Finding the Right School · School Choice

Should Schools Teach Your Child Values?

PJ Library, a non-profit which sends out free Jewish children’s books, also has a book club for parents. Their most recent selection was Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do To Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children by Marjorie Ingall.

In Chapter 6: Emphasize – But Don’t Fetishize – Education, Ingall, as all New York City parents are required to do, boasts about the wonderful diversity of her children’s public school (46 percent white, which, according to the Department of Ed, doesn’t qualify it as diverse, but who are we to quibble?), as well as its progressive curriculum and disregard for standardized testing, which she spends many pages arguing is the only way to raise kids who won’t become “competitive little freaks.”

Ingall admits that she benefited from school choice, as the K-5th grade school her children attended is an unzoned one she selected precisely because its educational approach matched her family’s values. However, as all NYC parents are also required to do, her support for choice ends at charter schools, as she actively lobbied to keep her school from sharing a building with one. Those other parents who wish to exercise the same school choice that she did? Well, not in my backyard.

This, despite also writing, “Treat everyone with respect, everyone has something to learn from someone else…I urge you as a parent to be familiar with all the lessons your kid is learning in the school building.” (Wonder what Ingall’s daughters learned about Mamaleh organizing to keep browner, poorer children out of their “compassionate and supportive” building?)

In the same chapter, Ingall quotes Julia Richman, the first female superintendent of NYC schools, as decreeing, “The citizen voter of today was yesterday an immigrant child…. Between the alien of today and the citizen of tomorrow stands the school, and upon the influence exerted by the school depends the kind of citizen the immigrant will become.”

Richman was appointed an NYC school superintendent in 1903. But her view on the purpose of schools is still echoed over 100 years later, in public and, yes, even charter schools, with studies such as the one cited below:

I have to confess: This makes me very, very nervous.

Let me tell you a story:

In the late 1980s, I was a student in a screened public high-school in San Francisco (the same screened public high-school our new School Chancellor, Richard Carranza, sent his daughter to, despite now proclaiming utter confusion as to why any parent would choose to send their child to a screened school).

A special speaker was brought into our Civics class. To wax poetic about the wonders of communism.

For forty minutes, this woman lectured the students, the vast majority of whom were either immigrants or children of immigrants from China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. (I was among the latter.)

We listened to her politely. Children of immigrants from repressive regimes are frequently taught to listen politely and to never publicly disagree with a speaker, for fear of dire consequences. Especially in a government-controlled setting like a school. (Confession time: I was very bad at it.)

The experience of sitting in a classroom and listening to a person in authority praise values which were utterly antithetical to what I was being taught at home, pretty much defined my American educational experience. I doubt I’m the only one. Alas, I went to school before the creation of “safe spaces,” where one has the right to banish all notions one doesn’t agree with. Yes, boys and girls of the 21st century, there was a time when one was compelled to listen to conflicting ideas, and, if they offended one… to suck it up.

Which is why I tend to recoil from statements like Richman’s, about turning the immigrant child into the kind of voter she believes they should be, or schools which talk about graduating “good citizens ”as defined by ‘the direct control of public officials.’” That attitude, frankly, always sounded terribly un-American to me, the polar opposite of what I’d also been taught the country was founded for.

Here’s the thing about being an immigrant child: Immigrant children tend to have different life experiences that those born and raised in America. And immigrant parents often have different dreams and expectations for their children, not to mention different standards of behavior.

When we talk about those oft-brought up wonders of diversity, in my experience, what those who champion it most vociferously tend to mean is: People of different colors, ethnicities, and religions… who preferably all think and act exactly the same.

But diversity isn’t just skin tone or language or socioeconomic status. It’s also diversity of thoughts, and values, and goals.

If schools truly want to be diverse, they have to move away from the paradigm of churning out only one definition of a “good citizen,” of wanting everyone to value what they value, ala Julia Richman, the study on “the foundational purpose of public education,” and Marjorie Ingall’s parenting advice book.

They have to let families choose which values they wish their school to impart, or whether they want the school to teach values at all – our family motto is, “We’ll teach them values, you teach them math,” – right alongside with letting everyone decide between a progressive or a traditional curriculum, dual language or mono, accelerated or self-paced, and all else that makes any school the perfect fit for a specific family.

What do you think?

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