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Vince Matrisciano is a certified Project Management Professional, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and Human Capitol Strategist. He has made a career of successfully engaging diverse stakeholders in multiple product development and process improvement projects. He can be reached at Vince@MatriscianoConsulting.com.
Nearly half of educators report that the intrusion of political issues and opinions into their professions is a job-related stressor, according to a January 2022 RAND Corporation national study, Not surprisingly, educators who reported being harassed about politicized issues experienced lower levels of well-being and worse perceptions of their school or district climate, and they were more likely to cite the politicization of their profession as a reason for considering leaving their jobs. Students’ family members were often the source of such harassment.
The report notes one key finding: Educators need more support to address politicized issues in their schools and classrooms in order to promote healthy and productive discourse while nimbly responding to emergent political tensions and maintaining high quality instruction—all of which may take significant time, resources, and effort to achieve.” If we add “and age appropriate,” this would be a great mission statement for New Jersey’s public school system.
But who decides what is “healthy, productive, and age appropriate”?
To answer this question, let’s look at another notable finding of the report: A relatively high percentage of principals—from 25 to 40 percent—stated that they did not know the views of their students’ parents toward various politicized issues. Further, the report presents multiple data points indicating that both teachers’ and principals’ own personal views on politicized issues vary widely, which indicates that currently, given a lack of guidance and direction, individuals define what is “healthy, productive and age-appropriate.” And, surprise, we don’t all agree.
So, the answer to the question must be we collectively (parents, educators, administrators, and state agencies) define what is “healthy, productive and age appropriate.” And New Jersey has done a terrible job at this.
Take the recent implementation of sex ed standards:
The vehement backlash, and the fact that the state chose to threaten certain districts with legal action to participate, shows that there was severely insufficient collaboration with the community to develop better standards. Although the administration rightfully states that it published the draft standards for review, as they are required to do, this does not constitute collaborative engagement with the parents and community. The cabal that developed these standards was heavily influenced by state bureaucrats and union leadership and lacked the required diversity of differing opinions found within the parent community. (Notice that I did not mention unions in the collective “we” of the previous paragraph, as it is not the union’s role to define curriculum.) Further, the Murphy Administration’s complete lack of diversity —and its doubling-down on punitive measures— is abhorrent.
There are two things the state must do to reduce educator stress and increase the satisfaction of parents, which will also result in a much better curriculum for all.
- “Engage” with families and educators much more deliberately and often when developing curriculum, leadership communications, educator preparation programs and in-service professional learning. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 specifically calls for parents to be meaningfully involved and consulted in the development of state and school district education plans. The NJ Parent Teacher Association defines Family Engagement as a school-family partnership that raises student achievement, improves school and community, and increases public support. They note a difference between family “involvement” and family “engagement”, with engagement as intentional, planned, in collaboration, reviewed, and outside the box. Putting documents on a web site and hoping/thinking people will read them is not engagement. The current administration and union leadership have not demonstrated a willingness to engage with parents and families in a meaningful way, especially with those of diverse opinions. This needs to drastically change. State and local PTAs and similar organizations should be the driver for this engagement, and unions should wholeheartedly support it (and not label parents as “extremists”). Of course, parents and families are critical and must keep their end of the bargain to include school engagement as a regular activity in their already busy schedules, because their children’s future depends on it. Here are the six standards advertised by the national PTA: (none of which are followed by the current administration)
- Standard 1: Welcoming all families into the school community—Families are active participants in the life of the school, and feel welcomed, valued, and connected to each other, to school staff, and to what students are learning and doing in class.
- Standard 2: Communicating effectively—Families and school staff engage in regular, two-way, meaningful communication about student learning.
- Standard 3: Supporting student success—Families and school staff continuously collaborate to support students’ learning and healthy development both at home and at school, and have regular opportunities to strengthen their knowledge and skills to do so effectively.
- Standard 4: Speaking up for every child—Families are empowered to be advocates for their own and other children, to ensure that students are treated fairly and have access to learning opportunities that will support their success.
- Standard 5: Sharing power—Families and school staff are equal partners in decisions that affect children and families and together inform, influence, and create policies, practices, and programs.
- Standard 6: Collaborating with community—Families and school staff collaborate with community members to connect students, families, and staff to expanded learning opportunities, community services, and civic participation.
- Regularly and fully communicate curriculum messaging, educator preparation programs and in-service professional learning to educators so that they are fully prepared to effectively teach sensitive curriculum. This messaging must be the result of the family engagement efforts noted above and must be consistently applied throughout, no matter which educator is implementing it or their personal views on the subject. Any optional or alternate applications must be clearly communicated and equally implemented. If parents are involved in curriculum development and messaging, they will be much less likely to complain to and harass the educators that are on the front lines, which will result in a much less stressful working environment and happier educators and families – and better prepared students. Educators must demand and follow the common implementation, regardless of their personal views, and must be evaluated on their implementation. Teachers unions can be instrumental in making this happen, if they choose to.
Unfortunately, I have little faith that the Murphy administration will implement any of this. From the top down, the administration has continuously demonstrated a need to hoard power rather than empowering others, and has demonstrated a severe lack of diversity of thought in the entire process of developing and implementing school curricula (among other things). Doubling down on threatening legal action to districts that deviate from their totalitarian edicts is a prime example. Putting our educators and parents in a position where they feel they must choose sides is a blatant injustice with students as the greatest casualty. But perhaps the administration will have a change of heart and finally put children, families, and educators first. Or maybe we just wait until the next Governor comes along.