Parents and Schools: The 150 Year Struggle for Control in American Education
reviewed by Lee Shumow - 2002
Title: Parents and Schools: The 150 Year Struggle for Control in American Education
Author(s): William W. Cutler III
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226132161, Pages: 296, Year: 2000
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Scholars, educators, and parents agree that good relationships between parents and schools benefit students. Consensus has not been reached about how those good relationships should be achieved, who holds responsibility for what, and where control should reside in making educational decisions. The book Parents and Schools: The 150 Year Struggle for Control in American Education points out that issues and problems relating to home school relationships, and the struggle for resolving them, are not new. Heretofore, little attention has been paid to the history of the home school relationship in American education. This book provides a historical perspective that will inform scholars, advanced students, and practitioners.
Using minutes from meetings, committee reports, policy statements, association records, published articles, research reports, and histories published by scholars, Cutler traces the relationship between parents and schools from 1840 until the 1990s. The book does much to explain how the current relationship between parents and schools developed and provides reason to question simplistic solutions to our nation’s educational problems.
In demonstrating that parents and schools had an adversarial relationship 150 years ago, Cutler provides ample evidence for the old adage that history repeats itself. In contrast to the considerable control exercised by parents earlier in American history, Cutler explains that by the mid-nineteenth century, schools, especially those in urban areas, had gained considerable authority over children’s education. Although educators then recognized the importance of parental influence, they often characterized that influence as negative, branding parents as adversaries whose bad influence needed to be overcome or forgiven as arising out of ignorance. Mirroring complaints I have heard in schools today, Cutler shows that parents were often blamed either for irresponsibility and disinterest or for demandingness and intrusiveness. Interestingly, as they have recently, conflicts stemming from ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural differences arose during the nineteenth century because some parents wanted their first language spoken and taught in the schools, and other parents wanted values and morality to be taught at home rather than in the school.
Cutler describes how, by the end of the nineteenth century, educators had embraced the idea that parents were natural advocates and that schools could benefit and better realize their goals by forming alliances with parents. Schools responded by organizing and leading parent and teacher associations that raised money and provided resources to schools. The associations also provided parent education programs and met parents’ social and recreational needs. Although parents were characterized as allies and advocates by schools early in the twentieth century, Cutler argues that the role and mission of parent teacher organizations, the responsibilities of home and school, and the preferred type of interactions between home and school were all unclear.
Amidst talk of reciprocity, the direct influence parents had in their children’s education eroded, as schools became systematized bureaucracies with professional staff that made decisions based on specialized knowledge and education. By 1920, evidence indicates that educators characterized home school relationships as public relations to be managed by school administrators. Schools sought to create a favorable impression with the goal of strengthening parental cooperation and commitment to the school. Educational leaders acted in their best interest to define and to control parental involvement in schools. According to Cutler, progressive schools attempted not to manipulate parents yet needed to convince parents to accept progressive methods.
Although interesting and important to understanding parent school relations, Chapter 3, which examines the role of gender in home school relations, somewhat interrupts the flow of the book. Cutler makes the case that mothers, in particular, rarely participated in decision making. Men from the community tended to serve on boards of education or in other leadership roles (some women did serve but were expected to defer to men) while women tended to join parent teacher associations. Two case studies are presented to elaborate on the "gendered politics of suburban school reform".
Cutler’s description of urban schools struggling with totally inadequate resources to educate the children of immigrants and blacks at the beginning of the twentieth century amidst rhetoric about the importance of education from policymakers strikes one as astonishingly similar to the situation today. Also familiar is the blame leveled on either teachers or parents for low-income urban children’s struggle to succeed academically. Cutler documents how reformers and educators became allies in trying to educate, influence, and reform parents to improve students’ situations. Schools hired social workers, school nurses, visiting teachers, and counselors, gradually taking over at least some responsibility for health and employment. Initially, schools focused on immigrants and minorities living in poverty. But, by the 1930’s and following WWII, schools attempted to extend their reach into middle class home to influence parent support of children’s psychological adjustment. At that time, the division of responsibility and obligations between schools and homes was, at best, unclear. Cutler argues "since 1945, American schools have paid a high price for not living up to expectations. Unable to deliver on all their promises, educators have become a convenient scapegoat for their own and the nation’s lack of vision."
In the final chapter, Cutler documents how an adversarial relationship between homes and schools grew between the 1960’s and the 1980’s. The chapter details how teachers unions, demographic realities (maternal employment, inner city poverty), and parents right groups contributed to growing mistrust between schools and parents. By the 1990’s, ideas to achieve reconciliation appeared, but the solutions offered have not yet been agreed upon or realized.
The historical perspective presented in the book is illuminating for scholars and for those who want to influence home school relations. The book certainly dispels the romantic notion that schools and parents enjoyed strong supportive collaborative relationships at an earlier simpler time. In the epilogue, recurring themes are identified and Cutler concludes "a cycle of failure will repeat if the home and the school continue to follow their historical paths. …. (home and the school) each has a separate, but related task to perform that can be accomplished only in collaboration."