Confession: I Have No Idea What My Child’s School Is Even Talking About

Dubious and far-fetched ideas.
Sept. 12 2013 11:21 AM

Parents Left Behind

How public school reforms are turning American parents into dummies.

Dummy mom.
What are they trying to tell me?!?

Photo by LuminaStock/Thinkstock

We’ve been hearing for decades about all the ways our public school system is failing our children. They’re falling further and further behind on international academic assessments, and it’s not clear that efforts to remedy the situation are succeeding. Indeed, we pretty much know things have gotten worse. But all the focus on failing schools and failing students ignores the other consequence of American public education reform: The failing parents. Because if last night’s open house night at my son’s middle school was any indication of the inexorable decline of the American parent, we are truly doomed.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Now, to be clear, I am a big fan of public education. Maybe not quite as much as some of my colleagues, but I remain fundamentally sold on the public schools enterprise. But somewhere along the line I started failing. First in small, unnoticeable ways, and then in more irremediable ones. Until it became completely clear to me that I can no longer comprehend what happens in my children’s schools.

It is now a distinct possibility that the unintended casualty of No Child Left Behind is the parents who have been left behind in their stead.

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I used to believe that public school open houses required little more than the obligatory clean shirt with buttons and a swipe of lip gloss. Possibly a list of semi-aspirational questions. A pen. As a parent you’d strive to show your child’s teachers that they were inheriting your charming young scion and listen attentively to their plans for the year. But at this year’s back to school night for my fifth-grader, I think it’s fair to say that I failed on every single testable metric. Starting with not knowing it was back to school night in the first place. That sin was quickly followed by tardiness, lost-ness, and also failure to ask probing questions. But all of these minor failings were soon swallowed up by a complete and total inability to show mastery of either curriculum or academic goals. The evening passed in a blur of acronyms, test names, and emendations to last year’s system. Which I also didn’t understand. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I understood significantly less at this open house than I did at my sons’ open house during a sabbatical last year, when it took place overseas and in a foreign language.

Let’s agree that I bear some responsibility for my failure to thrive in our kids’ schools. Education is a complicated enterprise and requires hard work on the part of parents and students alike. But somewhere along the line, public education became so completely overmastered by its own jargon, broad templates, and unspecified testable outcomes, that at times yesterday I felt as if I were toggling between a business school seminar and the space program; acronyms alone—seemingly random sequences of letters like MAP and SOL and EAPE—were being deployed more frequently than actual words. To be sure, the teachers seemed as maddened by it as the parents were. Even if we can all agree about the singular benefits of “project-based learning across the curriculum," I am less than perfectly certain any of us knows what it means.

“Un-levelling.” We do that now. And “fitnessgram testing?” Possibly the new un-levelling.

I checked with friends this morning to find out if I was alone in my sense that I had fallen asleep in the late 1990s and woken to a world in which I have no idea what schools even do anymore. My friend Stephanie advised me that her back to school night involved a discussion with a teacher about “interfacing with a child’s developmental space,” as well as a reference to “scaffolding text to text connections” in Ramona the Pest. My friend Laurel was told by her child’s teachers that “the children will be required to work in groups in this class, as collaboration is a 21st-century skill." (This helpful education jargon generator will come in handy at my first teacher conference.)

Then my friend Duncan helpfully explained that he was as confused as I was about the pedagogical objectives and aims of his child’s public elementary school in rural North Carolina. Until he realized that the school had seamlessly adapted Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Successful People into its curriculum, and his first grader started accusing him of failing to be sufficiently “proactive.” Last year I was grappling with rationalizing my son’s fractions. Suddenly I am also failing to employ proactive strategically dynamic new paradigms as well.

My friend Janet Frick, a developmental psychology professor at the University of Georgia, reassures me that I am not so much “failing” my child’s public school as "still progressing toward the standard." She further reminds me that there is hope for struggling public school parents: differential instruction, followed by a Scantron post-test.

Thankfully then, our tendency to lag further and further behind our children’s inscrutable educational system is still fixable. We just have to remember that just as there are no such things as failing students, or failing schools, there are no such things as failing parents. There is only the acronym that hasn’t been invented yet.