Culture

It Wasn’t the Best Response Ever

Here’s a surprise (not really): something went viral that probably shouldn’t have. Few things take flight faster than an angry and misguided letter from a parent.

(A summary of my entire post: The father had no evidence to support his claims, and the school’s policies existed for a good reason. Holding it up as a great reaction to a “confining” school is misguided at best and spreads an anti-school sentiment at worst.)

 

The backstory:

  • A father takes his kids out of school for three days (during standardized testing).
  • The principal sends him a form letter explaining that the absence is unexcused according to the school district.
  • The father sends an angry reply to the school which he posts on Facebook and it goes viral.
  • The media blows up the story even more, prompting the father to argue against its portrayal of him “taking on the principal.”
  • The principal has been receiving harassment from hundreds of people.
  • I said “Hang on a minute! You’re all missing something very important!” and then write this monster post. Feel free to skip to the end to get the conclusion.

 

 

I will be up front and say that I think the father absolutely has the right to take his kids out of school. I can also understand why he would feel motivated to respond the way he did. I’m not actually arguing against him specifically, I’m arguing against the poor ways the situation was portrayed in the media and the viral spread of misguided ideas.

Specifically, I saw headlines like this: “Dad’s reply to school on kids’ absence is best response ever” and “This Father Writes An Amazing Response…” and “Dad’s Amazing Response to Letter…”

It wasn’t amazing, and it shouldn’t have been called that. While I can’t know what everyone was thinking, I can guess that most of the people who read it and spread it thought it was a great reply. However, the father’s response failed to take two very important things into consideration:

  1. Why the school would have that attendance policy at all.
  2. The complete lack of evidence for the claims made by his letter.

 

1. Why the school would have that attendance policy at all.

The first one has to do with the law. In the US, there is a legal requirement for children to go to school. Alternatives (homeschool, etc.) are an option, but pulling your child out of school too much is actually illegal. The principal did the responsible thing of informing the parents about the law. It is not the school’s fault that the law is in place, they simply have to follow it with their policies.

An even bigger concern of the school is funding. Two things that can effect school funding in the US are student attendance and standardized test scores. The father’s reply stated that the three missed days “consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time.” This isn’t true. Broadly speaking, when students miss a standardized test, the school gets marked with a “0” for that student and they can’t do retakes due to various cheating concerns. This, again, is not the school’s fault.

Particularly since the “No Child Left Behind” act, school funding is tied to students’ performance on standardized tests. Taking his children out of school on test days negatively impacts the school’s overall score, which could cause them to lose some funding. I don’t think this is a good way to allocate funds for schools (neither do many schools) but that is the system that exists. The father’s anger would better be directed toward the laws in place that caused the school to need the policies.

 

2. The complete lack of evidence for the claims made by his letter.

Let’s look at a few quotes from the father’s letter.

“I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school.”

“…they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history culinary arts and physical education.” [sic]

“They watched their father overcome, injury, bad weather, the death of a loved one and many other obstacles to achieve an important personal goal.” [sic]

I was a child once and I remember how many “parent learning trips” turned out to just be “Yay, we’re not at school!” for me and no significant learning took place. Watching a marathon doesn’t equate to learning real lessons about the things he listed. Unless he employed some means of assessment before and after the trip, how can he know what his children actually learned from it?

Teachers spend years learning how to formulate good questions to measure student learning. We learn to avoid using words like “understand” in our student objectives because they are too vague to realistically measure. We find concrete methods to assess what our students know and can do, often based in well defined taxonomies (such as Bloom’s or Krathwohl and Anderson’s).

For example, on the way to the marathon he could have asked “Do you think a blind person could run in a marathon? Why or why not?” After his children watched the marathon, he could ask the same question again and see if their answers changed. If they said “no” both times it could indicate they didn’t even notice the runners who were blind. If they said “yes” both times, the “why?” becomes more important. Perhaps the situation the children envisioned in their minds was different than what they actually saw. This is a simple and fairly concrete way to see what kind of lesson his children actually learned from the experience. The leading question also provides a focus for them, they have something specific to look for that they might not have otherwise noticed.

Instead, he just states:

“At the marathon, they watched blind runners, runners with prosthetic limbs and debilitating diseases and people running to raise money for great causes run in the most prestigious and historic marathon in the world.” [sic]

“Watching” doesn’t automatically imply “learning.”

The aforementioned type of questioning and assessment is not something most parents know how to do, but that is what teachers are for. If he wanted to take his children on an educational trip, he could have consulted their teachers first to find out some ways he could frame things to maximize and assess their learning. Instead of writing a letter full of vague assertions, he could have had concrete evidence to bring back to the school to demonstrate that it was in fact an educational trip.

He also points out that:

“These are things they WILL learn in school a year or more from now. So in actuality our children are ahead of the game.”

While he may think this strengthens his case, it might actually weaken it. There are reasons why children learn certain things at certain times. Teachers don’t arbitrarily decide random things to teach at random times, we take psychological development and prior knowledge into consideration before planning a curriculum. Learning certain historical events out of context can be counter-productive and can result in children mis-learning the actual events they are supposed to recall. For example, explaining a Holocaust to a 6 year old and a 16 year old would yield entirely different comprehensions of what happened.

Finally:

“These are things they won’t ever truly learn in the classroom.”

This is a common argument, and I think it was the key sentiment to the letter that caused it to go viral: you can’t learn everything in school. However, it is somewhat of a straw man in that it is a statement which argues against a position that the opponent didn’t take. I have never heard any educator ever claim otherwise. Teachers know that most learning takes place outside of the classroom, our job is to make sure students know certain specific things to help them become good citizens of a democratic society. For example: how to think critically, how to find meanings from context, or how to interpret complex cultural artifacts.

 

Conclusion

The fact that the letter went viral shows how many people relate to the ideas in it. There are many things children can’t learn in school, but ‘school’ was not made for those things and never claimed to teach them. The letter is not a revelation, and the father’s original intention was to try to justify his vacation as educational.

However, the actual idea which spread instead painted the principal as a villain and father as a hero. The thousands who called it “amazing” didn’t realize that the school was simply keeping a policy they were forced, by law and the real threat of lost funding, to abide. They also failed to realize that, while the trip may very well have been a great once-in-a-lifetime experience, could not officially count as educational.

The father had no evidence to support his claims, and the school’s policies existed for a good reason. Holding it up as a great reaction to a “confining” school is misguided at best and spreads an anti-school sentiment at worst.

No, it really wasn’t the best response ever. In fact, I’d rank it pretty low on the parent-letter-to-school quality scale.

 

To the father: I think it was great that you gave your children such a cool experience. Your reply to the principal’s letter was a bit impolite: “Dear Madam Principal,” a bit arrogant: “they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school,” and sharing it with the world was impolitic. Before feeling offended by a school policy, perhaps you should pause first and think about their perspective instead of just your own.

Maybe the principal wouldn’t be receiving “prank phone calls in the middle of the night, in addition to hundreds of threatening emails” for simply doing her job.

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Jay

Jay

Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

2 Comments

  1. May 18, 2015 at 8:41 am —

    Thank you for saying what I was thinking about this “take down.” The father’s response reeks of “father knows best” with a hint of narcissism. Speculation that he cheated to qualify for Boston (based on a series of facts that are detailed here: http://www.runnersworld.com/general-interest/questions-arise-over-how-a-pennsylvania-dad-qualified-for-boston) only add to my sense that this father is the kind of man who feels that whatever he does is justified and anyone who questions him is wrong.

    • May 18, 2015 at 11:26 pm —

      While I have heard that speculation of cheating, I think it is irrelevant to the content of the letter. I don’t want to make the ad hominem fallacy by confusing a perception of his character with the arguments he made, instead I just looked at the arguments themselves. I also don’t want to guess at what kind of a person he is because I do not know him and it shouldn’t impact the problems of his letter. Even if he was the greatest man in the world, my arguments against his statements still hold up. This “cheating” idea is still at the level of speculation (as far as I have seen) so I can’t use that as evidence. Also, the articles I’ve seen on it seemed like a red herring to me, they’re drawing attention away from the real issue: the public misperception of schools. The father himself isn’t the issue, the real issue is: “the poor ways the situation was portrayed in the media and the viral spread of misguided ideas.”

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