Grow up: We can’t cater every lesson plan to every parent

Educators are protecting civil society; they’re not short-order cooks

June 28, 2023 4:30 am
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Everything has a history, including the red-hot parents’ rights movement.

Author Jennifer Berkshire recently charted the history of this relentlessly negative movement and reminded us of episodes in the 1970s, when there was a battle over textbooks in West Virginia, and the 1990s when “the GOP included a parental rights plank in its Contract With America, and Patrick Buchanan promised that he would be the president of the parents.”

Of course, parents have a powerful voice in the education of their children. There are parent-teacher conferences and the 125-year-old Parent Teacher Association. There are elected school boards and democratically accountable state departments of public education. In every state, curriculum standards are created in deliberate and intentional conversation with parents and community members and go through a regular and open process of revision. It was absurd to claim that parents were voiceless in the 1970s — and it is absurd today.

There are many problems with the current manifestation the parents’ rights movement, but I will focus on only one — it is wildly impractical.

Here I will speak as a practitioner with more than 30 years in the classroom. Think about it: A typical public-school teacher has between 20 and 35 students in each class. Almost every student has at least one parent, many, perhaps most, have two, and some might have more than two.

Teachers and schools cannot possibly teach each student to the exact tastes of each parent. It is impossible. First of all, there might be disagreements among the parents of a particular child about what and how to teach. What is a school or teacher to do in that circumstance?

More importantly, to teach a class effectively, teachers must work out a lesson plan that prepares all the students to learn a common set of objectives or outcomes. A teacher with a class of 25 cannot teach 25 different outcomes for all the subjects a child needs to know to become an educated citizen. As an educator, I can assure you that it’s impossible.

The purpose of public education is to create an educated citizenry to protect our democracy. Public education has a public purpose.

Educated citizens need to know how to read, write and do arithmetic. They need to know how to use a library to find information, and they need the skills to evaluate the veracity of the information they find.

They need to understand and then apply the scientific method.

They need to understand history, geography, literature, art, and music.

They should know how a bill becomes a law and the ways that they, as citizens, can influence public policy. They should know that in a democracy, elected officials work for the citizens and that lawmakers must be held accountable through regularly scheduled elections.

They should know that being citizens in a democracy includes many rights, but also a whole bunch of responsibilities — the responsibility to vote, to obey the law, to pay taxes, to stay informed about current affairs from a variety of sources, to reject violence as a way of resolving policy differences. But most importantly, citizens must, on some fundamental level, agree to subsume some part of their individualism to support the larger project of maintaining our democracy and being part of the nation. These are the things we must teach our youth.

The purpose of public schools is to create a strong civil society. That is why all of us pay for it. Public education is not about me, but about “We the people.”

The bedrock of our democracy is the public school. It would be refreshing if parents united to make our schools better — instead of attacking them.



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Jeff Kolnick
Jeff Kolnick

Jeff Kolnick teaches history at Southwest Minnesota State University. He is a founder of the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy and he served his faculty union as a negotiator and local president.