Want Helicopter Parents Gone? Teach Your Students To Fly

January 27, 2013, 10:34 am

In today’s New York Times KJ Dell’Antonia weighs in on helicopter parenting, speculating that one outcome of articles like his is to give some parents the warm and fuzzies. After having read about how other people’s  kids wander clueless through their educations, “most readers get to give themselves a pat on the back. They would never do such crazy stuff! Therefore, they are not helicopter parents. Case closed — off to drive the kid to hockey practice as soon as I pack up his bag.”

Dell’Antonia missed the second audience for this article. College teachers and university administrators will be re-posting it to Facebook, with hair-raising stories about the heli-relllies who have been camped out in the President’s waiting room, grimly awaiting action on last semester’s Epic Fail. Parents intervening on behalf of young people who have screwed up in some dismal way or another is a fact of life in higher ed. Deans, often at very high levels, spend hours of their time negotiating with parents about whether a student who dropped the ball will have a failing grade scrubbed or be permitted some kind of do-over.

This situation has only gotten worse as demands for accountability, linked to federal and state funding for institutions of higher education, have proliferated. Even though attention to students’ academic needs varies dramatically across and within the categories of what constitutes college, the accountability warriors tend not to discriminate between for-profits (whose main goal is to liberate students from their money, and for whom student failure has benefits) and non-profits (who need to sustain the school’s reputation, ethical commitments  and bottom line, which means finding a way to serve, support and retain students who are struggling.)

As you polish off your syllabus this weekend, however, think about this: regardless of how many rules and rubrics you publish, most of your students do not understand the relationship between what they have put into a course, what they have learned, and what grade they receive. This is because their high schools do not function that way any more.

A student who has been educated at a run of the mill secondary school, where parents are justifiably interventionist as they help their progeny navigate absurd bureaucracies staffed by negligent and rule-obsessed people, often succeed and go on to good colleges because of that advocacy. Students whose parents are intimidated by or have no time to engage the school apparatus do less well, and are much less likely to end up in a college classroom at all. Everyone in education research knows this. This is why many public charter schools make a “contract” that commands parental engagement a prerequisite for admission (potentially screwing a lot of kids from untogether or working families, but that’s another post.)

One of the biggest complaints I hear from university colleagues everywhere is the endless, often inappropriate, email they get from students (which, equally inappropriately, they sometimes post to Facebook.) Well, guess what? When high school students advocate for themselves, or communicate with their teachers about an assignment, they rarely do it in person. As far as I can tell from the kids I know, many public school teachers have their most frequent, and only one-to-one, interactions with their students over email.

At college, the environment is different, but many young people have been powerfully influenced by their first thirteen years of schooling. Students usually have access to many choices and resources but no idea how to access them or when to do so. They may have no familiarity with getting help from a teacher, what is an appropriate email to send when asking for help, what office hours are for, how to negotiate a late assignment (not turning in homework may have meant an unrecoverable zero in their high schools), and other crucial tasks.

I have also come to believe that many students may not truly understand that coming to class matters. Many high school classes, even Honors and AP, are organized around plodding through a task supposedly done the night before, or are given over to doing tomorrow’s “homework.” Some of the best students you have from large, public high schools cut classes all the time because nothing really happens there — furthermore, they quickly learn that the white kids students in the college and honors tracks aren’t disciplined for cutting. When confronted with a horrible college midterm grade, previously successful students are likely to interpret that grade as disciplinary, or that a professor doesn’t like them, rather than understanding what we are trying to convey: absences and lateness = less learning.

Conversations about institutional accountability, which are usually rote and driven by the desire for quantitative evaluation, have obscured the need for nuanced conversations about what constitutes student accountability and how to teach it. There are a number of reasons why this is so, in my view, and parents may be absorbing disproportionate blame in a system that is serving everyone poorly.

A big culprit is the mind-numbing, rote curricula that students cycle through in order to pass the tests that have been imposed on the national secondary school system to make those teachers accountable. Testing also means that if a state decides that the old standardized test isn’t working and they want to try out a new one, it is likely that for a period of years captive research bunnies students will be tested twice on the same material (last I heard, this was happening in Connecticut.) But even routine testing practices are appalling. In November, Valerie Strauss reported in the WaPo (November 30 2012) that last year a Chicago kindergartener took 14 tests and a fourth grader in the same family took 42 tests. Both children even took tests in gym class.

This is Chicago, people, former stomping grounds of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Is it any wonder the federal government has not done more than trim and reshape the disastrous policies of the Bush administration?

Students do all the work in the testing system. But students have less and less power in a system that explains everything to them about what it means to fail but nothing about what it means to make choices and/or take ownership over one’s intellectual life. In this environment, what parent shouldn’t be in there kicking a$$ on behalf of a kid who may be bewildered much of the time by what s/he is doing at school and why? No wonder that even successful students often arrive at college with only a vague idea about how to navigate the bureaucratic challenges of daily life.

What’s worse is that accountability, and test-taking, are not the same things as learning. With constant parental intervention, and ever-more explicit “expectations” and grading rubrics, students may be well-informed about what constitutes the road to failure, but they may not know what it means to learn.  When I asked my sister, who tutors people of all ages in Spanish, about this she laughed. “Almost no one knows how to study,” she said. “That’s not something anyone teaches.”

With that, I would like to propose a provisional list of skills every student should have upon arriving at college.  And I would like to propose a further step: that colleges institute courses that, in addition to having intellectual content, teach these skills.

  • Making an appointment with a professor and keeping it. This might require a prior exercise, which is:
  • Researching, and writing down (with a pen! In a notebook!) the contact information, office location and office hours of all professors and faculty advisor.
  • Planning the week, when work will be done, when classes meet, and when co-curricular and social events are happening.
  • Planning the semester on a calendar, with study time marked in for exams and research/writing time for papers.
  • Asking a professor for help, even if you don’t think you need it, and having a conversation to identify what it would mean to be helped in that particular situation.
  • Writing a short essay about the possible consequences to learning, rather than the final grade, of missing class, not doing the reading, and handing work in late.
  • Learning how to write a polite, informative, businesslike email that addresses an existing problem without embedding it in a narrative of all the personal reasons why the student is not responsible for the problem.  In fact, students could be led through a series of facilitated, in-class exercise to discuss well-known pitfalls that sabotage students’ work: taking care of a friend rather than yourself; playing video games; staying up too late and getting sick; drinking more nights than not; scheduling other things during class time; sleeping through class, etc. The point of these exercises would be for students to learn how to solve their own problems.
  • Teaching students to tell their parents, firmly but kindly, that they will handle a problem themselves, even if it means failing the course. Much as faculty and administrators hate having parents charge into the fray, you know who hates it more? The students. But if it has been going on their whole life, they often don’t know how to make it stop.
  • Evaluating a bad situation and decide the best way to address it with attention to learning not grades.  There is a big difference between having done little work in a course, and being on the road to failing it, and having done a lot of work that has not yet paid off. In the first case, dropping the course is probably a good idea. In the second case, getting help, trying to, pulling out the best grade you can and getting the credits towards graduation is what we call education.
Readers? How would you help those students land those helicopters and fly on their own?


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