Japanese system insists on the engagement of parents. It's not unusual to have 30 parents show up to observe a lesson from the back of the classroom.

"It's a chance for parents to see how their children engage the material and relate to their teacher and classmates," says Catherine Lewis, a visiting scholar at the Women's Leadership Institute at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and author of "Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education" (Cambridge University Press).

Such observation sessions also expose Japanese parents to the latest teaching techniques in a professional context. "It turns out to be a very effective means of keeping parents on board in terms of the schools," she adds. In many Japanese classrooms, teachers send home a daily notebook informing parents of a child's experiences in class. If something happens at home that parents think the teacher should know about, it's jotted down as well.

"What's important is a strong emotional bond between teacher and child. In order to foster a child's development, parents and all the teachers in a school need to be working together," she adds. …

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