There are few things that seem to get people as riled up as a discussion about education and public schools. Everyone has an opinion. Rankings are a big deal. People go so far as to buy houses to get in to the right school districts. Realtors know this, so several sites allow you to search for homes for sale by school district. There are great databases full of information about test scores, teacher qualifications, and student performance.
I understand why. Kids spend a lot of their waking hours in school, so parents are rightly concerned about what they’re doing while they’re there. And it’s pretty universally accepted that getting a good primary and secondary education is an important step toward becoming a successful, productive member of society.
I find it interesting, though, that there seems to be relatively little discussion of the values being taught in schools. And in my mind, it’s that values piece that is really crucial.
A year or two ago, a family I know posted a picture of their daughter’s middle school science worksheet. Because I know these people, I trust the authenticity of the photo, but the contents were shocking. To teach basic genetics, the students were given the blood types of a mother, a baby, and four possible fathers: “Sammy the player, George the sleeze, The waiter, The cable guy.” Another question listed “The Bartender, Guy at the club, Cabdriver, Flight attendant” as possible fathers. In both cases, the students were asked which of the four couldn’t be the father.
Middle schoolers know that babies don’t always follow marriage. I have no illusions about this being a novel idea for any of the kids who received that worksheet. But it’s troubling nonetheless because it normalizes behavior that most parents probably don’t want to promote. I don’t know very many parents who want to teach their daughters that it’s ok to sleep with Sammy the player, George the sleeze, the waiter, the cable guy, the bartender, the guy at the club, the cabdriver, and the flight attendant – and in such quick succession that she finds herself unsure of her own baby’s parentage. And yet, when kids are presented with these sorts of scenarios nonchalantly by people their parents have told them to listen to and respect (i.e. teachers), it sends an implicit message that promiscuity is normal.
It’s not just limited to one worksheet in one class, either. I spent part of last weekend assisting with a seventh grade social studies worksheet. It was all 20th century history – World War II, colonialism, Cold War, etc. Most of it was fine, but then there was a section about human rights, and it got a little dicey. The school was using the UN as a reference point, but there are certainly “rights” promoted by the UN that aren’t universally accepted as such by many American parents. I think particularly of rights to abortion and contraception, which are hotly contested. The school, however, wasn’t teaching a theory of human rights, but simply presenting a list of them as fact. Parents’ values weren’t necessarily being reflected at all.
Our kids spend 35-40 hours a week at school, so the messages they get there about what is good and right, what is acceptable, how we should think and act, and what’s normal adult behavior matter. They shape the way our kids think about those things, and therefore they play a part in shaping our children’s values, morals, beliefs, and character.
Some parents may choose to send their kids to private schools or homeschool in order to have more control over the values their children are being taught, but for many families, public school may be the only real option. We should be as concerned about what they’re being taught there as we are about what they’re seeing on televisions, the Internet and their phones. Parents need to be vigilant in reviewing homework, textbooks, and other materials. We need to talk with our kids about what’s happening in their classrooms. We need to meet with teachers and express concerns as they arise. It’s a lot of work, and puts further demands on already stretched parents, but the stakes are high. The only way to effectively protect our own kids and the kids in our communities is to make sure we’re actively engaged in the public schools to keep the values being taught there in check.