CHICAGO -- For as much anxiety as Americans have about whether our schools are letting children down, why don't we spend as much time and effort fretting about whether parents are letting their children down?
We think nothing of grading schools, grading teachers and grading our kids at every turn to make sure that they're getting what they need, but parents are rarely so scrutinized.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gets it right on education sometimes. But he doesn't get credit because his policies are so hated in his hometown. Last spring, the mayor was taken to task for saying something undoubtedly true about the limits of multimillion-dollar investments in early childhood programs:
"The real problem is not just the education of our children. We have parents that can't be parents. We have too many kids, literally, from a broken home," Emanuel was quoted. "As I always say, the most important door a child walks through for their education is the front door of the home. If that home is not right, nothing else in the classroom can supplement it."
Last fall, Emanuel took lumps because he resorted to "incentivizing" parents with gift cards to get them to school for report-card pickup day because so many Chicago Public Schools parents don't bother to show up.
This is just the tip of the iceberg and goes far beyond the complaints of those who rush to defend those who are low-income or minorities against such criticism -- bad parenting cuts across race, age and economic lines.
Face it: America's children are falling behind -- academically, physically, emotionally -- and it is due in no small part to parents' cluelessness about how to raise their kids.
Over Labor Day weekend I saw a front-page story in my local newspaper about the heatstroke death of a 20-month-old Burbank, Ill., boy who was left in a hot vehicle.
Such cases are rare, but a representative of the advocacy organization KidsAndCars.org noted that parents and caregivers could avoid such tragedies through simple methods such as looking in back seats and putting "something important like a cellphone or work ID in the back seat of a vehicle," as if one's own toddler isn't enough.
The real tragedy here is that we need news stories to disseminate what used to be considered simple common sense.
Here's another example from last week: Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan published a paper in the journal Child Development noting that many American parents yell or shout at their teenagers with insulting and humiliating words. Their longitudinal study found that using such harsh verbal discipline in early adolescence can be harmful to teens later and that instead of minimizing teens' problematic behavior, such reprimands may actually aggravate it.
Now we have scientific proof for a well-known phenomenon that has been discussed in probably every parenting book ever published: Loudly belittling your children harms them.
Another paper dropped the jaw that we needed actual research to prove it: Youngsters who had no regular bedtime or who went to bed late at night had lower scores for reading and math than kids who got a good night's sleep. Imagine that.
And doctors are now writing prescriptions for exercise and reading to children to get parents to understand how important such activities are to childhood development.
We talk about the positive impact that universal preschool could have on our education system, our national economy and crime reduction, but parent performance is rarely considered. And when legislators have floated the idea of letting schools grade parents on their participation in a child's education -- by assessing homework checks, dress codes, daily attendance and attendance at parent conferences -- the measures are usually shot down as they have been recently in Florida and Louisiana.
Universal parenting school might seem fanciful compared to universal preschool, but it's an idea that should be given serious consideration if we really want to address all that is holding back today's students.
Esther Cepeda is a syndicated columnist.