December 2, 2021 - 9:00 pm
Those people who wince at critical race theory, flout mask mandates and oppose vaccine requirements have discovered that teachers and school administrators often talk down to parents.
Where have these people been? Of course schools treat parents with disdain and condescension. That’s what they do.
It’s no wonder that the relationship between parents and schools is so damaged. We hand over our children to school officials, and too often those people respond by making us feel uneducated or uninformed when we challenge them or question their methods.
In 30 years of writing about K-12 education, I’ve heard from scores of parents who got the brushoff when they went to their kid’s school to voice concerns. My favorite example is the Mexican American father in Central California who said that the principal at his son’s school couldn’t wait to show him the door — despite the fact that dad was a Harvard graduate, a lawyer with a master’s degree in education and a member of the school board. What hope is there for the rest of us?
Educators make lousy students. They don’t listen. They lecture. And they usually don’t see parents as their equals.
It’s what I saw firsthand as a reporter and metro columnist in Arizona in the late 1990s when I covered a grassroots revolt of Latino parents who rose up against bilingual education.
First, school administrators tried to “gaslight” the Latino parents into thinking they were imagining things. Then, they argued that children would learn English if they were taught their lessons in Spanish.
Sure. The best way to learn algebra is to study biology.
The parents were dismissively told all the “research” supported the theory that native-language instruction was the only way to teach students with limited English proficiency. Never mind that — as one independent researcher, political scientist Christine Rossell, pointed out — most of the research that propped up bilingual education relied on non-scientific methods. Never mind that some of that research was funded by organizations that pushed bilingual education. No conflict of interest there.
A big part of the problem is arrogance. In the school setting, teachers probably believe that they’re the experts. They’ve read the books, taken the courses and studied how the education system works.
Except that every teacher knows that his or her job is going to be much harder without the support of parents. And support can be hard to come by when people feel insulted.
For example, the Latino parents in Arizona were basically told: “Come back when you’ve read the research.” You’d expect better customer service from people who are on the public payroll.
That schools disrespect parents might come as news to privileged white folks, but Latino and African American parents have been dealing with it since before the invention of blackboards and chalk.
It’s what former President Barack Obama recalled in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father”: the frustration he felt trying to advocate for parents in Chicago’s public schools. Even when the schools were run by African Americans, Black parents were still treated shoddily. Their children were tracked away from college prep courses and disciplined more often than white students. And when parents complained, their concerns were largely ignored. In fact, when African Americans are asked why they support school choice, one thing they say is that they want their voices heard. Why? Because they feel that no one listens to them.
As a young community organizer fresh out of Columbia University, Obama saw a lot of this firsthand. It taught him the one major lesson that all education reformers will learn sooner or later: The public schools don’t exist for the benefit of the kids who learn there, but for the convenience of the adults who work there.
That lesson followed Obama into the White House. In pushing his $4 billion education reform initiative, “Race To The Top,” he battled teachers unions and insisted that schools be held accountable for student performance. To access the funds, states had to eliminate “firewalls” that prevent student achievement from influencing teacher pay. Some states — most notably California — turned down the cash rather than make the change.
So, for the most part, Obama’s education reforms went nowhere.
Now, fast-forward to the current battles over masking and vaccines and critical race theory. Only when white parents experience insult and condescension at the hands of the public schools are we told that we’re facing a national crisis.
The truth is, Latino and African American parents have been staring down that crisis for a while now. They’ve just been doing it alone.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.