Today’s political and religious battle lines now extend into the classroom, impeding progress and distracting from the many onerous challenges already burdening our educational system. Parents should pay attention to what their children are learning in school, but where do school leaders draw a line between parental interest and support, constructive feedback and obstructive meddling?
It has become commonplace for some parents to question textbooks, library books, or course content they consider offensive or inappropriate. Meanwhile, other parents rally for these same books and content and applaud teachers who encourage students to think critically while honoring differences, human rights, and freedom of expression.
Parental disapproval of what their children learn in public schools is not a new phenomenon. But it becomes a serious problem when parents and community members, typically representing a vocal minority, demand the final say in what is taught to everyone’s children, not just their own. And it is especially inappropriate when their complaints are being fueled by religious and political differences and social media misinformation.
In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.
During my 37 years as a teacher and then as superintendent of schools first in Bloomfield and then Fairfield, Conn., I learned the value of soliciting differing voices firsthand. In the classroom, as a history teacher, what made the subject come alive for students was a spirited debate on divisive periods and events in American history. As a superintendent, I found that gathering community, parent, and educator input before making major decisions was critical to successful change. Our school system invited parents and community members to serve on long-range planning committees, join school improvement teams, and provide input on curriculum and textbooks.
I think of parental involvement not as something to tolerate but as something that adds value to the enterprise. For example, parental feedback on what a school is doing well and where it could improve adds value to any school improvement effort. Input from multiple parents not only introduces a diversity of perspectives but helps ensure that any one parent’s view does not dominate the conversation. And another advantage of pluralistic parental involvement—true parental involvement—is that it allows education leaders the ability to build allies in the broader community.
The best school districts welcome parent and community input but ensure education professionals have the final say. The skills our children are developing, in addition to reading, writing, science, and mathematics—such as listening, considering relevant facts and evidence, learning to recognize our own biases, and being open to hearing and appreciating differing opinions—are, likewise, the best tools for building strong, collaborative parent-supported school systems. If we expect our students to listen and learn from diverse perspectives, schools and districts need to model them.
Leaders who select a diverse group of parents to contribute to curriculum development can lessen the resistance from teachers, who may be skittish about inviting parents into this process. For example, when revising a math curriculum, we would bring in engineers from a local manufacturing facility or a math professor from a nearby college to provide input. If educators see that parents bring a perspective that adds value—and if parents understand that their role is strictly advisory—then schools can reap the benefits of community expertise while maintaining their freedom to make the final decision.
But school leaders also need to shield teachers from unproductive parental interference. School leaders, when appropriate, should encourage teachers to direct parents engaging in hostile, aggressive forms of communication to them. This allows the teacher to focus on classroom instruction. School leaders need to defuse public attacks on teachers immediately and offer a private setting for such parental venting. It is substantively and symbolically important for teachers to see that their leaders “have their backs” in public.
The toll on teachers during the pandemic has been significant. In addition to facing hostile parents, meddling state legislators, and partisan local school boards, many teachers—already challenged with a heavy workload—are experiencing job burnout. As a result, highly qualified instructors are choosing to retire, resign, or change careers.
There is no pipeline of similarly competent individuals ready to take their place. School systems across the country face significant teacher shortages, both in quantity and quality. This is particularly damaging as districts struggle to mitigate pandemic-related learning loss for all students, especially for historically underserved student populations.
Similarly, qualified school board members or those interested in serving are having second thoughts. This leaves board roles to less experienced candidates, some of whom use these positions to advance their own personal and political agendas. Instability in school boards leads to turnover in district leadership that further dampens a school system’s ability to educate children effectively.
Children suffer when schools fail to adapt—be it to new technology, instructional content, methodologies, or significant disruptions like the pandemic. The most recent test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are an example of how student achievement deteriorates when education doesn’t evolve.
Educators, working with parents, must find new ways to teach not only academic skills but also the social-emotional competencies students require to recover successfully from the impact of the pandemic. Parents, educators, and community members have differing experiences, cultural biases, religious affiliations, and political and personal beliefs that may conflict when considering the wisest course of action. Still, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to find common ground where possible.
School leaders can draw on social-emotional learning resources (like those on the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, website, for example) to demonstrate that teaching social-emotional competencies can be integrated with, and contribute to, academic success. For example, if a class is reading a novel in which characters experience an emotionally challenging event, a discussion of how that character deals with those emotions can naturally lead to a discussion of how students respond to a similar situation. Many SEL programs do not “take away” from teaching academic concepts but strengthen student understanding by making the content more relevant to students’ experiences.
While debate is healthy and important, consensus won’t always be possible. The adults in the room need to model the kind of informed, respectful disagreements that we expect our children to learn and practice in our classrooms.