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Parental Guidance Suggested

Simply put, this is nothing short of collective child abuse...

"These numbers are only slightly better than what one would expect by chance as if the kids had never gone to school and simply guessed at the answers," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts. "These numbers ... are shocking and appalling and should not be allowed to stand."

Unh-uh, Mr. Casserly, Detroit Public Schools students posting the worst math scores in the 40-year history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test isn't just a shock or outrage. Michael Vick's mistreatment of pitbulls is a shock and outrage. This, my man, is nothing less than an indictment of our entire city school system on the grounds of sheer criminal neglect.

And while there are plenty of reasons for these dismal numbers -- corruption, incompetence, underfunding, mismanagement, laziness, racism, blind arrogance, materialism, nihilism, resignation, "the low bigotry of soft expectations" -- I'm stunned at how few people, at least in the early reports, want to take to task the people I think are most directly responsible for this crying shame: Sorry-ass parents.

Kick all the political footballs you want, but this isn't about just policies and programs. This isn't about whether the teachers' union needs a new contract. This isn't about whether Robert Bobb, the state-appointed emergency financial manager, can bust enough shady teacher's aides and lunchroom workers to help balance the books.

This comes down to whether mothers and fathers in this city really give a damn about their babies.

Teachers and administrators can only say such things in whispers, of course. And Bobb is loath to say it at all, given how hard he and Bill Cosby are trying to woo these same parents into keeping their kids in, or returning them to, the financially strapped district. In fact, judging by the reports I've seen, he spent more time calling out the school board than anyone else.

"The real fault lies squarely with leadership," he said. "It's not the kids' fault. There's nothing wrong with these kids' minds."

I beg to differ. I mean, sure, physically, Detroit children come with all the same equipment as any other kid, if not more so. Children here are born as capable as kids anywhere else. And as I mentioned when I wrote about Boys Hope Girls Hope just yesterday, many of them are most definitely putting their intellectual tools to good use.

But you're crazy if you think that children who grow up poor, in broken homes, amid violent streets and bombarded relentlessly by the vapidity of American popular culture—read: 12 nonstop hours of MTV/BET—aren't already being set up to fail. And you're even crazier if you think that their parents don't have a big part to play in all this. (A pause here for the standard caveat: Of course not all DPS parents are neglectful. I've met many who are active in the schools and working hard to make things better. But they are too few, too far between.)

School isn't a holding pen where you send your child to get him out of your hair. And neither is school the sort of institution that will run on auto-pilot if parents aren't involved. Given that, classrooms, hallways and PTA meetings citywide should be teeming with moms and dads determined to not let their children go down in the midst of a rotten system. That more of them aren't is more tragic than even those recent test scores.

Quick story: About a year ago, my son's school (which isn't in Detroit) announced that it was introducing a high-tech learning program for its third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students. In this same announcement, school administrators said they didn't have enough room for all of the students and would hold a lottery to determine which children got into the program.

When the suburban parents of this blue-chip school found out that there was a chance that their kids could miss out on this initiative, all hell erupted. E-mails flew. So did threats. There were talks of boycotts, of calling in the ACLU. Either all the kids were going to be eligible for the program, angry parents said, or the school just wasn't going to have a program.

In less than two months, the lottery idea got dumped like an ugly girlfriend, and the school announced that all third- through fifth-grade students would be admitted into the program.

That is how you avoid allowing your children to be part of embarrassing fiascos like the NAEP test. You pay attention. You care, from kindergarten to college. And you act, fearlessly, time and again, until you get the teachers, administrators, schools and students that you want.

Of course, I realize that educating kids is not a job for parents alone. And it's certainly not wrong to criticize everyone else who has a part to play in the city's school woes, be it trifling teachers or thieving administrators. It's going to take a Herculean effort to revitalize education in Detroit Public Schools, and it'll require a whole lot of hands. But even if you brought in the best teachers in America tomorrow (and believe it or not, some of them are already teaching in Detroit), I doubt that you'd move the needle much on those NAEP scores without assists from mom and dad.

These test scores are what they are in large part because we have far too many parents in this town who're more concerned with what their kids wear out of the house than what's in their heads, who'd rather beat up a teacher for flunking or chastising their children than take their own kids to task, who spend more time looking into the latest rumors involving pop stars than they do investigating the schools they send their kids to.

In short, we've got too many stupid parents raising their children to be just as stupid as they are.

And, sadly, it's working.

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