I have a few hard-and-fast rules in my life. Exfoliate daily and wear sunscreen is one of them. Another one is never fight about social issues with people on the internet – especially people I don't know. But hell, rules were made to be broken (occasionally). And so it was that I spent a useless 90 minutes fighting online this weekend. 90 minutes that I can never get back, and that I might otherwise have used to exfoliate and apply sunscreen.
What was I fighting about? Education, of course! Who did I fight with? Parents, of course!
Tom Nichols, with whom I do not always agree, has written about "The Death of Expertise." And in this case, I do agree with much of what he says. Climate-change deniers and anti-vaccinators have gotten traction in part because we have a modern, collective, destructive idea that everyone is entitled to her/his opinion irrespective of facts and evidence. Nichols clarifies his thesis, stating "I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields." You know who else is comparable to doctors, lawyers, and engineers, in terms of having specialized knowledge? Teachers and school administrators. Sadly, there is an active group of people in this country – I am not sure of its size – who are quite happy to deny it.
Here's my view on parental involvement in schools. Unless you have training in pedagogy, curriculum, public administration, or public policy, you should basically shut up and not meddle with what schools and school systems are doing. Some of you are already irate, saying "what about a teacher who abuses their students," or "what about a school district that is corrupt and has a superintendent who embezzles hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hawaiian cruises and sports cars." Obviously, I am not talking about these extreme cases. Also, for the record, I am not talking about lobbying schools to follow through on services that they promise to offer, and/or are legally obligated to offer. Those are important services.
What I am talking about is the 99.9% of schools in this country that are staffed by well-intentioned and trained administrators and teachers, but who nonetheless deal with a barrage of parental lobbying for adding programs, subtracting programs, changing teachers, changing pedagogies, changing curricula, not changing curricula, and so forth.
Here are two things that set me off this weekend. First: this article. The schtick is that – oh no – one eighth grader's schedule looks unappealing to his father. The article's author is very happy to support and amplify the father's view. I encourage you to read this article (despite the clicks it will yield this piece of claptrap) and consider the following questions:
- Can you tell what a course will include by its one-word title?
- Can you tell how effective an instructor will be by a course's one-word title?
- What is gained and lost by having a schedule that cultivates persistent effort on core subjects? (There are empirical answers to this question. Opinions don't matter.)
- Is it obvious that "Google Hacks" is an awesome opportunity that we should be all be pursuing for our kids?
- What is the basis of expertise on which the father is qualified to judge this schedule?
My questions certainly don't constitute proof that the boy's educational experience is good, but I think, or at least hope, that they lead you to believe that the published article is basically non-information. None of us, including the father (unless he has a whole lot of additional information that he did not mention in the article) are in a position to judge the quality of the educational experience from the meager evidence provided.
Here's the second thing that set met off: a Facebook debate (I know... I am smacking my head repeatedly for getting caught up) about pushing a school to offer more resources to gifted kids. You know who thinks their kids are gifted? Many upper-middle-class (and usually white) parents I know. You know what else? I do not like the designation "gifted." Not one tiny bit. It communicates intelligence as a fixed characteristic. I stand more with scholars like Carol Dweck of Stanford, whose years of psychology research say, basically, that it is very hard to know the innate limits of a kid's intellectual potential, that few-to-no kids are even approaching their limits, and that what we need to do is instill a growth mindset in ALL students that teaches them they can learn through persistent effort. What effect does the typical conversation about giftedness have on kids who do have high early childhood achievement? What effect does it have, god help us, on those who do not?
In the course of this debate, a smart and savvy friend very fairly asked me: "what would you tell your daughter if she were bored in school?" Here's my answer, which is easy for me to say, I admit, because she isn't bored in school. First, I would tell her she could be using some of her time and effort to find a socially and interpersonally appropriate way to help peers who were struggling. Second, I would tell her that if she is so awesome that she is bored, she should use some of her awesomeness to figure out how to cultivate interest on her own. For example, for school kids identified as math whizzes, the vast majority of them cannot explain why 1 +1 = 2. To do so requires a bit of advanced math that most young math whizzes do not have at their fingertips. In short, if your kid is so gifted that they are truly, massively, completely bored in school, they might also be gifted enough to find a way of not being bored by always asking themselves "why?" at deeper and deeper levels.
I wish parents would stop lobbying and pressuring our school systems. There are two reasons for this. First, teachers and administrators are experts. They have specialized training that qualifies them to do what they do. Second, and crucially, they have a bird's-eye, institutional view of their classes and schools that you do not and you cannot.
I get the instinct to advocate for your kid. It comes from a good place, and I am glad we have parents who care about their kids. But when you start tampering with the school system, you are likely messing with what the system has carefully determined is an optimal allocation of resources. School is not there to do the best for your kid. There. I said it. School is there to do the best it can for a big messy collection of kids who often have competing needs. Sure, maybe you and your kid want more gifted and talented services. But in an under-funded system, what other part of the system is going to pay the price? Can you find it in yourself to trust the system to serve the collective good? Or is your kid more important than other kids? Do you even actually know what is best for your own kid, or do you just think you do? Being a parent does not make you an expert in, say, learning theory, even if you think you know how your kid learns.
In short, don't make judgments about school unless you have real expertise that qualifies you to do so. And here's a thought: what if instead of telling teachers and schools "do what's best for my kid," we supported them to do what optimizes the collective good?