It's an honest question, and one that I am surprised hasn't come up in class yet. For a very long time now, the view has been that schools need to do it all. On the one hand, some people are quick to jump and blame the parents (they don't care, they are lazy, etc.) without really exploring why parents may not be involved. True, there are always parents who may not care (and it's not just an urban thing--they exist in all communities). For me there is a deeper issue that needs to be explored: the responsibility society has placed on schools.
There's an interest blogpost in the New York Times that a Chicago teacher posted. It's a wonderful post on so many levels, but it raised the issue of how much schools and teachers can do. You can read the post here. There are also some really great comments attached to the post.
In the 1800's and early 1900's, especially after school became compulsory (e.g., required by law), schools were expected to play the role of "parent" while students were in school. It was called "en loco parentis." On a deeper level, though, schools were expected in some communities to replace parents. The goal here was to make students "American" and to remove as much of the "immigrant" from them as possible. The ironic thing about all of this is that society wanted schools to assume the role of parent, and yet, it still blames parents for not being involved enough.
In fact, we see this today with parents. Schools and teachers tell parents they want them involved in their children's education. But the truth is, they don't want them too involved. I hear stories all the time from both sides. Parents are pushy, and try to tell teachers how to do their jobs (from teachers); teachers and schools are unresponsive or patronizing (from parents). On many levels, this complex relationship has nothing to do with teachers, parents, and students. The system itself relies on these three groups not coming together. The truth is, teachers and parents have a lot of the same concerns. If they were to actually work together, they would be a very powerful block that could get things done. In this sense, they are a threat to the way things are and the way things are done. Just imagine if they all got together to voice their concerns, together, regarding the way in which No Child Left Behind has narrowed the curriculum.
So back to my original question: Just how much can teachers and schools do? They can't do what society expects them to do. They cannot eliminate poverty (though some would like to believe they can). They cannot make society equitable (they are part of society). They cannot fight abuse, unemployment, jobs being shifted overseas, no health care. And yet, too often all of this becomes their burden, on top of teaching. The end result is that teachers are spread too thin. This means the difference between doing one or two things really well and doing a lot of things mediocre.
Ultimately though, teachers get the blame (and parents, too) and students suffer.