Meet the Parents

I developed a unique skill during my brief career as an elementary school teacher in inner city Los Angeles: Within moments of entering a new classroom, I was able to glean which students had two parents living at home.

It was really no great feat. The boys whose pants were falling down to their ankles and the girls wearing short skirts were almost always from single-parent homes. I could tell immediately after reprimanding them that they weren't accustomed to hearing a male authoritarian voice. The girls would usually respond to me by rolling their eyes, while the boys would either kick the wall or march out of class.

Even when they remained in class, these students didn't learn much. After all, they weren't in school to learn. As Diane Ravitch recently wrote in the New York Sun, much of what can be done for these students is almost entirely out of teachers' hands:

Get the students to study instead of watching television or playing on their computers or hanging out with their friends. Get them to sleep at a reasonable hour. Get them to comprehend the connection between what they accomplish in school and their chance to have a decent income and life after school. Get them to see the value of visiting museums and libraries. Get them to spend free time improving themselves instead of sleeping late, partying, or going to the movies.

I can't tell you how many of my students would regularly fall asleep in class. They'd tell me that they went to sleep after midnight the previous night because they were playing video games. Indeed, all I ever saw these kids reading by choice were game hint books. One first grade teacher at my school kept toothbrushes in her classroom for the students who regularly came to school unwashed and in dirty clothes.

There's one story from my substitute teaching days that really reveals what teachers are up against. I was in a kindergarten classroom, and one boy was disrupting the class with his frequent outbursts and inability to remain in his seat. This in and of itself was nothing remarkable; I'm sure even Bill Gates had his share of timeouts in the corner. What shocked me was overhearing the boy refer to a girl in the class as a "bitch." It turned out that this 5-year-old child was reciting gangsta rap lyrics as if they were nursery rhymes.

What can you do with students who don't care because their parents don't care? Even the best teachers can only do so much. When there aren't any consequences at home, you can expect bad behavior in the classroom. Unfortunately, this hurts even the students who are trying to learn. Edward Lazear of the Hoover Institution found that, "If, on average, each student disrupts the class 1 percent of the time, the time available for learning drops to 99 percent for a one-student class . . . and to just 74 percent for a class size of 30."

The percentage was even lower for my first year 5th grade class of 35 students. I shudder whenever I think about how much time I wasted that year trying to restore order in the classroom. (My use of the word "restore" incorrectly implies that there was any order to begin with.) While it's true I was a first year teacher with no experience, students who come to class ready to learn (not an unreasonable expectation) can get a good education from an inexperienced but passionate and knowledgeable instructor. As radio talk show host Larry Elder wrote in his book "The Ten Things You Can't Say in America": "It ain't about money. It's about values. It's about discipline and application. It's about character, working hard when you don't want to. And these values are instilled in the home."

Elder knows of what he speaks. He grew up in the South Central section of Los Angeles, the poor neighborhood where I used to teach. Unlike so many of my students, Elder was raised by two loving parents who instilled in him the virtues of hard work and personal responsibility. He eventually graduated from Brown University and earned a law degree at the University of Michigan.

If more parents were like Elder's parents, we wouldn't have to wait for reforms like school vouchers and merit pay to be implemented before witnessing dramatic improvements in school achievement. That is not meant to be an apologia for failing public schools that are resistant to change. But it is important to remember these words from Thomas Sowell: "In some of the most successful schools, especially of the past, the parents' role has been that of giving moral support to the school by letting their children know that they are expected to learn and to behave themselves."

Broken homes are unfortunately most common in inner cities. The late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, speaking about inner-city blacks, wrote in 1965 that "a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken homes, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectation about the future - that community asks for and gets chaos." At the time, about one-quarter of black children were born out of wedlock. Today's rate is near 70 percent. (This is not only a problem in the African-American community: The Hispanic illegitimacy rate is over 40 percent, while the rate for whites is quickly approaching 25 percent.) This trend bodes ill for America's inner cities: 71 percent of all high school dropouts, 85 percent of youths in jail and 85 percent of all children who exhibit behavioral problems come from fatherless homes. Children from single-parent homes have also been found to have higher incidences of truancy, suspensions, tardiness, and absenteeism.

When contemplating the future of the next generation, consider my first year classroom's Open House Night. Out of a class of 35 students, only three parents showed up.

Aaron Hanscom is a Los Angeles-based editor for Pajamas Media; his own blog is Scribblings.