Who Chooses What We Teach?

Another good ‘Room for Debate’ page in the NYTimes appeared again this week. This time the question is: Should Parents Control What Kids Learn at School?

My initial response would be that parents should know their child, how they learn best, what their strengths and challenges are, and work with the teachers in the development of the curriculum. Whatever it is that kids learn in school, there are basic fundamentals that children should learn like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers and parents can certainly agree on those. What it is they read, however, may be up for debate. Social/emotional learning is very important too. I wonder, for example, if the social/emotional learning of the Italian captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia had more to with the tragedy than the engineering and ship operational training he received.

I think the most important part in this debate is that all stakeholders start first by agreeing on what fundamentals ought to be taught in schools. For early primary, the academics are obvious, but the delivery and pedagogical methods may not be. Minor philosophies on homework, etc. will always exist, but the overall goals are similar. For example, regardless when people think the correct age may be, they can all agree that kids should be able to read.

Customizing the curriculum has always been how I’ve worked (public, parochial, or private). Every year the range of abilities changes with a new set of students, so why wouldn’t you adapt your curriculum to those different needs. With the new law in New Hampshire (which I haven’t read), it seems like what bothers most is that parents can make any demands on the content. I’ve never had any issues with any parents. Even with ideological or religious differences. I can think of one family years ago, who for their own religious reasons, did not want to participate in Halloween activities at school. While the school respected that family’s ideas and suggested alternatives and modifications, Halloween would still be celebrated at school.

I think it becomes a problem when parents have a different mindset than you about what is age-appropriate content, or if the content seems too ideologically radical for some. In elementary school, it’s possible to see how a simple biography project might go awry if a parent disagreed with the teacher on whether a child’s choice were appropriate. Is a biography about Anne Frank is suitable for an eight-year old? While the biography may be, some of the events surrounding it may be considered too much for a second grader. This actually happened with a student of mine last year. She chose Anne Frank after perusing the biography section in the school library. I was just as tentative as her mother in her choice, but we both agreed that she was a child who was ready to read about those horrific events. Both me and her parents just wanted what was best for her. It would have been different if it were a different child which is why knowing your students (and their families) is so important.  If we are supposed to welcome diversity and embrace its benefits, than we cannot just go with the status quo, and we have to listen to everyone.

Will some abuse a law like New Hampshire’s? I’m sure some will try. Every once in a while, there will be a battle between the over-entitled parent and the extremely inflexible and obdurate teacher, and that is unfortunate. Like so many other things, there is often so much we have in common. A lot that we can come together and work with. If we start where our ideas and values overlap and recognize our differences as strengths to enhance those ideas and values, there is so much we can achieve.

Can an atheist enjoy Christmas carols and Islamic art?

Can someone who’s gay be a Republican?

Can someone working at Microsoft like the iPhone?

Can an epicure eat cereal for dinner one night and love it?

Of course they can, but too often lines are drawn in the sand instead of bridges being built.    Rather than objecting to the curriculum, as one of the writers in the opinion page mentions, parents should use those areas as teachable moments. Teachers should too. I remember a child years ago asking me about the existence of Santa Clause. He just couldn’t see the plausibility of it all. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to break the news to an 8-year old. What I told him was to think critically about it (I’m sure I used different words) and make that decision for himself. I didn’t defer it to his parents nor did I subject him to my thoughts. That was an example where he could make up his own mind. He could grapple with his own dilemma and reach his own conclusions.

Currently, I’m teaching a unit on penguins. What would be objectionable is if a parent insisted that I teach about emus and ostriches instead. There’s no reason why I couldn’t, but there’s no reason why I should either. A follow up question to this debate on whether parents should control what kids learn at school is if teachers can control what their students do at home?


4 thoughts on “Who Chooses What We Teach?

  1. Now you’re asking some really hard questions.

    As to what’s appropriate, I’d say this was not:

    Kindergarten Sex Ed

    My thought is that this is just another step – among many – to wrest control of children away from their parents.

    Some years back, I read Diane Ravich’s Left Back

    From the Book Description:
    “In Left Back, education historian Diane Ravitch describes this ongoing battle of ideas and explains why school reform has so often disappointed. She recounts grandiose efforts to use the schools for social engineering, even while those efforts diminished the schools’ ability to provide a high-quality education for all children.”

    One of the commentors says:

    “A seemly simple question has been at the root of this debate: “What is the purpose of education?”
    “… suitable for an eight-year old?”
    We have to take people as they come. Some 8-year-olds can grasp the horror of Anne Frank’s story; some 48-year-olds have no clue about anything.

    “A follow up question to this debate on whether parents should control what kids learn at school is if teachers can control what their students do at home?”

    Sometimes, parents have to step in and try to fix what kids have been taught in school. That certainly works both ways: the religious fundamentalist who is convinced that the Earth is flat, certainly does his kids no good. Bu neither does the college academic who insists that Marxism is the best thing, the only problem being that it hasn’t been tried hard enough.

    From the Union Leader article (linked from the NYT): “…parents of a student objected …”

    There’s one of the root causes of all the problems we face: One person objects, and we all have to turn tail and run for cover.

    The tyranny of the minority – more often that not, the minority of one.

    Most all of the discussions at the NYT seem to understand the problem – unlike the legislature or the school administration.

  2. In conversations with my students, they often ask about the role of parents in helping to fix so many of the problems we see in the system. For example, Oregon just released the dropout rates for our high schools, and the numbers in my district are grim, to say the least (many schools in the 40-50% range). My students read a lot about the importance of early childhood education and even parent education about ways to interact with their children. I just think this topic is grayer than any of us would like. If parents are not capable (for whatever reason…no blame here), should the school system step in to teach the things that are missing. Should we provide tutors for homework help if parents can’t help or aren’t available after school? Should we lead classroom discussions about parenting since the truth is that many teens do become teen parents? What if no on else is talking about these things with kids? I like to think that I will be discussing all of these things with my kids at home, but I don’t mind my child being exposed to ideas that are different from mine. Isn’t this what learning is all about? My thoughts on this are clearly inconclusive, but your post and this link got me thinking. Thank you!

  3. I think providing kids with facts (though even those can be arguable by some) and teaching them the skills to think critically about them, work together with people who both agree and disagree, and letting them make up their own minds work. Unfortunately, we have too many people who fall into the traps of listening to the rants of say, Kieth Olberman on the left or Rush Limbaugh on the right (depending on their own leanings) and forget to look at the common ground in-between. They need to do some thinking for themselves. Lector, I really like your examples of the extremes of the flat earth and Marxism. Hopefully, if kids are taught to good problem solvers, they can evaluate the facts, find more on their own, evaluate them, debate with others from diverse backgrounds in respectful discourse, and innovate some great solutions, that common ground can be found, and actual work to move forward can be achieved.

  4. zapoura: “If parents are not capable (for whatever reason…no blame here), should the school system step in to teach the things that are missing?”

    The simple answer is yes, but the hard part is that the parents have gone through the same school system, and have come out knowing little. (As an aside, “parenting” is one thing that seems to be strictly an “on the job” thing. It’s one of the few things you don’t even need a license for (like driving) – though not too long ago you did (marriage license).) The other factor is that occasionally, administrators have agendas – as in the “sex education for early grades”.

    [PS: Here in California, the dropout rates are even higher. A reasonable question is “why?”.]

    I’ve read about high-school classes where the girls are told to carry around a 5-lb surrogate baby, 24 hrs a day. I don’t know if it helps.]

    “Should we provide tutors for homework help…”

    Sounds kike a good idea. Education is part of what schools are supposed to do.

    “Isn’t this what learning is all about? ”

    Exactly. But there are ways – for example, we don’t start teaching calculus in 1st grade (or early European history). Part of the difficult job teachers have to work out is what to teach when, and how much.

    amcgrann: “… teaching them the skills to think critically about them,…”

    That is absolutely the key. It’s also not very easy. For example, if Justin Bieber says “X is true”, and the teacher, parents, and anybody else says “X is false”, who do you think they’re going to believe? (That’s one of my pet peeves about “celebrities” spouting off on economics, or foreign policy, or any one of the dozen things they have no clue about.)

    It may be that classroom discussions are a good way to get opinions expressed and debated. But that takes a good moderator, one who knows both sides.

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