How Much Power Should Parents Have in Their Child’s School?
By Jill Jenkins
Recently in the news there have been four examples of parents who feel the need to dictate what happens in their child’s class. According to the Salt Lake Tribune at a local high school one parent complained that a history teacher displayed President Obama’s picture on the wall and she wanted it removed because she felt it was put there to upset her son and others who do not like the president. In another incident in the same district, a parent complained about an English teachers’ selection of literature, even though the teacher had only used literature that had been selected from the district approved list. The district has a committee of teachers, librarians, administrators and parents who read books suggested by teachers and either approve them or they do not go on the list. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, “the questionable books, which have been approved by Jordan School District, are "The Hunger Games," "Speak," "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" and "Paper Towns.” The article indicates that the parent’s complaint was that the books were too dark. I think if there was a complaint it should have been that the books do not represent the rigor required by the new Common Core Curriculum, but that is a different issue. Nevertheless, parents need to understand that the new Common Core Curriculum requires much more rigorous selections of both fiction and non-fiction which are likely to contain more controversial and adult themes. The day of Disney films and literature with Mary Poppins –like themes are over. In a third incident, a play which had been approved by another district committee didn’t meet the approval of a woman who didn’t even have children attending that school and she wanted it banned. Likewise, the Salt Lake Tribune cited another incident occurred when a parent complained that a history teacher used the book, Howard Zinn’s "A People’s History of the United States. The parents’ complaint was that the book was not a text, but supplementary material and included descriptions of Christopher Columbus and his crew raping and enslaving the people when they came to America. The teacher felt justified in his use of the material because it showed historical events from a different perspective. The district supported all the teachers in all of these incidents. How much influence should these parents have?
In all of these incidences the parents have options. This particular school district has many committees that make decisions about appropriate curriculum and parents who wish to get involved in those decisions should volunteer for those committees. If they don’t like the school in which their child is assigned to attend, they can select another school. If they don’t like the other schools in the state, they can select a charter school or even an on-line charter school. If they don’t like any of those options, they can choose to home-school their children or send them to a private school. Personally I don’t think the loud voices of the few radical parents should be able to dictate to schools which books they teach, which plays they perform and above all which presidents they hang on their classroom walls.
During my career I faced parents’ complaints about literature. One parent didn’t want her daughter to read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit because the characters drank beer and non-human creatures talked. (Hobbits, elves and dwarves: she obviously hadn’t seen my family.) Another parent waited until we had finished reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury to complain that she didn’t like the swearing in it. I asked her if she had read it. She said that she had not nor would she read it. Apparently she has a list of unsuitable books and the book about book burning, made the list. I think Ray Bradbury would be proud if he were still alive. Another parent waited two quarters to complain after we finished reading Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. She said her daughter was too young to read about Nancy being bludgeoned to death by Bill Sikes. At least her complained wasn’t the one of my friends heard. That parent was appalled because the book refers to Charlie Bates as Master Bates several times in the book. Finally I had a parent who thought Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, has far too much sexual content for her son. Of course, she waited until we finished reading it to complain, even though she had been told that it was among the books taught. It should be noted that the year before at a parent meeting, I told every parent which pieces of literature would be used in the class, and I gave them the same information on a hand-out that night. I posted the information on my website. I posted my open disclosure on my webpage and gave every child a copy including a list of all of the literary selections taught that year. I gave them a third handout at Parent-Teacher Night and would have given any child an alternative book if their parent complained before we finished reading them, but in every case, they waited until after the books were completely read. This was an advanced class that students had to apply to get into, so the parent knew their students would be reading more difficult literature than the ordinary classes. All of the books I was teaching had been approved by the district literary selection, a committee that included parents, teachers, librarians and administrators. I think the district and I had done our job.I think the parents who complained were derelict in theirs.
In all of the examples cited, the parents were given an opportunity for input, but did not avail themselves to be part of the committees that make these decisions. Furthermore, in most school districts such committees do not exist. The schools depend upon the common sense and professional integrity of the teaching staff. However, although I used to oppose such committees as in insult to the professionalism of teachers, I have since decided that in some school districts, it is a necessary evil. The parents who complain after a committee has approved a book or play don’t have much of leg to stand on; as a result; it protects teachers from unnecessary harassment. If a parent doesn’t want their child to read the literature taught in advanced classes, they shouldn’t enroll them in the advanced classes. Parents should read teacher’s open disclosures and read the books listed on them to determine if this is the right placement for their child. If they don’t like what they see, look into other schools, other programs, charter schools, private schools or if they hate everything try home-schooling their children. The world shouldn’t have to change to accommodate the needs and the wants of the few. If parents don’t feel that a public school should display a picture of the president, maybe they need to send their child to a private school. Parents should be given opportunities to serve on committees and present their ideas, but I don’t think that one complaining parent should dictate which book a class reads, which play a school presents, or which educationally appropriate picture is displayed in a teacher’s classroom.