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Families & the Community Opinion

How Should Educators Respond to Parents Who Criticize What’s Being Taught?

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 24, 2022 20 min read
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The new question of the week is:

How should educators respond to parents who criticize curriculum content that is being taught to their children?

Right-wing activists have ginned up the false narrative about critical race theory being taught in our schools and fanned the flames of LGBTQ+ bigotry.

As a result, many teachers and administrators are under attack from parents and others. What are the best ways to respond to these criticisms when we hear them from parents of our students?

Today, Erica Buchanan-Rivera, Jen Schwanke, Naomi Simmons-Thorne, Michael Gaskell, and Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., offer possible answers.

Erica, Jen, Naomi, and Michael were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

‘Affirming School Environments Will Come With Risks’

Erica Buchanan-Rivera is an educational equity scholar, consultant, community organizer, and author of the newly released book, Identity Affirming Classrooms: Spaces that Center Humanity. She has served in education as a teacher, principal, director of curriculum, adjunct professor, and is currently a director of equity and inclusion in a P-12 public school district in Indiana:

When parents or caregivers raise concerns pertaining to curriculum, I strive to understand the critique and offer reflective questions to seek clarification. It is important to determine whether the concern is about the curricular content or the delivery of instruction (e.g., lack of front-loading, methods that yield to curriculum violence, etc.). Through clarifying questions, I have learned that some families are not concerned about the content—despite categorizing the complaint as a content issue—but may want educators to be more equipped and intentional in their approaches or implementation. Therefore, as an initial response, I advise educators to unpack what parents or caregivers perceive as a problem and serve in a listening role.

We also exist in a sociopolitical climate where ideological, predominantly white groups are strategically organizing to censor conversations about race or eliminate curricular content that does not align with their beliefs or worldview. As an educator in Indiana, I am cognizant of organizations that purposefully target and subject teachers to harassment by posting their instructional lessons and work location online. These strategic efforts to censor curriculum are challenging for an educator to confront in isolation. Leadership matters.

Teachers need the support of educational leaders (e.g., principals, directors, superintendents, board members, etc.) who are committed to centering the diverse cognitive needs and well-being of children, not the bigotry of adults. As educators who work with culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse youth, it is our role to create learning experiences that are relevant and meaningful in the lives of children. Culturally responsive practitioners acknowledge the identities and histories of students, recognizing that schools can be brave spaces where youth can discuss the injustices that are glaringly visible in society. We cannot use hope as a strategy to eliminate disparities, including inequities in education, health care, housing, employment, and legal systems. However, we can teach the truth about the complexities of our world, help youth develop critical thinking skills, and empower students to think about how they show up for humanity.

Most school districts from my professional and consultation experiences have core values or missions that speak to the value of diversity, inclusive environments, and meeting the needs of the whole child. You can leverage an institution’s core values or beliefs in responses to curricular critiques. One’s effort to protect their child should not be rooted in the dehumanization or erasure of someone else’s child.

As educators, we must be clear that creating an affirming, inclusive environment means that we do not discard the voices and narratives of people who have been deliberately marginalized throughout history. We do not convey that only some stories matter and that certain identity groups (*whispers white, cisgender children*) are worth protecting.

The work of creating responsive, affirming school environments will come with risks. We may have to experience uncomfortable conversations and choose courage over comfort. There may also be times when we need to unlearn practices and remain open to criticism, while knowing that good intentions can still yield harm. Yet, through it all educators should feel the support and visibility of leaders, knowing that they are not alone while working through curricular critiques and opposition from political movements.

wemayhaveerica

‘Listen’

Jen Schwanke has been an educator for 24 years, teaching or leading at all levels. She is the author of three books published by ASCD, the most recent of which is titled The Teacher’s Principal. She currently serves as a deputy superintendent in Ohio:

Twenty years ago, I was challenged about curriculum content by a parent who felt a particular resource was “against the principles of our Founding Fathers.” If I continued with it, she said, she would contact the board of education. As many new teachers would, I feared for my job, my teaching certificate, and my reputation. I backtracked, changed my plans, and never used that particular resource again. I’ve felt a low-grade guilt ever since. Why hadn’t I been stronger? I should have explained my rationale and defended what was an excellent and appropriate choice of materials.

With time and confidence—and a strong belief in the teacher’s role in academic decisionmaking—I no longer feel anxious when challenged about curriculum content. On the contrary, I welcome it as a chance to engage in an open dialogue with parents. Disagreement can lead to compromise. My guiding principle: A parent can opt their child out of a curricular resource, but they do not have the right to make decisions about other parents’ children.

These days, teachers are at the receiving end of intense questions about curriculum and resources. This criticism feels like a personal betrayal of the trust we need to have with our parents and students. Public education is about teaching to all children. It’s about upholding the democratic principles of a nation. It’s about having an educated public who thinks critically about issues facing our world. Curriculum should help us meet those goals.

When teaching graduate students about curriculum, I tell them there are five types: The written curriculum, the taught curriculum, the assessed curriculum, the learned curriculum, and the absent curriculum. There are many other related tributaries of these, but knowing these five can help a teacher recognize where the parent’s resistance lies. Is it how the curricular standards are written or how the teacher is teaching the curriculum? Is it a problem with assessment data? It might be a child’s perception and reporting of what they have learned or not learned. Identifying the specific problem helps the solution fall into place. Here are a few additional considerations when working with parents who have challenged:

Keep it close. Curricular challenges are best handled at the classroom level, because teachers have the best chance at a trusting and productive conversation with the parent. If it escalates higher, it becomes less about one parent’s perspective and more about an entire school, district, or community—which diminishes the chances of a satisfactory outcome.

Know policy and guidelines. A district’s policies and guidelines are written to be clear and understandable, and they offer guidance on how challenges should be handled. We can’t lead through challenges unless we know the rules and how they apply to the curriculum.

Figure out the scope. Is the parent upset at one part of the curriculum or mad at the entire political atmosphere present in our world? Or is it somewhere in between? Once the scope of the criticism is determined, it’s possible to consider alternatives and solutions.

Listen. When meeting with a parent, it’s best to listen to understand rather than to respond. I’ve seen teachers struggle with a parent’s challenge when their mindset is “this parent is wrong, and it’s my job to change their mind.” It’s more helpful if the mindset is “this parent has a different perspective than I do. How can we better understand one another, and what outcomes would work for us both?”

It’s not an easy time to be an educator. With scrutiny and distrust added to our other responsibilities, it feels we will never find our balance again. I find great comfort in reminding myself that parent challenges are not, in fact, new. In fact, in the first part of the 20th century—and still today, in some cases—the question of evolution caused fury and mistrust from parents, which was projected onto teachers and school leaders. We’ve been through this before and we’ll go through it again. If we stick with what is best for our students, our schools, our communities, and our world, we’ll get through it—together.

whenmeetingjen

‘Framing Is Paramount’

Naomi Simmons-Thorne is an educator and graduate student at the University of South Carolina. She studies teacher ed. and educational foundations:

The data is in. Despite the mongering, parents are not objecting to JEDI (Justice-Equity-Diversity-& Inclusion) lesson planning at a scale commensurate to the national hype. Fast-tracked under the pretense of “divisive concepts” and the notorious “critical race theory,” at least 42 states have witnessed legislative efforts to curb anti-bias and prejudice-reduction teaching and school policies since 2021, with at least 19 states succeeding by the closing of the 2021-22 school year.

Nationwide and locally, however, surveys continue to point to parent-pundit discrepancies on these hot-button issues. Findings suggest that parents simply do not feel as strongly as the pundits and lawmakers claiming to represent them. A national poll by NPR saw less than 20 percent of parents report unfavorably to their schools’ curricula on racism, gender, and sexuality.

Local data undercuts the demagoguery even further if the Albemarle County public school district is any indication. The district adopted a visionary yet controversial anti-racist policy in response to local grassroots advocacy. With the policy, school officials sought to foster districtwide commitments to addressing bias and racial disparities.

At the school level, the policy introduced curricular resources aimed to guide teachers in prejudice-reduction lesson planning and educating on systemic injustices. Citing the JEDI initiative as “critical race theory,” a now dismissed lawsuit condemning the measure was filed on behalf of five families who decried the initiative. Their legal filings recall the translucent sheets once ubiquitous on our classroom overheads, Xeroxed and see-through.

The filings were hollow mimics of the bad-faith arguments pundits have mainstreamed about JEDI school efforts. When weighed against the local data, the top-down nature of the vitriol was clear. Despite the ludicrous legal accusations of fostering “racial division, racial stereotyping, and racial hostility,” a parent survey reported fewer than 10 percent disagreeing with the question: “I support an increased focus on programs that identify and prioritize equity among all students, such as the division’s Anti-Racism Policy.”

For educators who incorporate JEDI principles, we must be mindful of both the data and the national climate. The former is a tailwind. The latter is a pendulum swinging at the whims of authorities. While most parents are unlikely to harangue hard-working educators with top-down accusations of reverse racism and indoctrination, a vocal minority is unfortunately so inclined.

Our society is sympathetic to conservative grievance. Therefore, many teachers—perhaps with the exception of those teaching in the most liberal of schools and districts—must meet these accusations with good-faith engagement. Many do not have the liberty of brazenly dismissing parents—however bad faith their behavior—and must develop practical strategies for addressing them head on.

In light of these circumstances, here are some tips teachers might look to integrate into their self-advocacy.

Unraveling Pundit Talking Points

Framing is paramount. When asking surveyees about teaching “the history of racism,” a Monmouth University Polling Institute survey saw a 75 percent approval rating. But when the same poll asked about the teaching of “critical race theory,” that rating plummeted down to 43 percent.

Parents must know that our JEDI lessons do not incite “reverse racism,” they expose the injustice of systemic racism. They do not posit whites as inherent oppressors, they expose supremacy as bad for all. Inviting students to consider another lens does not equate to indoctrination. It’s education.

Reminding Parents About the Ideals of Education

Education inheres that gift of change. A child who gleams “lights in the sky” sees stars after astronomy. We cannot be afraid of students leaving the classroom with new leases. Above all else, the classroom is the location where this change must be welcomed and nurtured.

Encouraging Parents to Tune in to Students and not Pundits

Unlike teachers, pundits are married to their talking points. When it comes to JEDI school initiatives, it is incumbent we do as education reporter Beth Hawkins says and “show the kids-eye view.”

Have concerned parents read student voices from the Durham Youth Project on why culturally relevant teaching is so vital? Have they listened to students share with Congress how JEDI initiatives enhance their school lives and those of their peers?

If contacted in good faith, these tips can all go a long way in mending some of our growing educational divides.

teachersmustmeetnaomi

Administrators Need to Support Teachers

Michael Gaskell is a veteran middle school principal in New Jersey, having served as a special education teacher and administrator over the past 25 years. He has authored dozens of articles, is working on a third book, and engages educators and other experts on his podcast, “Big Ideas in Small Windows":

When we engage in direct and informal dialogue, we open doors not previously available. We should have an open mindset to parents, be it curricular disagreements or other issues, even if we do not agree with them. Returning to interactions that are live, and offline is the best way to resolve these issues, even including hotly contested political ones, like curricular content. It is up to boards of education to determine if the parents’ concern has merit, not a teacher or building administrator. We simply work toward engaging parents because we both share one common interest, the welfare of their child

This is such a hot topic, because there are such polarizing views being voiced among families, and this is expanding. These are not just blue and red disputes, either, as these issues run much deeper. Consider how one teacher engaged in a reading activity with a district-approved passage that included discussion about how Black girls are historically underrepresented in the literature.

While this is not even something that could be objectively debated—it seems obvious enough and there is evidence to prove it—a parent of a child in this class objected. What surprised me wasn’t that the parent was debating this topic. Rather, it was their outright refusal to engage the teacher. As her principal, I felt compelled to redirect the parent back to the teacher and was prepared to support her, while allowing the parent the opportunity to express their point. Before I knew it, this parent had ratcheted up their complaint beyond the district, and an “investigation” was initiated, at a governing body, never having engaged the teacher!

Teaching is harder than ever, and when outstanding teachers are subject to this kind of politicization and challenge, it can unsettle the strongest among them. In fact, excellent teachers tend to take a hit like this even harder, because they are so effective. They are not accustomed to harsh criticisms and rarely if ever face questions or challenges about their ability to teach and connect with children.

I felt compelled to defend this teacher and to stick by our school’s convictions about professionalism. Part of that professionalism is something I am concerned about: a fading art among parents and educators to talk. In our hyperactive world, talking directly with someone you disagree with appears to have been tossed out the window. Why? What happened?

It seems we have lost the appreciation or willingness to hear each other’s opposing views. This is bad news for everyone. Consider Adam Grant’s point that when we open our minds to alternative solutions, we can expand our own repertoire, even if we do not agree with differing viewpoints. At the very least, understanding the rationale of an opposing view helps us to recognize why someone may have come to that conclusion and opens the door to problem-solving dialogue.

I explained this to my wonderful teacher. She seemed so beaten down, and that worried me. I did not want her to become jaded by jarring negative external forces. The shelter of her classroom was a happy, learner friendly, robust and energetic place. The past couple years have been like no other, and teachers have been on the front lines. Her vibrant class community had to be protected.

Educators have a responsibility to model ethical behavior, and I reminded my teacher about this important role. It starts with me, as her building leader. This includes the expectation that we talk through our disagreements. That remains uncompromising in our school. Most parents get this, and therefore, overwhelmingly, issues are resolved when we redirect back to this most effective method of sorting out issues. In this case, the parent ignored my expectation, but what the teacher needed was for her leader to stand by her. She deserved that level of professionalism, but so did the child, and yes, this parent, too.

While most issues are resolved when parents and educators come together to engage in dialogue, there are those occasions less frequently when this does not work. The odds remain pretty strong when we can get people to the same table of discussion. I would bet on those odds. Interacting in this way humanizes both the parent and the educator and allows for an open lens for both to be able to see through.

We cannot fix every problem in education, and sometimes, issues remain unsettled. That is hard for great teachers, who aspire for the best, because they have high expectations for students and even higher expectations for themselves. As a school leader, it is my responsibility to point out patterns of success, not absolute and unrealistically flawless odds but darn good ones. This gives back perspective and control to those working so hard in the trenches, with children.

ifeltcompelled

‘Be Proactive’

Angela M. Ward, Ph.D. is an anti-racist educator with over 25 years of experience in education. She is focused on creating identity-safe schools and workplaces. Follow her @2WardEquity on Twitter & Instagram and visit http://2wardequity.com/blog/ to subscribe to the 2Ward Equity newsletter:

As a teacher, I taught in a neighborhood like the ones around the country fighting their school boards on curricular and pedagogical decisions. I saw then and understood the rhetoric for what is was: fear that you will teach my child to think in a way that is counter to my values as a parent. As a parent, I can relate.

As a professional, accountable to support the academic identity development of the students in your care, you are duty bound to teach the curriculum adopted by the school board and written into district policy.

Here are some steps I take to work with parents:

Be proactive: Proactively, I shared an overarching theme and sequence of topics for the year. I let parents know that our major approach to learning would be reading, writing, and thinking.

Share your philosophy of teaching:

I shared that my role is to meet their children where they are and support their academic social, emotional, and cognitive growth.

Inquire about their goals:

I asked each parent to share with me in written form what their goals were for their children as learners.

Be available: I also invited them all to schedule time to meet with me and shared times I was available to meet with them to discuss their concerns face to face. It was in those face-to-face meetings where I established, month one, who would require extra attention from me.

And because of this permanent tan the good Lord has blessed me with, I did my due diligence to understand the history white teachers had with these families. I learned which parents I could meet alone with and those I needed a teacher or the principal to sit in with me. Yep, I requested a chaperone for parent meetings once or twice in my teaching career.

Build a reciprocal relationship with your principal: As an educational leader, I take personally the mental and physical safety of the students and staff in my care. A principal is your best advocate when you are faced with parents who are more focused on making you do what they want rather than working with you, the credentialed professional, to meet the goals and objectives and content you are required to teach.

buildareciprocal

Thanks to Erica, Jen, Naomi, Michael, and Angela for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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