Tensions between parents and educators are at an all-time high. Differences in opinion about education are not new, and they certainly do not have to lead to a corrosion of trust. Yet that is exactly what has happened, and both groups shoulder blame—as does the media.
It’s undeniable that parent conduct has been out of control since the pandemic. Ask a teacher or principal in any type of school district you can think of, and they will likely tell you that, during their entire time in education, the last few years have been the worst in dealing with parents. In one study, 29 percent of teachers and 42 percent of administrators reported at least one “incident of harassment or threat of violence” from parents. Family members have come to schools armed to settle disputes and threaten staff in the School District of Philadelphia, for example. Parents were arrested at a South Carolina school after fighting in the lobby. School board meetings in California have seen violence break out. Youth sporting events in Indiana have led to referees being attacked on the court. A sixty-year-old grandparent died shortly after a parent brawl in Vermont.
The education system is at fault, too. Taken as an institution that should include everyone from teachers to school board members to politicians, it has contributed to the parents’ growing distrust. Concerned parents were labeled “domestic terrorists.” Politicians campaigned on messages like, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” with teachers union leaders echoing the sentiment. Educators have posted performative videos, engaged in questionable classroom practices, and taken sides in the culture wars, much of which parents saw firsthand during virtual instruction. School leaders and school boards consistently implemented discreditable policies over the course of the pandemic that deteriorated parental confidence. Such actions warrant a cynical response from parents who deserve much better treatment and performance from educators.
And journalism has fanned these flames. No matter what side of the debate you’re on, there have been countless examples of the media exaggerating or straight-up lying. Imagine, as a parent, reading headlines that your child’s school in Houston is “turning libraries into discipline centers,” a claim refuted by Dale Chu’s on-the-ground reporting. Or that your school district in Tennessee is “banning Maus”—when in reality they’re just engaging in the routine practice of changing curricula. Misleading and dishonest reporting has led to an uninformed and increasingly angered public over largely false narratives. Parent and school relations cannot improve if we have a media that continues to prioritize divisive cultural war issues over honest education stories that actually matter.
To restore relations and build back trust between parents and schools, we don’t need to “reimagine education” as U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona puts it. We need a reset. And there’s at least four strategies for schools and parents to accomplish this.
First, schools should make expectations clear to parents by establishing a code of conduct like the almost fifty schools in the UK that have demanded parents agree to follow rules concerning social media behavior and even dress code when they pick their students up. They can also make parent obligations such as timely communication and attending meetings mandatory much like Success Academy in New York City does.
Second, school leaders must gain the courage to justly enforce consequences for parents failing to meet these expectations. This is not an easy task for traditional public schools, as enforcing a dress code for parents can cause national outrage or prohibiting parents from school board meetings may result in legal action. Yet, there are ways—grounded in common-sense, fairness, and the law—for leaders to overcome such constraints. A superintendent in Pennsylvania demanded more of parents through a persuasive plea that appealed to the common senses of parents concerned with school safety. New Mexico’s state athletics association passed a harsh but fair rule banning an entire team’s fan base from spectating for the season if a parent commits two acts of unsportsmanlike conduct. And lastly, if warranted and through due process, courts have ruled in favor of schools exercising accountability measures, such as banning parents from school property.
Third, school leaders and staff have to accept warranted criticism from parents and be willing to address justifiable parent concerns. For example, the aforementioned Success Academy doesn’t just hold high expectations for parents, they also hold the same demands of themselves. In their policies, they detail what parents should expect of them, such as agreeing to respond to parents within twenty-four hours, providing countless opportunities for parents to engage with staff, and ensuring parents are integrated in improvement plans based on their feedback.
Fourth, schools must be transparent with moms and dads about curriculum and day-to-day operations in classrooms. While bills in state legislatures and Congress demanding transparency haven’t had much success, schools should be willing to post their curricula, materials, and instructional methods online, and ensure teachers follow it. Parents also can’t be left in the dark regarding what’s going on in the school. Proposals for cameras live streaming classrooms may be asking too much, but schools should be required to share information to parents involving their child, whether it’s about serious incidents, gender-identity changes, or self-harm. And consider encouraging parents to actively volunteer in the building, such as the fathers at a Partnership School in Cleveland who provide mentoring and support to students throughout the school day.
This road to recovery is a two-way street. Marriage counseling doesn’t really work if just one spouse participates. And like marriage, a divorce or unhealthy relationship will most likely cause worse outcomes for the kids. The faster parents and educators realize that they both need to work on themselves, the stronger their thirteen-year commitment to each other will grow, and the better off America’s children will be.