PESPD'S MYTH #2: The American People Want Their Schools to Have Higher Standards
Early in Jay Greene’s book, EDUCATION MYTHS, which is basically a blast at public education, he mentions as fact something that teachers know is a myth: parents want schools to set higher standards for their children. In fact, I would argue that a major reason that the standards of public schools aren’t higher is that we try so hard to give the parents and other people in our communities exactly what they want.
In my book, I have a section called "The American People Blah, Blah, Blah." I wrote it during the political campaigns of 2004 because that’s what I felt like I was hearing anytime I heard a politician talk about education in America. They would say things like, "The American people demand that our schools have high standards," or, "The education of our children is the highest priority for the American people." These politicians and people like Greene make it sound as if the public in general, and parents in particular, are willing to do anything it takes to bring about a better education for our nation's children. The implication is that any educational problems we have are the schools’ fault. Teachers and administrators just aren’t working hard enough. We’re not doing what "the American people" want. Baloney! (I would use a different word that begins with B, but it would seem unprofessional.)
When it comes to supporting education, my community is better than average, but there is no way that it fits the scenario painted by those politicians or Jay Greene. Let’s take my school’s attendance policy as an example.
Quite frankly, I think our school has done a lousy job with this, but that’s because we’ve been losing the battle to parents. I don’t know how many kids in our high school missed 25 or more days of school this year, but it was a lot. They missed so much because their parents consistently write notes for them, and our school didn’t have the guts to tell them "No!" nearly as often as we should have.
Some of the parents who write all these notes are lousy parents, but that’s not always the case. We have tried having policies to deal with our problem, and sometimes it has been parents of some of our best students who have undercut those policies. We used to have a 10 day limit on absences for a semester that worked pretty well, but then an influential member of our community who wanted to take his daughters on a cruise protested, and the policy turned to mush. In March and April, I had four different girls, all of whom were good students, take two full weeks off from school to go to Hawaii with full approval from their parents. Now to me, that is not exactly demanding high attendance standards.
And it isn’t just attendance. When I first started teaching in Warroad after fifteen years of teaching in Mt. Iron, Minnesota, I came with strict policies for cheating and for leaving the room during class. I was forced to back off of both after a firestorm of protest from parents. One of the parents was a school board member who was so irate that he went in and actually started pounding on the principal’s desk. (One lesson I learned from this was that parents are much more willing to challenge a teacher who is new to a district than a fifteen year veteran.)
Demanding high standards? I have worked with a lot of parents of special education kids over the years, and most of them are pretty good, but some of them aren’t. I have sat in on IEP meetings where parents "knew their rights," and demanded the lowest possible standards for their kids. And it’s not just parents of special education kids. Higher standards would almost certainly mean more homework for students. Do you think parents who have their kids working during the school year want that? I don’t think so. And I don’t think the employer in a neighboring community, who encouraged his teenaged workers to skip their afternoon classes so they could work more, would want that, either.
Despite my negativity here, I know there are a lot of good parents out there. I know there are parents who support everything our school tries to do, and everything I try to do. But please don’t tell me that the public and parents are all demanding high standards. Every teacher knows that whenever schools try to raise any standards, some parents will fight us every step of the way.