We've been hearing for decades about all the ways our public school system is failing our children. They're falling further behind on international academic assessments, and it's not clear that efforts to remedy the situation are succeeding. Indeed, we pretty much know things have gotten worse. But all the focus on failing schools and failing students ignores the other consequence of American public education reform: The failing parents. Because if last week's open house night at my son's middle school was any indication, 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, lostness, and also failure to ask probing questions. But all of these minor failings 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 that 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 - seemingly random sequences of letters like MAP and SOL and EAPE - were being deployed more frequently than actual words.
To be sure, the teachers seemed as maddened by it as the parents were. Even if we can all agree about the singular benefits of "project-based learning across the curriculum," I am less than perfectly certain any of us knows what it means.
"Unlevelling." We do that now. And "fitnessgram testing?" Possibly the new unlevelling.
I checked with friends afterward to find out if I was alone in my sense that I had fallen asleep in the late 1990s and awoken to a world in which I have no idea what schools even do anymore. My friend 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." My friend 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 my friend Duncan helpfully explained that he was as confused as I was about the pedagogical objectives and aims of his child's public elementary school in rural North Carolina. Until he realized that 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 my son's fractions. Suddenly I am also failing to employ proactive strategically dynamic new paradigms as well.
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.