Parents and politicians across the country are interfering with the curricula that public schools use to teach students. State legislatures are passing laws to keep critical race theory out of schools, literary classics like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” are banned for sexual content, and school libraries are coming under attack for containing books about gender. There are even parents who are trying to shield students from learning about mental health and suicide— as though helping children build emotional fortitude is a bad thing.
While the political climate and national involvement in school districts give the phenomenon a broader platform and have more serious ramifications, this behavior is nothing new. Parents have always tried to interfere with curricula, as I observed when teaching middle school in the mid-2000s. Even then there was no shortage of parental input about the content of my instruction, from books to test questions. Part of the problem is that parents think they have the right to control teaching and learning because their children are the ones being educated. But it actually (gasp!) doesn’t work that way. It’s sort of like entering a surgical unit thinking you can interfere with an operation simply because the patient is your child.
Teaching, too, is a science. Unless they’re licensed and certified, parents aren’t qualified to make decisions about curricula. In fact, parental interference can actually hinder student advancement. An educator’s primary goal is to teach students to think. Parents who attempt to influence curricula with their personal opinions, ideologies and biases hinder that goal.
When I first pursued teaching nearly two decades ago, I was struck by the list of requirements I had to fulfill for the state of New Jersey to determine that I was qualified. Several years of focused college instruction followed by intense mentorship and state-level exams were the norm back then, and more exams have been introduced since.
I went on to graduate school for even more intense study and eventually earned a Ph.D. in curriculum, instruction and teacher education. I’ve spent the last 16 years fully engaged in teaching and curriculum development, including a steady stream of professional development courses. Even teachers who don’t have doctorates rarely stop their education at college convocation.
Part of the reason for this prolonged instruction is to hone the expertise required to be an effective teacher. This involves becoming fluent not only in the content and issues informing a given subject, but also in how to teach. Anyone can walk into a classroom with an understanding of (or at least an opinion about) the content. But not everyone can succeed in teaching it. That skill is precisely what higher education, intense mentorship and stressful licensing requirements are designed to build and assess.
Which is why the ceaseless effort of parents and politicians to shape curricula by targeting book selection, the type of history taught in classrooms and even specific terms used in classrooms should be ignored. These distractions are nothing more than theater, and school boards and administrators should be protecting their teachers — and students — from it rather than bowing to it.
Currently, 36 states (plus Washington, D.C.) require that teachers have master’s degrees to teach, and states typically require administrators and supervisors to have earned advanced degrees in addition to at least one license in administration. As a professor of teacher education and someone who works with teachers in classrooms, I can say with authority that our nation’s children are in good, educated and capable hands — no matter what some parents and politicians appear determined to believe.
Of course, as with any profession, there are sometimes incompetent practitioners or bad actors. I’ll never forget the teacher who dreamed up the mock slave auction in a horrifically misguided attempt to teach about slavery or the teacher who asked students to list the positives of slavery. More recently, a school in Texas made headlines when one of its school board members insisted that educators teach “both sides” of the Holocaust, as did a school in Florida for shaming a 14-year-old girl for her clothing.
Such incidents deserve parental and community wrath and should be handled swiftly and aggressively. Parents should always raise concerns when they feel emotional harm results from the curriculum or student-teacher interactions, and teachers and administrators have a responsibility to listen to their concerns and be responsive when activity in the classroom causes injury to students that’s attested to by research, such as use of the N-word and other dehumanizing language.
But short of that, parents, community members and politicians who aren’t qualified to teach should keep their noses out of school curricula. A teacher’s main goal should be to teach children to think for themselves, and parents’ dictating the curriculum interferes with the nurturing of that independence.
The future of our country and world are sitting in today’s K-12 classrooms, and those children will eventually become adults in a world requiring their empathy, passion, intelligence and engagement. Parental interference in school curricula is poised to accomplish the exact opposite. Shielding students from real-world issues and diverse perspectives will create bubbles that will render their children ill-prepared to navigate society, particularly when they are called upon to contribute and think critically.