—Photo: Foundation for California Community Colleges
Lance Izumi is a Koret senior fellow in education studies and senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank. He is a regular opinion contributor to edweek.org where he trades views with Bruce Fuller, on the other side of the political aisle. Read Bruce Fuller’s response to this essay.
In their August opinion essay on the Philadelphia Inquirer’s website, law professors Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania and Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego decried the loss of universally accepted “bourgeois” values in America, from marriage to patriotism to getting an education necessary for gainful employment. The ebbing of consensus values can be seen in the nation’s schools, where officials, teachers, parents, and students have clashed. This conflict, which often occurs because parents are not included in the decision-making process, argues for giving students and parents more schooling options through choice tools such as education savings accounts, vouchers, or tax credits.
Curricula has been a big source of this conflict. Curricula decisions come down from on high, whether from state capitals or from school district central offices, and these decisions have a big impact on how subjects are taught in the classroom.
In Cupertino, the home of Apple’s headquarters in California’s Silicon Valley, The Mercury News, a San Jose-based publication, reported that the school district formed a task force that recommended a curriculum called “Teen Talk Middle School,” which met a state requirement that students “develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender, sexual orientation, relationships, marriage, and family.”
Yet, who decides what “healthy attitudes” are? The district task force was made up mostly of school personnel, without significant parent representation. The curriculum chosen by the task force included graphic descriptions of vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Local parents exploded. According to The Mercury News article, “More than 150 parents came out to a Tuesday night school board meeting to oppose a controversial new sexual health education curriculum that many said was ‘too graphic’ and ‘not age appropriate’ for their Cupertino Union School District seventh-graders.”
Parent Muni Madhdhipatla said that the curriculum was “too graphic and descriptive, and it’s leading kids in a certain way,” even though he didn’t dismiss the idea of offering age-appropriate curriculum to students. He asked, “My best question to [the district] is whether we are teaching to perform or inform.”
The Cupertino brouhaha goes beyond the simple question of whether a curriculum on sex education is too explicit or not. It goes to the heart of who makes decisions in a time of cultural relativism, where there is no longer a set of consensus values and views on basic issues.
Who makes decisions in a time of cultural relativism, where there is no longer a set of consensus values and views on basic issues?"
Professors Wax and Alexander note that basic cultural precepts, such as getting married before having children and staying married for the children’s sake, reigned for decades. While they acknowledge that there “are always rebels,” even those who deviated from the widely accepted cultural norms “rarely disavowed or openly disparaged the prevailing expectations.” Now, however, there is open warfare over what should be basic cultural precepts.
Cupertino teacher Kristina Everhardt told the local CBS television affiliate that she was shocked that the school formerly showed a movie to 7th graders that implied, she said, that “girls needed to protect their virginity.” Parent Sri Sarma, complained that the new curriculum “was written with too much suggestion.” Who should get the last word on these divergent views?
The same question applies to issues of race. Well before what happened two months ago in Charlottesville, Va., focused attention on how race is addressed in the nation’s classrooms, numerous school districts had hired outside consultants to run training seminars on race
In Minnesota, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that at one such seminar in 2013 teachers were given “a primer on race theory,” focusing on issues such as “Thomas Jefferson’s views on white superiority.” The terms “white privilege” and “whiteness” were used often in the training session.
As it can over the topic of sex education, the actions and goals of the public education system can clash with students and parents who are on the receiving end of changing classroom philosophies.
After a Norman, Okla., teacher commented on the inherent racism of whites according to an audio recording, a biracial student told a local television station: “Half my family is Hispanic, so I just felt like, you know, him calling me racist just because I’m white. ... I mean where’s your proof in that?” The student worried, “I felt like he was encouraging people to kind of pick on people for being white.”
So where does all this leave parents? I recently asked a homeschool mom why she decided against putting her son in a public school. She replied: “Why go through all the drama? It’s this drumbeat for the day with made-up injustices.” In her view, public schools offered her son “more drama than learning.”
Thus, in a time of cultural relativism, with divergent views on basic issues and values, some significant proportion of parents and students will clash with the one-size-fits-all approach of public school authorities. Unless one adheres to a “my way or the highway” attitude, this clash argues for giving parents greater choices in schooling options outside the public system. And as recent national and state polls show, rising percentages of parents and the public want that choice.