Cover Story

School Daze

Psychologist and education expert Dr. Robert Evans says schools aren't to blame for poor student performance; it's the parents.

It's sheer coincidence, but the timing of Dr. Robert Evans' upcoming Lafayette lecture on Aug. 11 couldn't be more appropriate. The longtime educator, psychologist and author of the new book, Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with the Crisis in Childrearing, arrives in town as the Lafayette Parish School System is wrestling with a reorganization plan, the debate over block-scheduling and the positive and negative indicators in its recent LEAP test results.

But parents and educators alike might be surprised to hear Evans' assessment of the problems facing education in America. While he does have a number of practical recommendations, he pulls no punches when it comes to chronicling the effect of the decline in parenting skills and family bonds. Evans also blasts the No Child Left Behind initiative, calling it "a disaster."

His upcoming talk is part of The Independent Weekly's lecture series, which hopes to stimulate community discussion on important issues facing Acadiana. The lectures are free and open to the public. We spoke by phone with Evans last week, and the following interview is a preview of the issues Evans will be addressing in his Aug. 11 lecture.

One of your main concerns in the book is the decline of authoritative parenting. What do you consider the main reasons for that?

There are lots of them, and they've accelerated in the last 10 or 15 years. First, America is based on entrepreneurship, individual freedom, striving and achieving and breaking out of bonds. That's often not problematic in business and economics ' it can be very creative and successful ' but it's not good long-term for the authority of institutions like family and schools.

Secondly, in the last 30-plus years, we've had an acceleration of long-term trends, ranging from divorce and breakup of marriages and families. We've had an enormous transformation in the media culture, in which kids get direct access rather than having that access filtered by their parents. We have a whole range of influences now that undermine parents even when they want to be authoritative. Raising kids is a conservative activity, and I don't mean that in political terms. It's an activity in which the old hands down to the young the basic knowledge about how you operate in the world. And as the world changes faster and faster, it's less and less possible for the old to do that with the young. One consequence of acceleration and change in economy, media culture, technology, all sorts of things, is it makes it much harder to be a parent than it used to be. Because the world we know and would like to translate to our children is one that is no longer as certain as it used to be, and old knowledge is less valuable and less valued than it used to be.

You note in your book that so many of the qualities that are prized in the workplace ' efficiency, organization, mobility ' don't translate into effective parenting. Can you expound on that a little bit?

If you think back 40 years to the more traditional family with a male breadwinner and a female homemaker, at that point the breadwinner needed the business virtues: assertiveness, bottom-line orientation, getting things done, being practical. And the homemaker was responsible for nurturing, the caretaking, the giving, the tolerating, the fixing, the mending. Whatever's good or bad or fair or unfair about that arrangement, it at least meant that there was a whole range of skills and abilities shared among a parenting couple that enabled the family to live and raise children. Today, by contrast, you find many more families where you find both parents ' the woman as well as the man ' now have much more professional training. They're much more work-oriented and have much more in the way of the business-related skills that the breadwinner used to have. Today there's a much bigger focus on preserving and advancing careers, and it's shared by many women as well as many men.

But what has diminished as these skills have improved, are the skills required and the attitudes that are beneficial to children as they grow up. Children, for example, require endless amounts of patience. They require you to decenter from yourself and focus on them. They require longterm loyalty. They get in the way of all sorts of efficiency things that one can do, and, even frankly, money one can make. We have many more families than we used to where the mother and father have a greater level of professional orientation but not always a strong orientation on the family side. In addition, there are many families where there's a ton of emphasis on work, not because the parents choose it, but because they couldn't make ends meet without it. It's hard to turn to your parenting, which is an exhausting job, if you're working two jobs just to make ends meet, for example.

I do think the way we're living these days is increasingly unfriendly to parenting and to childrearing. Parenting is easier when life is simpler, and life used to be simpler.

Is there a strategy or any recommendation you have for parents to be able to turn off that business mindset when they walk in the door at home?

I wish I had a simple answer. The reality is that it's hard to separate the way you parent your children from the way you live. Although there are literally thousands of advice books available to parents, very few of them seem to make a lasting difference, because it's hard for any of us as a parent to plan parenting minute by minute. Parenting is full of spontaneous, unplanned things because that's how kids are. You come home from an exhausting day, but your son and daughter have just had a big fight. You walk in the door and you're all set to be the parent, but instead of getting to greet the kids and have a wonderful few minutes of nice time together, they're already screaming and in tears. It's pretty hard to give people a technique for that.

If we were to face up to this question, we'd have to admit that there were times that we'd have to make choices. For example, you have to be able to say, I've worked 10 hours today, and I'm not working the 11th, I'm going to go home and be with the kids. You have to choose to unschedule yourself some so that you weren't with the kids only when you were rushing them to baseball practice or dancing lessons. So there are choices people can make that would be helpful. My experience is that most folks find that hard to do.

So I try to emphasize ways that people can help their children grow up without having to read a whole book and become somebody completely different. Like deciding to spend an extra half-hour a week doing something with a small child not for the sake of improving that child, but just for the delight of being with him or her. Or being willing to hold the line about the really big stuff that you don't think kids should do, instead of giving in.

Your book talks about parents needing to address conflicts with their children. Every parent wants all their time with their children to be beautiful and happy, but they still have to be able to discipline them. Do you see a culture of increased permissiveness in today's parents?

I think it's endemic in my travels across the country. Almost anywhere you go, the educators are shaking their heads about parents' reluctance to set limits about anything: from what they wear, to how they talk, to how they spend their time. If you love your children, but you're very busy and don't feel you're with them enough and you feel sort of guilty, then when you are with them, you want it to go well. You want it to be high-quality time, not full of fussing and fighting. That makes it harder to say, "No, you can't have that extra toy," or, "No, we don't talk to people that way," or whatever. Anywhere you go, the trend is the same, and it's toward parents being less willing to assert themselves with their children and set limits about behavior and expectations.

You mention it not being economically feasible for some parents to have one of them home full-time or part-time, so they do have to use day care. For those parents, are there general things you recommend to navigate that situation? Are there a few things parents should look for when choosing a daycare center?

It's not whether the kids are in day care, but what kind of day care they're in. Because there's a fair amount of research now that says when kids are in high-quality daycare, there isn't much evidence that they suffer major losses down the road. The problem is that we have so little high-quality daycare in America. So daycare workers, for example, earn less on average or just about the same as dry cleaning workers, and they have about the highest rate of turnover of almost any occupation you can think of.

One of the things that really helps when kids are in daycare is if the people taking care of them are not just sensitive and skilled, but if they stay put so the kids don't have a steady revolving door of caretakers. That's the best solution. But there's so little high-quality daycare and many families can't afford it, and that's a national problem. It's not something that a single parent, for example, can fix on her own. That said, when parents can actually leave the kid on time and pick the kid up on time, instead of having it lots of extra time in the daycare, that can make a difference.

It's very nice when you can get references from other people you know whose kids have been there and can tell you about it. You ideally want a facility or program where the people who are staffing it have some training; they aren't just nice folks. Find out what the turnover of the staff is on average. Some will have a lot; others will have very little. And there's no substitute for going there and spending a morning or part of the morning and watching and seeing how the kids seem to be treated, and what the feeling you get from the place is there. After you make the choice, it's nice to see if there's a way to be in closer touch and have a chat or two with the director or staff people and make sure it feels like it's the right match for your kid.

It can be helpful, too, if parents realize that when you come there at the end of the day, you pick them up and take them home, and it may be then that the kid falls apart, having been perfectly good all day, but finally it feels safe enough to be in the comfort of mom or dad. It's upsetting to the parent, but doesn't necessarily mean that the child is doing poorly at daycare.

You mention the negative influences of music, films, TV shows, video games, the Internet. What can parents do to be more effective in fighting that influence?

The first thing to think about is, what are the parents modeling? So for example, putting a TV in a kids' bedroom is a really, really bad idea, in my view. Although more than half the kindergartners in the country have one â?¦

More than half the kindergartners?

Three-quarters of the sixth-graders have a TV in their bedroom. Look at opinion polls where they interview parents about the impact of TV on kids. Not good, they say. Then look at what they do ' overwhelmingly, they do nothing. Two-thirds of the families in some polls, say that TV's on while they eat dinner. It isn't just about turning off the TV. You have to think hard about a firm limit as early as possible, and you need to think about what you as a parent are modeling. If you keep saying to the kids, turn that TV off, and as soon as they're doing their homework or whatever you're turning it on and watching it for hours, the lesson they're being taught is that dad says one thing, but what he does is something else.

Secondly, I think it's worth it to have limits. Barry Brazelton, the famous pediatrician, suggests 10 hours a week is the maximum. Parents have a right and ought to exercise it about how much and what their kids watch, and the same is true with computers. There's no reason, for example, that a child needs a computer in a bedroom as compared to a living room or den or something like that where it's public. There's no reason kids should be given unrestricted access to instant messaging, and parents have a right to find out what sites kids visit when they're on the Web.

You don't have to become a policeman to be pretty clear. I'm not interested in 45 rules, I'm interested in a couple of basic ones: a maximum number of TV hours, or certain programs are off limits, or how much time the kids are allowed to spend on the instant messaging. It's more important to me that parents exercise some oversight and stay with it rather than which rule they put in place.

Even those kinds of guidelines aren't failsafe. I was watching an afternoon baseball game on TV with my 4-year-old son a few weekends ago, and he asked me what a Viagra commercial was about.

That's a good example of what I mean when I say that what makes us an economically successful society is one that also intrudes on the ability of people to be parents. Because Viagra is an industry worth a fortune, and they're exercising their freedom to put it on TV. But if you're sitting there with your son or daughter, you have to explain it to them at some point.

Are there any particular programs that you think are positive shows?

To be honest, I'm not only concerned about the content of the shows ' are they educational or is it Jerry Springer? ' but I'm concerned also about the process: the sitting and absorbing. One of the dilemmas about TV, even supposedly good TV, is that the more you watch, the less you read. The correlation between high TV watching and being a poor reader is pretty strong. So I'm worried not just that it's bad shows that kids are watching, but the total volume of what they watch. Even good shows that we don't think have dangerous content in them, if they watch a whole lot of it, they interfere with other things that are really crucial to them growing up. The stuff on public television is perfectly good, but even there, some of the stuff is like the rest of TV: it's quick, short-hit little snappy bits.

One of the recurring themes of your book is that fathers are partially to blame, and fathers need to be more involved. One of the studies that struck me is that one of the most important factors in a child's empathy and compassion is paternal involvement in child care.

Isn't that interesting? It was so surprising to the researchers that they couldn't get over it. Because everybody thinks of moms when they think of [compassion and empathy]. But that study was really powerful. A dad is a powerful influence. We have one set of issues: the high rate of divorce and fairly high rate of unmarried parents. Typically, when biological parents aren't married, dads' involvement with the kids is diminished. Secondly, among biological parents who are married, there are now more and more dads, including those in the upper income groups who work the longest, that are just not there much. Or when they are there, they're cheering on the sidelines, but not much else. It leaves a gap for kids. It leaves a gap in terms of the typical father's role, which is often limit-setting and discipline, but it also runs a risk of diminishing a child's ability to connect with other people, because dads are important for that. I'm a big believer that our nation would be vastly better if we had some magical way to improve the engagement of fathers in their children's lives.

You have some pretty strong feelings about the No Child Left Behind Act, and refer to it as "No Child Left Untested."

It's a disaster. It's typically politicians and educators with a particular political bent, mostly very conservative, and who have decided to apply a business mentality with a bottom line to schools. You have in essence a factory, and the raw material comes into the factory, and if the finished product is not good, there must be something wrong with the factory.

The dilemmas are multiple. First of all, when a child graduates from 12th grade and gets a diploma, he or she has spent only 10 percent of his or her life in school, and 90 percent outside of school. Schools therefore have a relatively small influence. If you came down here from Mars and watched children and measured what they did with their time and ranked the importance of school compared to family, media, and other things, school would be third or fourth, and nowhere near first.

The correlation between student scores on literacy tests and the number of books in the home is nearly perfect around the world, and not just in America. It's not that school doesn't have any impact, it's that school has a much lesser impact than we imagine. The notion that treating school like a business will make a significant difference is really bizarre to me. Schools are much closer to families or religious institutions than to anything corporate.

One thing you know about the people who write these kinds of laws is they never taught. Any of us who've ever taught would know that you come to school on a Monday with your lesson plan, and you have no idea which kids have done the homework, which kids had a fight with their parent, which kids broke up with their boyfriend. You have no idea how the same lesson plan will fly in two different classes, for example. If you have five classes of high school junior English, the same lesson plan will fly in one and bomb in the other.

Teaching is not the delivery of standardized input. The reason I'm opposed to the accountability stuff is that we're dumping onto the school the responsibility for all the things our kids turn out to be. The school plays an important role, but by no means the major role, in how that happens.

There was a recent study by two University of Illinois researchers that indicated the test scores of students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds at private and public schools are virtually identical. It suggests that private schools aren't necessarily the better education they're touted as, and that home factors ' like the family's value of literacy ' were much more important. Are you aware of that study?

Yes, I've seen it. Private schools are getting by on the fact that they have mostly kids from upper class families who have more books available and all the things that correlate with doing well on tests. Once you controlled for that, the public school kids from the same echelon did just as well. Public schools do worse overall, but that's because so many of the public school kids come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

It's an interesting study, because it does indeed suggest that another thing that's wrong with No Child Left Behind is that it treats all our schools as though they're our worst schools.

What [private school] buys you is usually a smaller school, so typically it's much harder for a student to fall between the cracks than at a large underfunded public school. It's buying you a different opportunity, but not necessarily better teaching skills. If you put a lot of bright kids from families who have a lot of books in small classes, you're likely to get good results, even if the teacher isn't first-rate. Put a lot of kids from poor homes who don't have much in the way of literacy support in large classes, you're not likely to get such good results.

Do you ever get any requests from corporate America to speak, or do you get any sense that any of your theories are filtering into the business community?

No. Nobody's asked me. So far, the [testing] trend is running pretty much the other way, and at some point, it's going to have to peter out, because it's not producing the results they expected. Even in conservative Republican states like Utah, they're starting to have a fit about the way the federal government's trying to dictate things to them. Test scores are inching up. But it turns out, for example, in a state like Texas, which the president loves to trumpet, the scores have gone up on the Texas test, but they've been lying about the dropout rate. Secondly, the Texas kids are doing no better on any other tests, only the Texas test, which suggests that the teachers have been teaching to that test because of the relentless pressure they're under. It doesn't suggest that Texas kids are learning any better, just that they're getting prepared for a particular test. The procedural nightmares associated with [testing] are growing by leaps and bounds, along with the costs for states implementing the law. And the gaps between minority students and white students are not diminishing in any significant way in most places.

The problems that are interfering with the student performance, as I'm suggesting, are largely rooted outside of school. You want as good a school as you could, but that would never be the whole answer. So if you want to improve reading overnight by waving a magic wand, the answer would not be better reading teachers in elementary school, it would be less TV. You'd want good reaching teachers, but it would never be enough.

Some schools are trying to incorporate character education for students into their curriculums. Is it working?

Character education has been a hot topic on and off in the last 10 years in education. It comes in a couple of different versions. One is more politically conservative; it recommends that we take specific and often fairly conservative values and preach these to kids. The other is something that could be seen as more liberal, which is that instead of a school preaching a particular set of values, it ought to engage students in discussion that helps them develop their own values. These people argue back and forth about what's the right thing to do. Both of them, however, point out that you can go to a lot of schools where they say they're doing something about character education, but it turns out they're doing something like a month-long theme on courtesy. And there's very little evidence of any lasting impact of this.

Last year I was in Wichita, Kan., at a school where kids' behavior got so bad that in the spring of the preceding year, they put on a full-court press at the school about politeness and courtesy. They said by the end of the school in early June, you couldn't get down the fourth grade corridor without kids greeting you, smiling at you, holding the door for you, shaking your hand. It was unbelievable. The kids came back next year for fifth grade, and it was all gone. Because in the rest of their lives, it wasn't happening anywhere.

What about values contracts, where schools are requiring students, and often parents, to sign contracts about behavior and values?

There are many more private schools that have a separate values contract or an enrollment contract that has language in it where the family acknowledges that it understands the school's values and agrees to support those. Then if parent misbehavior happens, they can say, "If you keep this up, we will not be offering your child a contract next year to come back." In public schools of course, you can't excommunicate a child because if they live there, they're entitled to come. But there are more public schools I know that are just refusing to have a 10th meeting with a parent about them being mad because their daughter didn't make the cheerleading squad. There are more places where the school has been willing to say to people, we know you're upset about this, but you can't speak to teachers this way. And the reason is not just that it isn't right, but the school's teaching values to kids about being respectful of one another, and this violates our values.

There are more schools that are trying harder to say, "Here's what you really need to know about what makes this school special, and its key values." I was in one in an elementary school in the Northeast in June, and the focus is on the children becoming independent learners. It believes that it's crucial to students' academic future that they can learn on their own and that they know how to pursue knowledge on their own. So they have a set of rules about how students and parents behave around school. That school, unlike others in that same town, doesn't let parents come barging into the classroom in the middle of lessons. The reason is not just that the school is telling them so, but the school's values say we're training your kids to be independent learners.

Regarding parent-teacher interaction, it seems like there's a catch-22 there. On one hand, you want teachers to be more responsive and be able to communicate more effectively with parents and vice-versa, but that can open the door for every lesson plan or incident to be nitpicked by parents.

That's exactly right. There are more schools that have a policy, say, that if you get an e-mail from a parent, you need to respond in 24 hours, so there's an emphasis on being responsive. But schools are also trying to find a way to say to parents, "We're delighted to communicate with you in the following ways," but they have an e-mail policy that they present to the parent. It says, if you send an e-mail to a teacher in the middle of the morning, don't expect a reply by lunchtime. The teacher is likely not sitting at a computer waiting for your -email, she's probably teaching your children. That might seem obvious, but now you have to say it to people.

And more public schools are working up brochures that are crafted by teachers, administrators and parents that give parents some guidelines for communication. And it says things like, "Please don't take literally what your child says about something that happened that day." That may be one part of the story, but there's always going to be another one, whether it involves another student or a teacher. They're trying to say, "We're eager to communicate, but within certain limits."

When you speak, are you usually speaking to educators or parents? What's the reaction from parents? I'm sure they might attend thinking they're going to learn about improving their schools and teachers, and a lot of your message to parents is that they're not doing their job.

Usually the talks for parents are not based on the school system. I usually talk with parents about what's making it hard to be a parent these days, and what they can do about it. I have found that very few parents are eager to go to an evening meeting on, say, home and school communication. The parents who do attend talks by outside "experts," they're the ones that are already invested in their kids. Often what they need is not a dose of criticism, but a shot in the arm: encouragement to do more of what they have an inclination to do already.

When I talk with faculty, I'm talking about what they can do in order to deal with the change in parents and families and kids. But I'm very clear when I talk to teachers that it's of no use to go around bashing people. Nobody has planned the situation we're in; we're all trying to find the best way we can to do right by young people we're trying to raise.

Parents need to confront some real realities. Buying a lot of [parenting] books is not going to help you very much. You can't raise a child with a book in your hand. It's more important to think about how you're living and what really matters to you. In my view, it's more important to invite them to talk with each other about some part of parenting that they're good at. Because so often what we do in books and evening talks is talk about problems that have to get fixed, and one of the ways to be a parent is think about what you're already good at, and how you can do a little more of that. That's a fun part of the evening, because the things that parents describe that they're good at are typically really simple: listening, patience, sense of humor, things like that. They're not fancy in the least, but they're absolutely crucial to good parenting.

What are your feelings on parental advisory boards for schools?

They rarely lead to anything significant education-wise in my experience, in part because the federal government has been taking over the educational choice-making by dictating what's going to be on the tests. But one thing that's happened as a result of this is that parents who were willing to join became much more informed about the school's needs, whether it's physical planning, budget, etc. That can lead to helpful advocacy in later years because there's a larger group of parents who appreciated not what was wrong with the school, but what challenges it's facing. That's a plus.

What are some of the things that principals, teachers and administrators can do to help bring about change?

They're pretty limited, because they're just swamped and overwhelmed. Whatever they do is seen as self-interested. If they argue, for example, that the current tests are not good as a way of measuring school performance, it sounds like they're trying to get themselves off the hook. The teachers, professional organizations, districts, school boards, all need to be arguing for a more rational way of assessing progress and facing the reality that in most of the schools that are doing badly, there aren't nearly enough resources to achieve the kind of results that are expected of them.

The one line in your book that's really haunting is a comment from one teacher. She said that more than anything, kids today are just hungry for "play with me, be with me" time.

I think that's true. Especially for young children, they don't need the mass of academic stimulation. They need people who just want to be with them. It's out of that relationship that all kinds of learning begins to happen. They need somebody who's interested in them for the sake of being with them, not for the sake of turning them into something or perfecting them. We'd be better off if we made it easier in ways for parents to feel that that was a meaningful thing to do.

The Independent Lecture Series: The Education Lecture with Dr. Robert Evans
6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11
Hamilton Hall Auditorium, UL Lafayette
For more information, call 988-4607, ext. 118