Sunday, May 19, 2024

What Public Schools Can Learn From Parental Rights Movement

Yes, a hefty chunk of the parental rights movement is a fraud, one more disingenuous way to advance the cause of privatizing education by sowing distrust in public schools. Let's stipulate that right up front. 

But let's also note that it has so much success because it taps something real- parental frustration with school. 

Some of this is unavoidable. The notion that as a parent one can engineer a child to grow up according to your exact specifications is both seductive and doomed. Your child will be shaped by a wide variety of forces beyond your control and calculation (ironically, this will include your own parenting choices, which often include both A) choices that don't have the effect you were counting on and B) choices that are the result of your own uncontrolled impulses and baggage). When the child ends up with characteristics that were not part of your plan, whether big ("My kid is a gay atheist!") or small ("My kid does not grasp the cultural importance of The Beatles"), it is easy to start looking around for something to blame, and there is nothing better situated to take the blame than the schools. 

That blame can reach extraordinary distances. I think of one of the respondents to a "turn in your indoctrinatin' teacher or school" survey that North Carolina ran a few years back. The woman wrote

My daughter was raised with sound Biblical values, but just three short years [in]) public school has turned her into a full-blown socialist...even to this day, I cannot have a rational discussion with her regarding anything significant.

This mother was writing fifteen years after her daughter's high school graduation. Fifteen years of being unable to heal her relationship with her daughter, somehow blamed on three years in public school.  

What the whole we-don't-co-parent-with-the-government crowd wants, in fact, is to absolutely co-parent with the government, to make the school an extension of their parenting will, in hopes that that total control of their child's environment will result in a child made to their particular order. And while the aim of this sort of parenting ranges from misguided to toxic, it's understandable and as old as time. 

This, plus so much of the current cultural atmosphere, makes it also natural for schools to get their backs up, to circle the wagons, to play hard-edged defense. 

And yet. 

In a Twitter thread this week, Bill Ferriter, an accomplished educator, ran a thread that started with a simple observation:

There is nothing more disheartening than being the parent of a student who struggles in school.
He goes on to observe that "most building policies aren't designed to support struggling learners" and how this struggle affects your relationship with your own child. And this is tough to read:
You start by encouraging them to succeed and celebrating every success, no matter how small. You wait and hope that "as they mature," they will pick things up quicker and "figure things out

But after years of struggles, that hope and encouragement changes to cajoling, fussing, and punishing because you know the consequences of failing and you feel real urgency for them.

You pressure them in every moment. The first thing you say in the morning is, "Remember to turn your work in today" or "use your time wisely in class" instead of "Have a great day" or "Learn something cool."

I remember my mother, sitting in a training meeting for adult tutors, listening to one of the district's most clueless and inept administrators explain that here was some training they would need about how to deal with students because they were "only mothers." 

And I remember the number of times I was told, as a teacher, to just find a way to move the kid on ahead, somehow. And my colleague who didn't worry about the students in the low class because "what's the point."

I attended my granddaughter's kindergarten graduation from her private Christian school, and I was struck by just how solicitous of the parents they were, how connected they were.

This is what public schools have to learn. There are parents out there who want a connection with the people to whom they've entrusted their child, who want to feel confident that their child, whatever her struggles and challenges, is seen and supported and not simply an anonymous cog in an institutional machine. 

Yes, we sort of already know this, but we can only do so much with what we've got. Yes, this isn't entirely on schools-- there are parents who are checked out and absent and, in a non-zero number of cases, dangerously toxic. Yes, there are mountains of teachers who are fighting this same fight against institutional machinery from the inside of the machine. I taught high school students; a big year at open house was three or four parents out of 150. 

And yes, after the past several years of being called groomers and pedos and marxist indoctrinators on the daily, many teachers are not sure what to expect (or fear) when they see a parent headed for them. Yes, school districts are largely run and staffed by people who were good at Doing School and so reflexively value that ability over others. 

And double yes, the past couple of decades of reformsterism has ramped up the incentives and requirements for school districts to become more machine-like and institutional, to become upside down schools that are more concerned about what students will do for the district ("Get those test scores up, kid") than what the district can do for the student.

In short (okay, not so short), there are all sorts of things that are true at the same time, all sorts of factors converging on schools and parents in a complicated, often ugly mess. 

But it is still worth remembering that tucked in among the astro-turf and professional activists bent on privatizing education is a number (a number that varies from district to district depending, in part, on how well your district already functions) of parents who want to be seen and heard and who want their children to be seen and heard and valued and cared for and supported through whatever struggles they may have. 

Public education would gain nothing from a stance of "the customer is always right," and an administrator who always says yes to parents on the phone so that the parents will shut up and go away is not doing anyone favors. 

But there can be no doubt that some public schools could do a far better job of seeing and hearing the families they serve, even if that means difficult conversations. It should be a value set and pursued by administration, including the institutional support of teachers doing their best to pursue those values. 

Would doing better end the attacks from the various privatizer groups? No, not a bit. But it would make life better for some students and their families, and it would bring schools more in line with what their mission is supposed to be. 

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