08 March 2010

The Parent Trap

On Saturday I went to use the Therapy Pool at our community aquatic center. The 90 degree Fahrenheit water lets me exercise my recovering leg for much longer than I can possibly do on "dry land," and this is a crucial part of the healing process.

The Therapy Pool has a separate "Special Needs" Locker (Changing) Room. A unisex space with private changing areas with showers, benches, lots of grab bars. For the most part people move in and out of these spaces as quickly and efficiently as their various limitations allow.

However, the Special Needs Locker Room is also utilized by another group, parents with children who choose not to use the large general Men's and Women's changing rooms. I can understand this - considering the generally unhealthy American attitudes toward nudity - most of these users are parents with children not of their gender: Dads with girls, Moms with boys - and they are afraid to either, let the children out of their site long enough to put on a bathing suit, or to allow them to glimpse naked adults. I'm not judging here. Americans are taught to be afraid of many things, and these are two of those things.

But there is something I will judge. If parents are choosing to use a facility supposedly reserved for people other than themselves, they ought to be demonstrating respect for others to their children.

So, on Saturday, as I witnessed mother after mother hustling their kiddies in to the private changing spaces as people with crutches and canes and walkers waited, I wondered what these parents were teaching. As I watched 8, 10, 12-year-old, perfectly healthy girls tie up the one accessible locker room toilet, I wondered what these parents were teaching. As I saw mother after mother smile as their children ran through a narrow corridor mostly used by injured senior citizens, I wondered what these parents were teaching.

This was not a case of class-based lack of social education on the part of the parents - at least not in my observation. Lower income community children tend to come unaccompanied, or have no problem with shared changing facilities. The parents I was watching all appeared middle and upper middle class. All were white. All, probably, as educated as it gets here, in "the second happiest place in America."

Then, finished, I crutched my way outside, where I noticed that a brand new Volkswagen Passat was parked blocking the curb cut in a "no parking" area. It had been there when I entered. I paused, crutches are still very difficult, and as I paused, a mother and her teenage son came out, carrying packages from a party (there are "party rooms" in the facility), to the Passat. "We probably shouldn't have left it here the whole time," the boy said. "It's a loading zone," the mother told him, "and nobody knows how long we've been loading or unloading." One more mom, one more lesson.

At a CIES2010 session last week in Chicago the Inclusive Education Special Interest Group met and listened to four presentations. One was about attempts to improve teacher training for inclusion in Northern Ireland. Another was about changing social attitudes on inclusion in Namibia. The third, about encouraging the study of inclusion in Germany. And the fourth on inclusion and society in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. They were great presentations.

Yet, if there was a common thread in these, it was not attitudes toward "disability," but rather the ways in which parents limit the opportunities for, and growth of, their children.

In Northern Ireland the progress being made on societal unification of all the children of that "place" (any other political descriptor is fraught with challenges for one "side" or the other), is constantly threatened by parental attitudes when the children go home after school. Parents, 90% of them, choose segregated schools for their children - in a possible glimpse of the American future if the Duncan/Obama charter school push succeeds - and parents resist, strongly, changes in the education system.

In Namibia a parent of a "disabled" child, who is also a teacher, won't send her child to school, or even take him to the store, for fear of social embarrassment.

In Germany, long held beliefs in separate education for those with "special needs" have parents of those students resisting inclusion.

In certain Middle Eastern societies parents will not "invest" in "disabled" children who seem unlikely to become potential supporters of the family, and so will not bring them to school.

The problem with allowing parents to make choices

Despite having been a charter school parent, and a very happy charter school parent, I have a problem with the concept of charter schools in the United States. And my problem is this - charters offer parents school choice, but they rob children of school choice.

The theory of parental choice is based in the very old notion that "parents know what is best for their children" - which sounds benign, but is actually an extension of the idea that children "belong" to their parents, that children are property. Americans basically view children this way (in everything but the abortion debate - only there do a sizable portion of Americans see offspring as independent entities, but only until birth). Americans will argue that parents must be in control of discipline, of what media children are exposed to, of whether children should be vaccinated, or should receive medical care. The view - even if we take the benign reading of this - is that parental judgment almost always trumps the judgment of society, or surely, of professionals.

But maybe that is not true. Almost ten percent of American parents, for example, risk their children's health because they believe fairy tales about vaccines causing Autism. More than that cripple their children's intellectual development by blocking their access to real science education. More still risk their children's sexual health by blocking access to information critical to any human who reaches puberty.

Hundreds of thousands of American parents overstress their children in bizarre pursuits of stuff like university athletic scholarships, or force them into "college application building" schedules so frantic kids become suicidal, less they have to receive a "less than Ivy" education.

And then, on perhaps a low-priority but still essential level, are the mothers I met Saturday.

Disastrous parental behaviors cross every socio-economic divide. They hurt kids of every type, from every neighborhood.

OK, wait...

Before this goes any further... I know there are lots of great parents out there, and - for the record - I am not proposing kibbutz-like societal child-rearing, though that seems to have been fairly successful. I just want to question the "parent-centric" arguments of a certain type of charter school advocate.

I have met three types of charter school advocates. The first, and the ones whose side I am on (to be honest in regards to my motivations), are educational theorists who wish to test out new ideas not yet in the educational mainstream. My child went to charters created by educators like this. On Twitter, @COCharterXaminr falls into this category - these people are creating significant alternate models. They oppose for profit charters, they are not "anti-public school," and rarely do they sound, "anti-teacher."

The second group are the free market pirates. As with everything else society ("government") does together for mutual benefit, they oppose public education because they are not sufficiently profiting from it (you'd think textbook markups would be enough, but...). So they plan to destroy public education so that they can charge everyone for it more effectively, and create new profit centers. They mouth the nonsensical mantras of "competition" (New York City used to have competing fire departments, it doesn't always work well in public services) and "choice" ("I choose the bad hospital!") and hustle 2006 Wall Street solutions, like merit pay based on illusory short term results ('test scores"). These are the same folks who sell your kids $30 Abercrombie T-shirts. And because they do that, they have the money to buy many politicians.

The third group is more difficult to discuss, and I don't want to dismiss or demean, but I think of them as "the colonized." These are people from traditionally out-of-power groups who have decided to fully "play the game" of their oppressors. They tend to wear the charter school ideology around their necks the way certain Nigerians and Indians and other "citizens of the Empire" in the early 20th Century donned British powdered wigs and joined the colonial governments.

It is tough to argue with much of what they say: They are looking to "save kids now." To open "real opportunities." To build "within the realities we have." And to argue with this is to engage in that oldest of battles among the colonized - do we achieve freedom and power on "their" terms, or "ours." Do we want our children to grow up as -and this will depend on the argument you are making - Brits and citizens of the world/Second-class Brits or to grow up as Nigerians, Indians, South Africans, Irish, Israelis/poor separatists in a global economy.

As with most great issues, the answers are not clear cut, not "black and white," as they say. We want our identities, we want freedom and possibility based in our culture, and yet, yes, we also live and work in a world designed and controlled by the powerful.

So when people like @dropoutnation argue for charters and vouchers as their "answer," it is not just a matter of being co-opted. They have convinced themselves that this is the only logical solution in the world they see now. And I can argue for greater faith in the future, for greater faith in diverse communities, but altering someone's fundamental world view is tough.

Social Reproduction

Thus, I will say this - even if you believe that "choice" is the way to go, you are giving choice to the wrong people.

The common characteristics that I find in what I describe as "the best schools" (see primary and secondary), that is, schools which "work" for the broadest range of students, is student choice. These are schools which help students discover their path, not their parents' path. These are schools which are willing to help students find success even if their parents are incapable, or destructive, or just uninterested.

Parent choice - the concept of charters and vouchers - is socially reproductive from the start. Charter schools really object if they are criticized for "cherry picking" students, but the fact is, the only students who attend those schools are those with parents who are capable and informed enough to make the choice, interested enough to make the choice, and, in most places, economically and physically able to make the choice (due to transportation issues, etc).  This means that even if charters are not "cherry picking" students (though most "for profits" are doing just that), they are, by their very nature, "cherry picking" parents.

Which means they are abandoning the neediest children. Which means, to me, that those in that "third group" of charter advocates are selling out huge parts of their constituencies in exchange for success of their elites.

This was common enough in the British Empire that the American Corporate Empire seeks to re-create. There were Irish who converted to Anglicanism, and Indians who joined the British Army, and, of course, many colonials who dressed their children like proper little English boys and sent them off to schools which seemed replicas of those outside of central London - parental choice.

But even without that sell-out, parental choice often works against child best interests. Parents pick schools based on status, on homogeneity, on sports, on reputation. The quite broken school systems of Northern Ireland are the result of "parental choice," as are the highly segregated schools of Scotland, as are the nightmares of our school literature - think Dead Poets Society.

All of this leads me to believe in great public schools. And great public schools have student choice. No two classes in the same grade or subject should be anything alike. No common reading lists or classroom management. No common grading system. No common organization. Ideally, even schedules should vary. Only with that kind of choice can students find what they need, not what even the most well-meaning adults find for them.

And great public schools are being made impossible by "choice" advocates, who pull a certain segment of students out of the mix, reducing workable choices for those left behind.

I'm a parent, and I like parents. But I've also known all kinds of parents, and I value children too much to leave all the decisions in parental hands.

- Ira Socol


Sherry Mason said...

Thank you so much for this post! I have been reading your blog for a few months, this is my first comment. Your voice is an important one that needs to be heard...please keep blogging.

Everything in this post rang true for me, but I especially appreciated your challenge to the notion that “parental judgment almost always trumps the judgment of society, or surely, of professionals.”

I am a parent and an Ontario educator. My youngest son has an Autism Spectrum Disorder–or an Autism Spectrum Difference in our lexicon (yes, he was vaccinated because I believed the professionals and scientific research, not the "fairy tales"). He will successfully graduate from a public high school in June 2011 and attend university in September 2010. His school years have been, on the whole, a success story and a positive experience for him. There are no charter schools or private schools in the city of 30,000 where we live. If there were, I know that he may not have been eligible to attend those schools...which would have been a loss not only for him, but also for all those “neuro-typical” teachers, students and parents who got to know and appreciate my son.

Yes, public education needs change, but it doesn’t need to be replaced by charter schools which will mostly definitely lead to “segregation.”

Clint Buhs said...

I was nodding in agreement with the first third, reading and re-reading to fully understand the rest. Thanks for making the effort to tell these stories. They're certainly powerful.

My wife and I thought for several years we'd send our son to the nearby charter. We've decided that there's no good reason to do so, and instead we'll be supportive of him and his teachers at the public school a block away from our home. We'll put our efforts into improving education in our city on a larger scale, not supporting a few, who may or may not be the "lucky" ones.