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Let me first establish my bona fides in order for you, the Ricochetti, to understand that this is a cri de coeur. I was homeschooled K-12, am a proud alumna of Hillsdale College, and for many years taught in private classical schools (I now have a position that supports school choice and excellent curriculum and teachers). I loved the kids and I loved my subject. It was a privilege to open up the virtues and vices of the classical world to my students and to challenge their minds to understand the thoughts of Cicero and Plato.
Here is why I left teaching: I began to despair that real K-12 education was possible in the 21st century. Was it because a) the children were glued to their screens? b) too much testing? c) the Common Core standards? d) administrative burdens? e) uninvolved parents?
None of the above. It was because of helicopter parents. Their fear of failure was crippling children’s ability to learn. There were often excuses for low grades and frequently explicit pressure to change them. These were parents at conservative, Christian, private schools. We teachers were not strangers to the end-of-the-year conference in which an administrator would sit down with the teacher and parents and facilitate a “compromise” in which the teacher would raise the student’s grade in exchange for getting to continue their employment. Over time, many teachers learned not to give Fs (or even Cs) to any students lest they be subjected to vitriol in their inboxes or in person, and vicious gossip about them to other parents.
That’s the trouble with private schools in the 21st century. The parents pay the school and expect grades in return. They assume that low grades mean the school is not doing its job, when, in reality, it’s just as likely that their child isn’t as bright and/or hard-working as they imagine. Grades are just information — not judgments on the inherent dignity of a human being. You see, as Charles Murray once pointed out in Real Education, half of the children are below average. You wouldn’t know that from the nosebleed GPAs at many private (and elite public) schools. The numbers of National Merit Scholars are not proportionate to the number of valedictorians or honors graduates.
It extended to the realm of behavior, as well. Teachers were discouraged from sending outrageous cases to the principal because it was understood that teachers only got to have so many parent complaints before they were not invited back.
But this problem of parental malfeasance goes beyond the K-12 space — ask university professors about the increasing number of students who demand good grades because they “showed up” or even get their parents involved in trying to force grade changes. This shift of responsibility has been going on for at least 20 years now, and it is threatening the very foundations of a once-free society. Entitlement is not a disease that afflicts only the welfare classes; it can and does infect the well-to-do.
If children spend their formative years knowing that mom and dad will always smooth the path for them — prevent them from failing, experiencing unhappiness or even discomfort, are we surprised that “safe spaces” now exist on university campuses?
A few possible objections:
“Administrators and boards should hold the line.” Correct — in theory. In practice, their continued existence depends on getting x number of posteriors in the seats. This is impossible if they don’t deliver the goods to their customers.
“Leadership should set the expectation that the school will be rigorous.” Correct — in theory. In practice, “rigor” is defined down until it is practically meaningless. The word “classical,” for example, can mean almost anything now.
“Parents who want real education will send their kids to schools where they can get it.” Correct — in theory. But, again, it’s about numbers and critical mass — whether you’re blessed to live in a location with enough parents who share that vision.
“Couldn’t this be said of progressive private and some public schools?” Yes, it could. I’m writing about the world I know best. Parents at private Christian and/or classical schools should want more for their children than a mere credential.
“Online education will allow parents to seek out real education.” I’ll believe that when I see it. Online, multi-choice quizzes are not going to be able to measure understanding of complex, non-quantitative subjects (e.g., literary analysis, translation of Latin and Greek, historical essays, persuasive writing).
This is an open plea to well-meaning parents: are you a stumbling block? Do you view the school as your partner (in loco parentis) or as your servant? Virtue is hard to imbue; do not undermine your child’s progress towards self-governance by removing all obstacles or by providing ready excuses for failure.