Fight the school culture wars by embracing parents
(Bloomberg review) — When Republican Glenn Youngkin won the gubernatorial election last week in Virginia, the first statewide GOP victory in more than a decade, it was widely seen as the vindication of a political strategy to weaponize school board culture wars.
In truth, school board warriors in the United States have not been as successful as some high-profile Democratic defeats suggest. Even in red states like Missouri and Wisconsin, many candidates who advocated banning mask mandates and supposedly teaching what culture warriors tendentiously call “critical race theory” have been defeated. .
But there’s no denying Virginia’s parents were angry with the Democrats. It was partly because a former Democratic governor rejected their demands to reopen schools during the pandemic, even as children in neighboring Maryland, and even New York, returned to classrooms with little effect. harmful.
Most infuriating of all, however, was eventual losing Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe’s inflammatory and misguided statement that parents shouldn’t “tell schools what to teach.”
To suggest that parents have no place in school decision-making is to deny the fundamental role of public schools as places for teaching and practicing democratic values. Schools should want more parental involvement, not less, a matter of equal interest on both sides of the cultural divide. For example, in New Orleans, the nation’s first charter school city, where Democratic- and Republican-backed charter organizations have sought to marginalize parent and community engagement in schools, the reaction was fierce.
At a time of growing calls to increase student voice in school policies, it’s also time to discuss how schools and districts should engage parents in a conversation about school curriculum and policies, and not just as a way to counter politically motivated attacks.
Engaged parents – and school-family partnerships – have long been considered a key ingredient in student success. It goes beyond parent participation in class trips or ensuring homework is done.
“Parents have certain experiences in the community; if we want to be responsive, we need to understand the context of communities,” said Mary Ellen Daneels, civics expert and mentor teacher in Chicago, noting that many teachers do not live in the communities where they teach.
While most parents trust their schools and teachers, school administrators need to broaden the lines of communication and strengthen alliances with school communities. This means holding frequent family meetings – including Saturdays and evenings when it’s easier for working parents to attend (a gesture that alone would build goodwill) – to explain goals, the values and curriculum of the school and how they are developed. Including parents on program committees can provide educators with new perspectives, identify potential trouble spots, and build trust – although educators should have the final say on the program.
Teachers and administrators should also avoid debating hot-button issues like critical race theory, an academic concept that has been influential among some liberal educators but isn’t actually taught in K-12 grades. Instead, they should focus on what the schools are teaching, which are mostly lessons aligned with state standards.
“If you take the bait, you’re a fish,” said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education Foundation.
During her time as a principal on Long Island, New York, Burris said she was willing to acquiesce to individual parents who were convinced their children shouldn’t read a particular book. If a parent objected, say, to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — a target of recent culture wars in Virginia and elsewhere — she would ask the teacher to assign that child an alternative book with similar themes.
“Nine times out of 10,” Burris recalled, the child would appeal to her parents to let her read the disputed book to avoid feeling singled out.
Where school board wars are most political, teachers have a valuable role to play in spreading the word about which policies and board nominees best suit the interests of children and schools.
For example, when conservative groups backed four-member school board challengers in suburban Toledo, Ohio, and flooded the area with robocalls and fliers, teachers retaliated by contacting parents; texting friends, neighbors and alumni; and social media posting. School administrators, on the other hand, “don’t have the space to be so political,” said Dan Greenberg, president of the local teachers’ union, which helped lead the resistance.
Ohio is currently debating controversial and potentially punitive laws banning the teaching of “dividing concepts,” and more than half of U.S. states have passed legislation or are debating limits on how schools teach controversial issues, including including race. Yet on election day, all four challengers from the Greenberg area were defeated.
Two years into the Covid-19 outbreak, schools have learned the importance of partnering with teachers, healthcare professionals and parents to make their classrooms safe for in-person learning and to persuade families to get vaccinated. These partnerships must now be strengthened for the benefit of academic policies and curricula. This will benefit children and lessen the impact of political opportunists.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andrea Gabor, former editor of Business Week and US News & World Report, is Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College, City University of New York and author of “After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform.”