When public education’s two Ps disagree

It’s long been said that public education must achieve both public and private aims. The public, which foots the bill, has an interest in a well-educated populace. Parents—schools’ primary clients—want a strong foundation for their own children. Much of the time these two interests are in perfect alignment. But what happens when they’re not?

Recent surveys illustrate the tension. First, there was the perennial Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll, which showed an ever-wider gap between parents’ (very positive) perceptions of their own children’s schools and the public’s (very negative) perceptions of American schools writ large. Perhaps this can be chalked up to the “Congressman Syndrome”—we all hate Congress but think highly of our own member of Congress. Or maybe many parents have a rose-colored view of their kids’ schools. (After all, unless you’re poor and trapped, to acknowledge that the school you’ve chosen is a lemon is to admit to a form of parental malpractice.)

But layer those findings onto another recent survey and a fuller picture emerges. This one, from the Pew Research Center, finds that two-thirds of the American public think parents aren’t putting enough pressure on their kids to study hard. (This is a much higher proportion than in any other country surveyed; about the same ratio of the Chinese public thinks that parents put too much academic pressure on their children.)

The U.S. public seems to be saying: “Hey parents, get your act together and start cracking the whip on those spoiled brats of yours. Somebody has to pay for my Social Security!”

This isn’t such a far cry from the message of policy elites, the president, and pundits. In Tom Friedman’s words: “Finish your homework. People in China and India are starving for your jobs.”

Yes, what seems to resonate with the public, and its elected leaders, is a concern about America’s future international competitiveness. And for good reason, what with every year bringing more bad news from PISA and TIMSS about our lackluster global standing. Some parents—I’m thinking of you, Tiger Moms—share this anxiety. But lots of others hear the bad news and shrug.

To be honest, I’m one of them. Maybe I’m a Koala Dad. While the “policy wonk” part of my brain understands the relationship between academic performance and economic growth, the “dad” part of my brain doesn’t much care. I don’t often look at my sweet little boys and think: “Sons, I dream of you becoming internationally competitive one day.” Of course I want them to do well in school, go to good colleges, and get satisfying, well-paying jobs. But I take those things as a matter of course. Perhaps this makes me part of the problem—a comrade in the conspiracy of complacency. But if a school tells me that it’s only interested in preparing my kids for the “global economy,” I’m walking straight out the door and into a place that wants them to live a good life, be good neighbors and citizens, know something about the arts, and care about their own families.

I doubt I’m alone. While policy elites fret about international test scores, college- and career-ready standards, and STEM, parents worry about bullying, what’s on the lunch menu, the bus schedule, and the dress code. Art, music, and recess might seem like frills to hard-nosed CEO types, but to parents like me, they are central elements of a well-rounded education (and a joyful childhood).

The reason all of this matters is that schools—tugged in one direction by public policies and in another direction by the demands of parents—have to find a way to resolve these recurrent tensions. To pretend otherwise is naïve. It’s easy, for example, for reformers to dismiss concerns about “teaching to the test.” If it’s a good test, there’s no problem, we say. But even with really good tests, I don’t want my kids spending all day “on task,” working on “learning modules” and drills that are easily assess-able. I want them finger painting in Kindergarten, even if it serves no utilitarian purpose. Just because! (Of course I’ll also do all I can to make sure they learn to read, write, think clearly, etc.)

This spills over into the touchy topic of teacher evaluations. Just how much are we sure we want to make those reviews hinge on test scores? I don’t want my sons’ teachers to obsess about getting “value-added” scores up if that means dumping all the units and activities that can’t be reduced to bubbles on a test. I want my children to get a good “education,” not just receive rigorous “schooling.” The best teachers (and schools) know the difference.

Reformers desperately want parents on their side. Getting them better and more comparable information about student and school performance will surely help. But the answer is not to admonish them to be “engaged and enraged” about their kids’ schools, as Joel Klein recently wrote. As long as we look at parents and think they are dummies for liking their schools the way they are, we’re never going to win their hearts and minds. Many parents dislike reforms like testing for legitimate reasons—and we ignore their concerns at our peril. The reformer in me needs to take the parent in me seriously. Klein says that parents are the “force that can’t be beat.” Probably true—which is why we don’t want them mobilizing against us.

— Mike Petrilli

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