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Schools

It takes parents too to teach

Bay area teachers think the gap in performance could be closed with more help from family, a poll shows.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published May 22, 2006


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  Read other Times education polls stories

With one year in Hillsborough County public schools behind him, 23-year-old Adam Wood is a rarity.

Ask him where school districts should direct their energy in the fight to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, and he looks inward.

The focus, he said, should be on teacher performance.

Wood was one of only 2 percent of teachers in a St. Petersburg Times poll to give that answer.

One in four of his colleagues in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties say the focus should be on increasing parental involvement in their children's education.

That sentiment was more pronounced in Pinellas, where nearly 40 percent of teachers said disengaged parents are the problem.

Across the two counties, more than 60 percent say the answer lies with both teachers and parents.

"I think teachers are always going to blame parents, and parents are always going to want to blame teachers,'' said Wood, a music teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Plant City. "No one really wants to take responsibility for it.''

The gap at Lincoln is typical of public schools throughout the area and state. Black children there perform at 25 to 35 percentage points below their white and Hispanic peers.

"Even if it is the parents' fault, there's nothing we can do about it,'' Wood said. "Our job is to do the best job in the eight hours we have these students.''

While out of step with many of his colleagues, his views align with a growing number of educational leaders who say the gap can be closed by working harder within the schoolhouse, regardless of the damage to minority students from strong outside forces such as popular culture, poverty and even poor parenting.

Teachers - more than any other factor - are the key to closing the gap, these educators say, pointing to low-income schools and school districts that already have closed the gap.

That 25 percent of teachers in the Tampa Bay area's two largest districts do not subscribe to this idea should trouble local policymakers, said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a nonprofit, independent group working to close the gap.

"I would be worried about the ones who say (the focus should be on) parents only,'' she said, "because it's a sign that they don't believe in their own power to affect student performance.''

She found no problem with the 62 percent who said parents and teachers are the key because it indicates a sense of shared responsibility. But she would have rather seen a larger number focus on teachers alone.

"I think I'd worry a lot more in Pinellas than if I were in Tampa,'' Haycock said.

In Pinellas, school superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he worries about the impact "nonbelievers'' have on their colleagues.

"We have to keep pushing and we have to keep doing the right things for all the kids, and that's going to make some people uncomfortable,'' he said. "It's going to make people struggle with their continued employment. But we didn't sign up to teach only some of the kids.''

Meaning only the kids with involved parents.

The idea that teachers can close the gap when parents don't participate is a tough sell to many teachers, whose day-to-day observations tell them otherwise.

"Based on experience, it seems like there is a direct link between the parents that I have contact with and the performance of the students,'' said Kelly McGee, a teacher at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg.

She said she never met the parents of half the kids in her class this year. One mother picked up her child's report card on the last day of school, she said. "I have not met her all year, and it's one of my struggling students.'' McGee said one problem may be the decline of neighborhood schools brought about by the Pinellas school choice plan, which makes it difficult for some parents to meet with teachers.

Like McGee, Pinellas teacher Richele Collins listed parental involvement as the prime factor in the gap when contacted by a Times pollster.

"I feel that teachers can always improve on their side,'' she said. "But what I've been seeing is that a lack of parental involvement really hinders what we can do. We can only go so far.''

A teacher of emotionally handicapped students at Frontier Elementary in Clearwater, Collins emphasized that many parents are involved.

Haycock, the Education Trust director, said there are numerous studies indicating teachers are the most significant factor in lagging student achievement among black and Hispanic children - ahead of poverty, parenting and other variables.

She cites studies in Texas, Tennessee and Massachusetts in which researchers found that some teachers were able to achieve far greater gains in student performance than others.

In a Dallas study, a group of teachers deemed "highly effective'' based on their past performance were assigned to a group of fourth-graders for three consecutive years.

The students' reading scores rose 17 points to the 76th percentile. When a group of "ineffective'' teachers was assigned to a similar fourth-grade group, scores fell 18 points to the 42nd percentile.

As president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, Trenia Cox has publicly questioned whether Pinellas teachers have the right attitudes when it comes to handling black children. But she said last week that some of her own relatives, who are teachers, took her to task recently for those remarks.

"I'm developing more empathy (for teachers), but my expectations are still the same,'' said Cox, who has helped lead an effort to press the Pinellas school system to work harder on the gap.

She agrees that teacher performance is paramount, but says the responsibility should be shared.

"Schools hide behind a lack of parental involvement, and parents say the (school) environment is not warm and fuzzy,'' Cox said. "They've both got to come off their positions for the sake of the child. At the end of the day, it's that working partnership that's going to help us close the achievement gap.''

Despite negative opinions on morale, standardized testing and other issues, Pinellas and Hillsborough teachers were surprisingly optimistic about the gap, a problem that has stumped educators for decades.

While 27 percent said the gap will never be closed, nearly 70 percent said they believe a solution to the gap is out there somewhere.

McGee, who was part of that majority, said the positive response might have had something to do with the recent release of third-grade test scores, which showed huge gains for children at North Shore Elementary.

"That was a morale booster at our school for sure,'' she said.

"There's got to be a way to help everybody,'' said Collins, the Frontier Elementary teacher.

"If you don't think you can help most children, why did you go into teaching?''

For Wood, the young teacher at Lincoln Elementary, solving the gap is a matter of will.

"I think there's a solution out there,'' he said. "Whether we as a society will actually implement those solutions is another question.''

[Last modified May 22, 2006, 05:32:22]


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