Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Schools We Mean to Be

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Richard Weissbourd

Parents and teachers together are powerful vehicles for driving the moral growth of adults and students.

It is the spring of my son's sophomore year in high school, and my wife and I find ourselves hustling from classroom to classroom for our parent-teacher conferences, trying to protect our allotted 15 minutes with each of his five teachers. With three children, we are veterans of this dance, but this evening I find myself battling desolation. It's not that my son is struggling in school or suffering a serious problem; it's that the two teachers we have met thus far have taken us through the same dreary ritual. The teacher begins the session by pulling out a sheet of paper. She recites my son's test scores or grades and then makes a comment about his being distracted at times and not listening. That "not listening" hangs in the air. I find myself bristling. Is it a euphemism of some kind? Does she find my child difficult? She then tells us that he is "a good kid."

I don't sense that either of these teachers truly knows my son or wonders about what my wife and I are hoping for and fretting about or what we think will help him learn. I know that he doesn't like one of these teachers and that, in his opinion, one of these classes is "hell." Yet neither teacher seems to be aware of how he experiences her class.

Then we meet with a third teacher. She starts off the session by telling us how much she enjoys having our son in her class. She describes his willingness to risk being "dumb" by asking questions for the whole class. She tells us when and how he is confident and when and how he is tentative. She describes his easy relationships with a wide range of classmates and his desire to be helpful. She also talks about his being distracted at times. Yet one of her explanations for this behavior—that any kind of repetitive task is hard for him—helps me understand something about my son that has been opaque to me. She tells us that he never interrupts her or is rude.

She asks us how we think he is doing and if we have any concerns, and she listens carefully to our thoughts. I feel that we are in a common project together, one that is academic but also moral—the project of raising a whole person and a good person. I have to resist the temptation to envelop her in a bear hug.

Cultivating Character

U.S. public schools were originally conceived not solely as an engine of academic success. They were intended chiefly to cultivate in students a certain ideal of character (Hunter, 2000; Katz, 1995). Public schools were charged with the responsibility of taking rising waves of poor urban and immigrant children and molding them into responsible, upright citizens.

Today, the expectation that schools will cultivate character and social responsibility is again widespread. Legions of U.S. schools have invested in packaged character-education programs of one kind or another that tout such values as discipline, self-control, responsibility for others, and fairness. Numerous programs focus specifically on generating in students a sense of social responsibility.

Students should clearly know values, and these programs can sometimes curb troubling behaviors or broaden students' sense of social responsibility. But there is another stark truth: Schools have been trying variations of these programs for decades, and rarely do these programs fundamentally change students' moral capacities.

That's because these programs typically have no effect on what matters most. What's at the heart of children's moral development is not the capacity of teachers or other adults to teach values or social responsibility; rather, it's the nature of the relationships that schools establish. Yet these relationships get short shrift in character-education programs.

Parents and Teachers Together

Character-education programs also rarely give any significant attention to the school relationship that can be the most important in determining students' moral prospects—the relationship between parents and teachers. Although many factors affect students' moral development—peers, genetic influences, television, and other media—there's no question that parents play the primary role in either nurturing—or undermining— children's capacities for kindness, honesty, courage, and moral reasoning as well as their notions of justice and their sense of responsibility for others. Effective efforts to instill ethical abilities and social responsibility in students must be deeply interwoven with the work of engaging parents meaningfully.

Yet it's still the exceptional school that enables parents to feel integral to the school community and that nurtures close teacher-parent ties. Further, many schools, especially in middle- and upper-class communities, are dealing with micromanaging, aggressive parents who sometimes act selfishly and disrespectfully themselves in their interactions with school staff. Daunted by the task of influencing parents, many schools have opted instead to simply keep them at bay.

In an era when schools are under the gun to improve student performance, administrators are understandably looking for quick fixes and shortcuts. Yet there are no straightforward or easy ways for schools to develop powerful moral capacities in students, and students tend to sniff out exactly how half-baked most character-education programs are.

If we are serious about promoting students' moral development in schools, it's crucial to focus both on adult development—on the mentoring and moral capacities of teachers and parents—and on how teachers and parents can work together more constructively. Why do these relationships so commonly go awry? How can schools constructively work with aggressive and demanding parents? We need to make schools places where we adults—both teachers and parents—are not simply, as educators Harvard Knowles and David Weber (1981) put it, more adept than students "at manipulating the rhetoric of morality" (p. 87). Instead, schools should encourage adults to examine their own values, moral abilities, and attitudes; reflect on the school as a moral environment; and strive together to ensure that students grow up to be good people in the world.

Moral Mentors

Parents and teachers can clearly be more effective if they agree on what values are important to promote and on how to promote them. Yet the best parent-teacher relationships are not just about promoting generic values. In the strongest relationships, parents and teachers mentor each other and achieve something wonderful—a kind of pure focus, uncluttered by their own issues and agendas, on the interests of a child, as the third teacher did at our son's parent-teacher conference.

In the best relationships, both parents and teachers can be vulnerable and self-aware, thinking together about how they might better handle a child's trouble, and pooling their knowledge to understand the many interacting factors that may undermine a child's capacity for caring or responsibility.

Seven-year-old Anna, for example, can act arrogant and entitled with other students, partly because from an early age her parents, as they recognize, have catered to her every need. It's vital for her parents and teacher, putting together their different perspectives, to think through how they might help Anna become more attuned and attentive to other people both inside and outside of school.

Fifteen-year-old Fred acts surly and superior with his teacher: He is reeling from his parents' divorce and is ashamed of and enraged at his father, who has just left his mother for a much younger woman. According to his mother, two of his teachers, who don't know about the divorce, have simply stamped him as a "child with an attitude" and are far too quick to punish him. Fred also feels that his mother now relies on him to be a kind of partner to her, a role he resents. Whether Fred emerges from this experience more or less able to control destructive feelings and more or less respectful of adults will depend on his teachers' and parents' ability to think through the roots of his defiance, including their own roles, and develop strategies for constructively engaging him.

It's not just teacher-parent contacts that can affect students' moral growth. As I will take up later, schools can engage parents in a moral community that pushes parents to look beyond their own children and that bolsters parents' moral and mentoring capacities.

What Gets in the Way?

Many factors can undermine parent-teacher relationships. Many teachers fail to form real alliances with parents because they fear that getting below the surface will stir up conflict. The great educator John Dewey was a fierce enemy of the politeness and formalism (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003) that can stifle the parent-teacher relationship. Some teachers, especially high school teachers, don't see it as their job to work closely with parents to understand a student, and many teachers are so stressed and overextended that they fall back on reciting test scores, as did the first two teachers at my son's parent-teacher conferences.

Other teachers worry a great deal about disappointing parents. "Parent-teacher conferences are by far the most stressful times of the year for me," a warm, intelligent teacher, who is also a parent, told me. "Parents are handing over responsibility for their child's learning to me. And it's terrifying to think that I might fail or even be perceived as failing."

Further, the reasons that parent-teacher contacts do not go well can starkly differ between poor and middle- and upper-class communities. Low-income parents are often suspicious of schools—they frequently have bad memories of their own time as students—and they commonly have little experience advocating for their children in school. The challenge in low-income communities is often to help parents overcome these suspicions and barriers, whereas the challenge in well-off communities is often to keep overbearing parents from disrupting school functioning.

High-End, High-Maintenance

I first became attuned to the pervasiveness of this problem in better-off communities talking to David, a tall, slightly mischievous man who had been a beloved teacher in a junior high school in a middle-class Boston suburb for more than 20 years. He recently decided to leave the profession because he couldn't deal with parents anymore. He told me that one parent who was upset about his daughter's grades wanted to read every student's paper in the class to see whether the teacher had fairly graded his daughter. Another parent, whose son was outright rude, encouraged his son to ignore David's attempts to discipline him. A third parent asked him to overlook her daughter's plagiarism. The worst, though, were parents who "were always seeking an advantage for their child"—parents who wanted him to give their child "extra attention" or who pushed the school to provide more enrichment classes for their intelligent child. "A lot of parents are just advocating for their kid," he said, "and they don't care about how they might be hurting other kids."

Other teachers have expressed their concern about parents who want to have their fingers in every aspect of the classroom experience. One suburban teacher told me that she will never forgive a parent who got on her knees and sniffed the classroom rug to see if it was producing odors that might bother her child. Psychologist and school consultant Michael Thompson says that sometimes what teachers want is for children to have a "parentectomy" (1996).

However, it's not just the difficult, micromanaging parents who create unreasonable burdens on teachers. Many other parents cause difficulties in subtle, unintended ways. I know I have experienced a kind of tunnel vision when it comes to my children and have lost sight of teachers' perspectives. I recently heard a teacher complain about parents who try to talk to her when they drop off their child in the morning, a crucial period for her in preparing for class. I felt the sting of recognition—I had done this more than once. Some parents try to befriend teachers as a way of currying favor for their child or hang around the classroom, scrutinizing teachers and peppering them with suggestions.

In affluent communities especially, teachers can feel that they are under the parents' microscope. Teachers frequently believe that these adults who are judging them not only are biased toward their own child and but also are unaware of the demands and purposes of a teacher's work. It's no wonder that many schools try to keep parents at arm's length.

A Common Moral Project

Hard as it is for any teacher or administrator to deal with difficult parents, no school serious about moral development can simply keep them at bay—because the children of these parents are likely to be at greatest moral risk. Schools do not have to set out to fundamentally change these parents. But they can provide teachers with ongoing support and guidance in working with them, including helping teachers to avoid easy finger pointing and scape-goating and to manage class biases. For example, it can be helpful for teachers to see that some parents who come across as arrogant and entitled may be fearful, isolated human beings who are terrified of handing over their child to a stranger or of losing control over their child.

Schools, whether rich or poor, can engage parents in a moral community that creates moral expectations for parents and pushes them to look beyond their own children. That means, in part, finding multiple ways to engage parents—as classroom volunteers, on parent councils, as members of teams devoted to particular projects. And it means that schools need to clearly articulate their moral goals and expectations for both parents and students through moral charters—clear, visible statements of a school's values. More important, these charters cannot just collect dust or become part of the scenery, their typical fate. They need to live and breathe not only in classrooms, but also in every aspect of school life.

My children attended a public elementary school that brought both parents and students into a kind of moral community. Our interactions with teachers, school events, posters on walls, and communications from our principal all expressed a set of moral commitments:

  • That both parents and students are members of a community and have responsibility for all members of that community.
  • That every student has intellectual and personal contributions to make to the learning of the whole community.
  • That the school has the responsibility to recognize and support those contributions.
  • That school is preparation not only for a career, but also for many facets of citizenship.
  • That diversity is of high value and that the community will engage and test diverse opinions.
  • That students must learn to identify and address social inequities and injustice.

Our parent-teacher conferences often did not focus solely on our own child, but on how our child might be helpful to other children in the classroom, as well as on schoolwide concerns and the possible roles parents could play in helping deal with those concerns. Homework was often about issues of equity and fairness, and sometimes students were asked to engage their parents as part of this homework. Teachers regularly expressed their commitment to all students in the building—not just to the students in their classroom—and went out of their way both to work with students who were marginalized and struggling and to engage those students' parents.

Recently this school had to merge with another school that has large numbers of students who are academically struggling, a challenge most schools would be skittish about. This school staff openly embraced the challenge and encouraged parents to embrace it as well.

What Schools Can Do

Schools and parents can do specific, concrete things to create the conditions that make strong relationships possible. In parent-teacher conferences, for instance, parents might start the session by reporting something positive that their child has said about the teacher—something parents rarely do. When teachers, for their part, start a parent-teacher conference by identifying a distinct strength of a child—and explain how that strength expresses itself in a classroom, as that third teacher did with my wife and me—they can set a parent-teacher conference on a wholly different path than if they recite test scores or immediately zero in on problems. It also helps if teachers use "we" with parents (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003). In moving a child forward or responding to a child's difficulty, rather than asking "What are you going to do?" or "What am I going to do?" why not ask "What are we going to do?" so that you can establish a constructive alliance.

Schools also need to have students read about and interact with moral exemplars, men and women of strong conviction who are working to improve the world. Schools should not only provide community-service opportunities that enable students to work with moral leaders but also routinely invite such leaders into school to address students. In addition, students should have opportunities to reflect on values and mull over moral dilemmas and questions, especially those that emerge from their daily experiences. At Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Massachusetts, for example, a group of students creates dramatic presentations annually that explore community-wide social and ethical concerns, such as whether a student should snitch on a good friend who is stealing from the store where he works.

The Child Development Project, based in Oakland, California, and Open Circle, based outside of Boston, Massachusetts, also guide teachers in creating a democratic community. Students do structured exercises that help them take the perspectives of other students—in Open Circle, for example, students take others' points of view in deciding when teasing is and is not harmful—and they have opportunities to create rules for the community, solve classroom problems, and determine sanctions. Students are far more likely to embrace a rule or value when, instead of having an adult dictate that rule or value, they come to it through their most prized capacity— their ability to think. Well-structured community-service programs and opportunities for older students to mentor younger students can also bolster key moral qualities.

It's also crucial that teachers regularly reflect and get feedback from one another about their relationships with students. Students don't absorb the values and moral commitments of teachers they don't respect, and large numbers of students don't trust and respect their teachers. Teachers need to be able to talk with other teachers and administrators about why certain students don't respect or trust them and about what they might do to repair these relationships.

At the same time, teachers, like other adults, need to work on developing their own moral and mentoring capacities. It never dawns on most teachers— or on most adults—to work on these qualities. There's a widespread belief in our culture that our moral qualities are fixed as adults. Yet research shows that some adults morally regress whereas other adults develop much stronger moral capacities. It's vital for teachers to see appreciating and caring for others, acting with fairness and integrity, and formulating mature and resilient ideals as evolving and subtle moral capacities.

Much of this work will be difficult, especially in the many schools where preparing students for high-stakes tests is gobbling up teachers' energy and time. But we know too well the dismal outcomes of the usual character-education bromides. What's more, the things that are most crucial to supporting students' moral development—developing strong connections between teachers and parents and strengthening teacher-student ties—are also crucial to students' academic development. And unlike so many other character-education efforts, this work gives students a real shot at developing the capacities they need to become kind and responsible adults.


Hunter, J. D. (2000). The death of character: Moral education in an age without good or evil. New York: Basic Books.

Katz, M. B. (1995). Improving poor people: The welfare state, the "underclass," and urban schools as history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Knowles, H. V., & Weber, D. (1981). The residential school as a moral environment. In C. L. Terry (Ed.), Knowledge without goodness is dangerous: Moral education in boarding schools. Exeter, NH: Phillips Exeter Academy Press.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2003). The essential conversation: What parents and teachers can learn from each other. New York: Random House.

Thompson M. (1996). The fear equation. Independent School, 55(3).

Richard Weissbourd is Lecturer in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and at the Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

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