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New school: Most parents left behind

– We’ve been hearing for decades about all the ways our public school system is failing our children. But all the focus on schools and students ignores the other consequence of public education reform: The failing parents. Because if open house at my son’s middle school was any indication of the inexorable decline of the American parent, we are truly doomed.

Now, to be clear, I am a big fan of public education. 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.

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.

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 were soon swallowed up by a 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.

Let’s agree 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 I felt as if I were toggling between a business school seminar and the space program; acronyms alone were deployed more frequently than actual words.

To be sure, the teachers seemed as maddened by it as the parents were. I checked with friends afterward to find out whether 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. 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.” 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.”

Then Duncan helpfully explained he was as confused as I was about the pedagogical objectives and aims of his child’s public elementary in rural North Carolina. Until he realized 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 fractions. Suddenly I am also failing to employ proactive strategically dynamic new paradigms.

Thankfully, 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.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.

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