Sunday, October 14, 2012

Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform

From the April, 1998 Phi Delta Kappan

By Alfie Kohn

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.

-- John Dewey, School and Society

Mike McClaren, a superintendent in Oklahoma, was attracted to the idea of a "performance-based" curriculum: he believed in specifying his schools' learning outcomes in advance and shifting the emphasis from memorization to problem solving. This made sense to Mike King, principal of a nationally recognized middle school in McClaren's district, who wanted his teachers to have more autonomy and his students to have more opportunity to learn from one another. Neither man was pushing for anything too radical; they just thought educators should be a little less concerned with deciding which students were better than others and a little more committed to helping all of them succeed.

As it turned out, both men felt obliged to find new jobs as a result of this agenda, with McClaren jumping before he was pushed. Key people in the community were unhappy, and three newly elected board members made sure that the changes -- and the people responsible for them -- didn't last. Predictably, the most vocal opponents were affiliated with the Christian Coalition and other ultraconservative groups. But here is the interesting part: even in small-town Oklahoma, the usual suspects on the Right could not have done it on their own. Their allies, who by all accounts gave them the margin of victory they needed to roll back reform efforts, were individuals who were not particularly conservative or religious. King describes them as "your upper-class, high-achieving parents who feel that education is competitive, that there shouldn't be anyone else in the same class as my child, and we shouldn't spend a whole lot of time with the have-nots."[1]

McClaren, who looks back on what happened from his new post several states away, says he made "two fatal assumptions" when he started: "I thought if it was good for kids, everyone would embrace it, and I thought all adults wanted all kids to be successful. That's not true. The people who receive status from their kids' performing well in school didn't like that other kids' performance might be raised to the level of their own kids'."

It is common knowledge that the Christian Right has opposed all manner of progressive reforms. They may act stealthily to get themselves installed on school boards, and they may read from identical scripts in auditoriums across America about how outcome-based education and whole language will destroy our way of life. But they are ultimately identifiable, and, once their core beliefs are exposed and their claims refuted, their impact (at least in many places) can be limited. Far less attention has been paid to the damage done by people whose positions on other social issues are more varied and more mainstream -- specifically, the affluent parents of successful students, those whose political power is substantial to begin with and whose agenda was summarized by another educator in that same Oklahoma town: "They are not concerned that all children learn; they are concerned that their children learn." 

There is no national organization called Rich Parents Against School Reform, in part because there doesn't have to be. But with unaffiliated individuals working on different issues in different parts of the country, the pattern is generally missed and the story is rarely told. Take a step back, however, and you begin to grasp the import of what is happening from Amherst, Massachusetts, where highly educated white parents have fought to preserve a tracking system that keeps virtually every child of color out of advanced classes, to Palo Alto, California, where a similarly elite constituency demands a return to a "skill and drill" math curriculum and fiercely opposes the more conceptual learning outlined in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards; from an affluent suburb of Buffalo, where parents of honors students quashed an attempt to replace letter grades with standards-based progress reports, to San Diego, where a program to provide underachieving students with support that will help them succeed in higher-level courses has run "head on into vigorous opposition from some of the community's more outspoken, influential members -- the predominantly white, middle-class parents of high-achieving students."[2]

Jeannie Oakes, author of Keeping Track, calls them "Volvo vigilantes," but that isn't quite accurate -- first, because they work within, and skillfully use, the law; and second, because many of them drive Jeeps. They may be pro-choice and avid recyclers, with nothing good to say about the likes of Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh; yet on educational issues they are, perhaps unwittingly, making common cause with, and furthering the agenda of, the Far Right.

The controversies in which these parents involve themselves fall into three clusters, the first of which concerns the type of instruction that is offered. Here we find a tension between, on the one hand, traditional methods and practices, geared toward a classroom that is construed as a collection of discrete individuals, each of whom is supposed to absorb a body of knowledge and basic skills, and, on the other hand, an approach distinguished by active discovery and problem solving by a community of learners.

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