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.)

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.


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

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

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.

More By Author