Social distancing: a perfect opportunity for parents to find out what their children are learning

Coronavirus is interrupting life in general and education specifically. As parents in the U.S. adjust to school closures and the potential for their K-12 child’s coursework to continue online, families should come to realize that they will be exposed to more of what their children are learning.

For some, this will be new.

Wall Street Journal editor Serena Ng wrote recently from Hong Kong, where schools have been closed since Feb. 3, that she now can “see every detail of every lesson.” Ng says, “I previously had only a vague idea about what they were learning in school.”

All parents should be able to know what their children are learning, and for those paying attention in the coming weeks, the virus offers a chance for them to do just that. Working parents who juggle jobs and their children’s school activities while managing a home haven’t been neglectful if they don’t know what happened in fourth-period math on a given day (try asking a teenager what happened in class). Some simply have relied on schools to decide on instruction.

For others, this focus on content has been there all along.

March 2-4, the Institute for Classical Education and the Great Hearts Foundation held the National Classical Education Symposium, an event featuring sessions on teaching the Great Books, from “The Confessions of St. Augustine” to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Great Hearts’ charter schools, which started in Arizona and have expanded to Texas, base their curriculum on these works. (You can find a complete list of the books students will be studying here.)

School districts are not always so transparent. As Matt Beienburg at the Goldwater Institute explained earlier this year, even if state law allows parents to review their child’s curriculum, they can do so only on school premises; in some cases and in some districts, there are limits set on when parents can see the material. Again, parents are not lazy if they don’t always know what is in their child’s syllabus.

When parents know what is being taught, they can effectively advocate for meaningful change. The reading wars over phonics versus whole language instruction are still with us today, while the Common Core debates over a national curriculum have simmered in time for everyone to scrutinize the New York Times1619 Project.

The Project, a set of essays accompanied by K-12 curricular materials, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Slavery and the racism that followed are a blight on our nation’s past, but the Times has taken the idea too far according to many scholars. Pulitzer Prize-winning historians, leading intellectuals and even the Times’ own fact-checkers have criticized the essays, citing inaccuracies.

For thousands of parents, the initiative is not just a problem for someone else’s school. The Times and the Pulitzer Center have successfully advocated for integrating the material into some of the nation’s largest and most-high profile school systems, including Chicago, Newark, Buffalo and Washington, D.C. In Florida, Florida A&M University highlighted the Project in September 2019 and has hosted events on the topic with Florida State University.

Critically, the Times on March 11 issued a correction to a central premise of the essays, saying that not all colonial revolutionaries fought the British to protect the institution of slavery. If the Times heeds other warnings from experts, this modest correction should not be the last. Meanwhile, the Times already has disseminated the original curricular materials to schools.

Developments like these are among the many reasons why the next few weeks of school closures and online instruction are an important opportunity for parents to catch up on what is happening at their child’s school. When parents send children back to brick-and-mortar schools, they should do so ready to raise questions, prepared with more information.

Parents practicing “social distancing” in the coming weeks should use this period to get closer to their child’s school assignments.