Here’s a recent text I received from a parent on Inauguration Day: “My daughter had to take a district level assessment instead of the school spending time watching the inauguration and likely one of the best pieces of poetry available and talking through and writing about all of this and its implications for our country. You and Matt should talk about that! What a massive missed opportunity for the sake of a prescribed day for tests. And a shout out to the rogue parents who were not having it and their kids watched anyway!”

A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years. According to a 2017 Pew Center for Research report, public trust in government was only 18 percent. Recent National Assessment of Academic Progress data tells us that only 23 percent of U.S. eighth graders performed at or above the proficient level and achievement levels have flatlined since 1998. The Center for American Progress, in its 2018 “The State of Civics Education” report, declared “…the increased focus on math and reading in K-12 education – while critical to prepare all students for success – has pushed out civics and other important subjects. Voter participation in our latest presidential election gives us hope, but the sad reality is that civic education in this country is on life support. And more importantly, parents who want their children to learn more civics, or at least be able to watch a presidential inauguration, feel handcuffed when faced with public school power plays and decision-making.

Recently we have heard state governors and even our new president declare kids must return to school and their classrooms this spring. At the same time, a recent analysis from The Center for Reforming Public Education reported that school districts moving to full-time remote instruction increased 10 points from 21.2 percent to 31.7. In a January, 2021 story, Education Week proclaimed “No Going Back from Remote and Hybrid Learning, Districts Say!” Teachers, most notably in Chicago, are threatening to strike if school districts demand a reopening of schools before the vaccine becomes more available.

Now what do stories about schools preventing kids from watching a presidential inauguration and the federal government, along with some state governments, stating schools will commence in-person instruction this spring have in common? Both provide evidence of a top-down approach whereby governmental institutions feel it’s their right and responsibility to decide issues by leaving parents and teachers out of the decision-making process. When will the government understand that parents, teachers, and most importantly young learners, have rights too? Maybe it’s time to bring those adults and those young learners together to figure out a better way to insure deep and influential learning for our nation’s young people? Do we really need schools, school districts, school boards, state boards of education, and state legislatures feeling they are the ultimate authority when it comes to teaching and learning?

Parents and kids should have a say in whether they watch a presidential inauguration or take a test. Parents, teachers, and kids should have a say if they go to school during a pandemic crisis where a vaccine has just started to play a role, or if they would like to explore a different learning plan beyond these places called schools. Schools and governments need to stop thinking they are the “public” in “public education!” Parents, teachers, and young learners are more important to the learning process than federal and state governments and school districts.

When Barack Obama was President of the United States in September, 2009, he decided he wanted to offer an inspirational back to school message to the nation’s public school students. My two oldest children were in middle school at the time, and I had just retired from their school district as a region superintendent. A neo-conservative school board member, representing our middle school, was convinced President Obama was going to tell young Americans something diabolical and put pressure on the middle school principal not to show the address. When I got wind of this, I left my job as an educational non-profit executive director, drove out to my kids’ middle school, checked them out of school, and took them home to watch Obama’s speech. I told school leadership exactly what I intended to do and dared them to take action against my kids, like counting them “absent unapproved” and giving my kids “zeros” for the day because they missed “important school work.” Guess what? The school didn’t assign “absent unapproved” and didn’t give my kids “zeros” for the day. We moved on and my kids got to see and listen to a fabulous inspirational speech by their President of the United States. My only regret is that more parents didn’t challenge the school, and the board member, that day. 

Learning leaders (parents and teachers) and young learners! It’s time for you to define, plan, execute, and evaluate the learning plans you work on together. Don’t let school leadership, district leadership, or state or federal leadership mandate anything that you don’t feel is in the best interest of the learning plan you have created and are committed to working on together. Don’t let the tail wag the dog. You are the dog!

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