Let's talk about parental responsibility.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of building young kids' vocabularies to help close achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups. That was triggered by a curriculum audit that said the Fort Worth school district wasn't sufficiently countering economic disadvantages faced by many students, particularly African Americans.

A teacher friend vented on Facebook, and I suspect teachers all over would agree with many of the points made:

"There are NO seminars being offered that discuss how to deal with poor African-American kids. It's not that teachers don't think poor kids can perform. It's that the concept of "catching up" vocabulary-wise is harder than it sounds. ...

"What happens when my students go home is out of my control and whatever I've taught is generally not replicated in any way. Every day is Groundhog Day and we start reinventing the wheel all over again.

"My classroom is WALLPAPERED in vocabulary words, but it's like the old Mr. Potato Head game. You can't attach the ears and eyes and little hat until you have a potato and that potato is a firm language foundation that is SUPPORTED at home."

The frustrations of an inner-city school teacher can't be easily dismissed. They reflect a reality that's hard to understand for people who live well-ordered, relatively comfortable lives.

Public schools are expected to teach kids who come from chaotic homes. Kids who've never been read to and start school not knowing their letters or numbers. Kids who often show up late, if they attend at all. Kids who don't complete homework because no adult saw to it that they did. Kids whose families move repeatedly during a school year. Kids who stay up too late, playing video games, watching TV, looking after siblings, listening to their parents fight or worse, being the "adult" in a household where the other residents of adult age ignore their adult responsibilities.

These aren't excuses for not succeeding. They are factors that have to be considered whenever elected officials are making rules, divvying up money and deciding what's fair and right.

Of course parents are their children's first teachers. Of course parents should send their kids to school prepared to start learning. And of course parents should be expected to reinforce the academic skills their children have developed at school.

And if they don't?

We all lose unless the schools - with indispensible help from their communities and private groups - try to help get parents to fulfill their role and fill the gaps when they don't.

In Washington earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit against the University of Texas that will determine whether colleges and universities can consider race as an admissions factor with the goal of diversifying their student bodies: that is, generally, enrolling more African-American and Hispanic students.

Though the Supreme Court case has received an avalanche of attention because of its political implications for affirmative action, all that energy seems somewhat misplaced.

Unless we find ways to lift more families and their kids from poverty and sufficiently fund schools that take on the enormous task of making up for deficiencies in their students' lives, we won't improve the prospects for getting more students of all backgrounds qualified for admission to college.

Linda P. Campbell writes for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers can email her at lcampbell@star-telegram.com.


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