To say that trying to educate children since the onset of the pandemic has been chaotic and stressful would be an enormous understatement
Administrators and educators have done their best to fill the inescapable gap in education that has been exacerbated by extended online schooling, unpredictable attendance due to virus clusters, lengthy mask mandates, vaccine hesitancy, and disputes surrounding critical pedagogy and curriculum choices.
To do their best, administrators and educators have required the assistance of parents, a largely unrecognized education stakeholder group prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, three school years on, parents, and in particular, mothers, have emerged as essential advocates for students nationwide. The quest for greater involvement in the decision-making process has led to an unprecedented growth in the influence of school boards on key schooling decisions. Mothers have disproportionately (and heroically) borne the brunt of assisting American schoolchildren with at-home learning, which uniquely positions them to offer insight on how to improve the educational outcomes of American students as a “new normal” is established. Recent data from The 74Million1 suggest that this phenomenon is more than just a flash in the pan. In reference to the 2021 school year, “More than 80 percent of educators and 90 percent of parents say they will be as or more engaged with each other this school year than last year.”
School boards are the embodiment of citizen involvement in local affairs
Since the creation of the public school system in America in the mid-1600s, local school boards2 have been a vehicle for situating education intent within the reality of a community’s needs and values. The phenomenon of emboldened mothers stepping up to demand a say in everything from mask mandates to the choice of curriculum is reflective of this longstanding tradition of citizen involvement in the public school system. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven mothers to advocate fiercely for their children on a broad range of topics, ranging from mask and vaccine mandates, curriculum development and professional development of educators, and to point out when entry standards to certain education tracks such as AP and STEM lack uniformity and are thus inherently unfair. In this article, we’ll break down and explore the motivations behind the recent, heartening surge in involvement of mothers on school boards.
Masking and vaccine mandates
While the Center for Disease Control has offered fluctuating, and at times, confusing guidance regarding masking and vaccination recommendations for certain age groups, when it comes to children, the ultimate decision should rest with parents. After three long school years filled with uncertainty and frustration, no one is better equipped than parents to determine what is best for their children’s health at school. The imposition of any sort of mandate regarding vaccines or masks serves only to enflame an already tense situation.
Already, we can see this standoff deflating, as the vaccinated population ticks upward and schools such as those in Philadelphia opt for a compromise. A recent Chalkbeat3 article reported that wearing a mask will be optional as of March 9th so long as the city’s health department has determined that the COVID case count is low enough to sustain a hypothetical uptick. In conversation with Chalkbeat about the upcoming change to masking, Superintendent William Hite stated, “Some people will continue to wear masks. Others will not. I ask that you thoughtfully consider your personal situation and family circumstances, and do what is best for you or your child – and please respect everyone else’s right to do the same, even if their choice differs from yours.” Mr. Hite’s words correctly summarize the importance of individual choice when parents are making health-related decisions for their children.
Curriculum development and adoption
There has been a nationwide reckoning regarding school curriculum and who determines its content. While it makes sense that curriculum content be developed by experts, parental reviews and critiques of the curriculum and its corresponding materials should be encouraged because the pandemic has illustrated that it is parents who contribute to their children’s education by meeting any outstanding needs unmet by educators and schools.
It’s not just parents who want a bigger say in curriculum choices. According to a 2021 survey of more than 1,300 district officials, teachers, and school leaders by EdWeek4, 63% said that parents should be either “somewhat involved” or “very involved.” Furthermore, it would behoove school administrators to include parents in the decision-making process early on so that every parent feels empowered to be an active participant in their child’s education. EdWeek’s survey also found that parents were perceived to be disproportionately inactive compared to how involved respondents felt they ought to be.
Parental involvement in curriculum development and selection is especially important now as education technology assumes a prominent role in education instruction – often at the resistance of teachers who are not necessarily consulted nor given proper instruction on how to get the most out of the technology. To this end, it is also important that parents have a voice in the materials approved for the professional development of educators, to ensure that the materials complement the curriculum and foster a sense of cohesiveness between decision makers across the district, teacher, and parent levels. One state, Indiana, introduced in December5 an education bill that would require every school district in the state to create an advisory curriculum committee composed of 40% parents, 20% members of the public, and 40% educators.
Specialized academic track standards (AP and STEM)
Academic tracks have a controversial history in American schools, and with good reason. The United States incorporated the practice of academic “tracking” in 2002 when former President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act6, the result of which has been an increase in the importance placed on students’ standardized test scores. This, in turn, has resulted in increased scrutiny from parents regarding the education tracks available to their children, in large part due to the discrepancy (perceived or real) in the quality of education their child stands to receive based on the track they’re placed on based on their test scores.
Oftentimes, these tracks that exist to offer support to both the brightest and those most in need of support actually do a disservice. For example, AP or STEM tracks with unclear entry standards become bottlenecks where students who may or may not qualify based on their grades are pushed forward by parents who understand that completing AP classes for college credit and enrolling in STEM courses offer unique springboards into practical jobs post high school or financial savings during college.
Back to the basics: the importance of mastering the core subjects (reading, writing, and math)
The negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the academic progress of American students (and indeed, students everywhere) is profound. Two entire grades of kindergarten classes have largely experienced school online. College enrollment is declining. And yet, parents across the country have risen to the challenge of meeting their children’s academic needs, such as by opting to homeschool them or seek out alternative learning solutions in order to meet needs that the schools are unable to do.
The importance of emphasizing core subjects such as reading7, writing8, and math9 cannot be understated as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Even prior to the pandemic10, nearly two-thirds of the nation’s students were unable to read at grade level. In a national analysis of 5.5 million students who took the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test in spring 2021, students scored three to six percentile points lower11 compared to students in 2019.
By inviting parents, and specifically mothers, to be a part of the conversation and empowering individuals to run for school board membership and engage in challenging conversations, we can focus on making these three elements education priorities from the moment a student enters the school system, as well as meeting other education challenges head on. Our students deserve to be assured of having a foundation strong enough to sustain the challenges of learning in a post-pandemic era that has severely impacted student learning on nearly all fundamental levels.
- Analysis: Surveys Show Parents, Teachers & Principals Are More Committed Than Ever to Working Together to Support Student Learning | The 74 (the74million.org)
- 01 3684-3 chap1.qxd (brookings.edu)
- Indiana Republican lawmakers want parents to review school curriculum – Indianapolis Business Journal (ibj.com)
- No Child Left Behind is dead. But have states learned from it? – Chalkbeat
- The Nation’s Report Card: 2019 Reading Nation Grade 4 Snapshot Report (ed.gov)
- I got rid of my writing class. My students are better writers for it. – Chalkbeat New York
- Learning during COVID-19: Reading and math achievement in the 2020-2021 school year – NWEA
- The Nation’s Report Card: 2019 Reading Nation Grade 4 Snapshot Report (ed.gov)
- The pandemic has had devastating impacts on learning. What will it take to help students catch up? (brookings.edu)