I'm not an expert on school reform, but I do know something about children and families.
As we try to clean up the mess we've made of our public school system, I think we also need to take a look at how our families are affecting our children's ability and motivation to learn.
Let me tell you three stories.
Mike is 17. He lives with his family in one of Chicago's nicer suburbs. Both parents are successful professionals who are very involved in their careers.
Mike attends one of the state's premier high schools. Though various aptitude tests have shown Mike to be of above average intelligence, his grades seldom reflect this potential. A consistent C student, Mike will occasionally receive an A or B if he is particularly invested in a subject or teacher. Generally he seems unmotivated and bored.
Mike is not shy in explaining his mediocre academic performance. "Who cares?" is his usual response. "My parents are too busy to hassle me about grades. They just ask me if I'm doing the best I can and then sign off on the card. Hey, man, my grandparents are loaded. I'm never going to have to worry about money."
Susan, 10, lives in another world. Her neighborhood looks like a war zone; sometimes rival gangs turn it into one. Susan's father abandoned the family when she was 2; her mother, Irene, struggles to get by on welfare while taking care of five children. Irene seems constantly depressed, spending most of her time sleeping or watching TV talk shows and soap operas. "It's the best I can do!" she protests to her case worker. Considering the situation she lives in, Irene may be right.
Susan loves school. It is an island of stability in her otherwise chaotic life. Yet funds are so scarce that books have to be shared and cannot be taken home, teachers bring their own chalk, and classes are canceled on cold days because the heating system is inadequate. Once, even toilet paper had to be rationed.
Susan is falling behind. Standardized achievement tests already put her at three years behind her grade level. It will probably get worse. Most of Susan's classmates will not finish high school; many of those who do will have few of the basic literacy skills they need to function in society.
Karen is a grade school teacher in a middle class suburb. She is in her 20th year of teaching; it may be her last. "I'm not prepared for this," she protests. "I studied education, not social work."
Every day Karen finds herself dealing with children whose family problems are undermining their schooling. Troubled marriages, unemployment, alcoholism, divorce, abuse and neglect all have found their way into Karen's classroom.
"Even if I had the time and energy to give to these kids, I don't know that some of them could really learn," she says. "Spelling doesn't seem all that important when you're wondering if you're going to get beat up when you get home."
Certainly our educational institutions need reform. It seems clear that our system of funding schools puts the fewest resources where there is the greatest need. Our schools are top heavy with bureaucrats, staffed by many good teachers who are underpaid and a few bad ones whom these bureaucrats often don't want to do the hard work to get rid of. We need to stress the basics, and not promote children who have not learned what they are supposed to learn.
And that's just the beginning. We could do all of the above, however, and still not improve the quality of education in our nation. The basic ability to learn depends upon our children having a strong and secure foundation upon which to build. And that foundation is the family.
Parents need to take an active interest in their children's education. That doesn't mean doing the work for them, but demonstrating by our interest and encouragement that school is important. A place to study, time set aside to spend together learning, holding up education as a significant value -- all are part of our job as parents.
As a society we need to take a new look at what we are doing to our families. Inadequate social services, a wage scale that all but makes it impossible for the average family to live on one income, the decrease in housing available to middle- and lower-income families, an obsession with money, power, sex and violence in our mass media -- these and a host of other factors are taxing our families to the limit.
Our schools need help. But unless such help comes as part of an overall program aimed at addressing the needs of children and their families, and unless we parents do our part, our efforts at reform are doomed to failure.
Our children deserve better than that.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."