Saturday, February 11, 2012

From Contraception to Curriculum: Matters of Conscience?

I’ve been hearing a lot about conscience this week. In the national discussion regarding President Obama’s new plans for the provision of contraception, I’ve heard radio commentators and read news reports about the importance of conscience, namely that certain religious groups should be able to refrain from providing contraception coverage because they principally disagree with it. At the state level this week (New Hampshire) regarding HB 1424-FN, I’ve heard elected officials describe the importance of allowing parents to remove their child from any school or curriculum to which they are conscientiously opposed. I’m left wondering just what the role of personal conscience is when it comes to private (here the health or family planning of a woman and her partner) and public benefits (here the success of schools that are democratically run and their missions).

Surely we value the principled stands of many people who disagree with the dictates or actions of large or powerful groups. In my mind I quickly think of conscientious objectors to war as well as the many Amish families near where I was raised in Ohio. Even though I served my eight years as a military spouse and even though I intentionally chose to leave my rural farming community, I can understand and respect many of their beliefs and can understand why they might resist certain public policies or educational practices. I can allow that my views and the dominant ways of America should not be forced upon everyone in all cases. But how do we, as the public tasked with protecting the weak and vulnerable amongst us (whether that be some women susceptible to significant dangers posed by unwanted pregnancy or the children of parents who shelter them from public school teachings), decide whose conscientiousness is worth accepting and whose is not? What basis do we use to determine the legitimacy of one’s principles of disagreement and whether being forced to violate those principles is of a significant hardship? When, if ever, is it in the best interest of a person to have their conscience intentionally challenged?

HB 1424 potentially enshrines the protection of parents’ conscience into public school policy in my state, regardless of the justification for parents’ views or discussion of the impact on their children. I’m thinking hard about just what parents might object to (perhaps the teaching of evolution or the absence of Bible study—as indicated by two other bills currently under debate in New Hampshire). And I’m thinking about criteria that might help public schools determine instances when those parents’ views should be accepted and when they hould be denied. I welcome thoughts from others who might be considering similar situations.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Your Father Will Not be Entered into the Father of the Year Contest

It's February. If you have a child in Chicago Public Schools, this means that you are now partway through the long stretch of winter weeks with more days off than you'd ever imagined possible. Fear not, though. There's a heart-lifting early February tradition too: the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative "What My Father Means to Me" Essay Contest. Here's how it works: sponsored by the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative, it asks K-12 schoolchildren to write an essay about a Father, Grandfather, Stepfather or -- in case all of those options are delinquent, nonexistent, or otherwise unworthy of an essay -- a Father-Figure. In return for participation, each child gets a voucher for 2 Chicago White Sox tickets. If Mom, Grandma, etc. wants to come, she'll have to pay her own way, though. This is about fatherhood, not family.

You'd hope that every kid in Chicago would be able to identify at least a father-figure, even if it is Lovie Smith or Rahm Emanuel, but, heading off the desperate emotions of a child who has not even that, the official contest essay form offers an alternative. "If you do not want to write about one of the four categories listed above, don't feel bad! Instead, tell IFI what qualities would make 'My Ideal Dad.' Put an X here ___ if you are writing about 'My Ideal Dad.'" But caution: if you had hopes of attending the White Sox game with pop, grandpa, or your basketball coach, do not put an X here. As the form continues, "Please note: If you choose this option, your father, grandfather, etc. will not be entered into the Father of the Year Contest."

Lest you go away thinking that men get off easy here -- free White Sox tickets, and all they had to do was not be so terrible that they got replaced by imaginary dad! -- read on. A page is provided for the K-12 student, followed by a response section for Father/Father-Figure Response, called: "My Reaction to this Essay," or "The Behavior I Intend to Change is." Every year when my daughter brings this home, I use it as a legitimate opportunity to make some suggestions to my husband. "How about 'I will stop leaving banana peels on the coffee table,'" I helpfully suggest. Or, "I will not eat the rest of the cookies without first asking whether anyone else wants one?" In response, my husband facetiously proposes more demanding aims: "No more than one six pack of beer on weeknights, and I will only smoke when standing at least 25 feet from the door."

February is also, of course, Black History month. Next month is Women's History Month. Essay contests like this one, though, remind us that messages about race and gender extend throughout the school year. "What My Father Means to Me" gives my husband and me the giggles every February as we compose our own imaginary responses (and, I'll add, a rush of love when we read my daughter's actual response, which this year included lines like "When my sister tackles me, he says STOP and helps me get my sister off me. . . This makes me feel very happy inside my heart"), but the implicit messages it offers children are troubling. The contest simultaneously tells kids that some fathers are great and that overall men are still pigs. What CPS implicitly says about fathers: they might be ok, but quite likely they're not, and even if they are, they're still not ideal. If you insist on the ideal dad, well, kid, you're going to that White Sox game on your own. As for race, the National Center for Fathering website offers special links for dads in different "situations", including "urban dad." There is no link for "suburban dad."

The incessant backpedaling (if not father, then stepdad, and if not stepdad, pretend dad; if dad is a lemon, then make lemonade with promises of self-improvement; and in the end you get the White Sox tickets no matter how poor your showing because our expectations were pretty low anyway) stands in distinct contrast to the other school-sponsored performance of fatherhood scheduled for February: the "Father/Daughter Dance." (Need I add that, in the most segregated city in the US, my daughter's school is mostly White, and situated in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where houses now sell for prices only two-parent families are likely to afford?) At the bus stop in the morning, a mother innocently asked my husband whether he was going. He was not going, he said, because he did not think it made sense to protect his little girl from early sexualization by dolling her up and taking her out on a date, and he found all the "promise keepers" associations really disturbing. When he recounted this conversation, I asked him if he really used the word "sexualization" at the bus stop, and he said yes, and that's what you get for sending your kids to school with the daughter of professors. I did not ask him to reform his behavior.

I wanted to post last month about the Girl Scouts policy of full inclusion for transgender children, but I couldn't think of anything to say except "Hooray for Girl Scouts!" In light of the fact that a young friend of mine left school in tears yesterday because, with two moms, she couldn't go to the Father/Daughter dance, I'll say this: our schools should show commitment to reform of gender stereotypes at least as courageously as the Girl Scouts. No back-pedaling. To win those baseball tickets, or better yet a box of Thin Mints, commitment to improve expected by Monday.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Fifth Anniversary Issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy Now Online

We are pleased to announce the publication of our Fifth Anniversary Issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy on the theme, “The Education and Schools our Children Deserve,” co-edited with Susan Donnelly, head of the Whatcom Day Academy. Readers will see many innovative approaches and some unique use of multimedia throughout the issue.

This issue is dedicated to Alfie Kohn, whose book, The Schools our Children Deserve, was the inspiration for the controversy we posed. Mr. Kohn wrote the prologue for the issue in which he reflects on the years since the publication of The Schools our Children Deserve and the need more than ever to be asking what kind of schools our children still deserve.

The issue is divided into three sections.

Section one is a series of articles written by distinguished scholars in response to the controversial scenario (see below) posed for the issue. Authors come at it from different perspectives and with different disciplinary tools, but together they form a vital chorus of important voices that look at “the education and schools our children deserve” from outside the dominant discourse that frames today’s political debates. Check out the interesting article on John Dewey by Mary Finn, entitled, "Dewey and an "Organizing Approach to Teaching."

Section two is an “In the News” section. Here we took a very controversial issue in the news, namely, the Arizona legislation to ban ethnic studies in the schools. Under the actual legislation that our readers can read in its entirety, we published an article from the director of the school district that was under attack. Augustine Romero tells his own story about the events that took place in Arizona’s Tucson Unified School District in his article, “The Hypocrisy of Racism: Arizona's Movement towards State-Sanctioned Apartheid.”

Section three is our attempt to give readers an idea of what a “school meant for children” would look like. This section embeds 23 videos of actual school classrooms in a multi-media article written by the head of the school, Susan Donnelly. The Educational Institute for Democratic renewal, that houses the Journal of Educational Controversy, has partnered with the school, the Whatcom Day Academy, as part of a network of schools started by John Goodlad called the National League of Democratic Schools.

The controversy addressed in the issue is:
The politicizing of education at the national level has centered on issues of standards, accountability, global competitiveness, national economic growth, low student achievement on worldwide norms, and federally mandated uniformity. There has been little discussion of the public purposes of our schools or what kind of education is necessary for an individual’s development and search for a meaningful life. There is a paucity of ideas being discussed at the national level around topics such as: how school practices can be aligned with democratic principles of equity and justice; how school practices can promote the flourishing of individual development as well as academic achievement; what skills and understandings are needed for citizens to play a transformative role in their society. Without conversation at this deeper level about the fundamental purposes of education, we cannot develop a comprehensive vision of the kinds of schools our children deserve. We invite authors to contribute their conceptions of the kind of education our children deserve and/or the kinds of schools that serve the needs of individuals and of a democratic society.
The Journal of Educational Controversy is expanding its pool of reviewers. For consideration, e-mail a letter of interest and vita to