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Opinion & Essays - Oct, 1997 Issue #48

by: Lon Woodbury 

“Parents have become so convinced that educators know what is best for children that they forget that they themselves are really the experts!” - Marian Wright Edelman -1975 

This observation by Ms. Edelman seems to be an accurate summary of a very common public attitude toward raising and caring for children during the last half of the 20th century. That is, if there is a problem (and sometimes even if there isn’t a problem), do what the expert says and don’t question their judgment. This attitude has been so widespread in all other areas of life that some have labeled this the “era of the expert.” However, there are some signs this public attitude is perhaps changing as more people seem to be “Taking Charge” where they once would have deferred to “expert” opinion. 

The holistic health movement is an example that comes to mind which is often presented as an alternative to “The Doctor is always right.” Do-it-yourself Probate and Divorce kits and books have become very popular (sometimes hitting the best seller lists) as individuals decide their best interests can be better served by avoiding attorneys. Public opinion polls measuring attitudes toward most organized institutions and professions are sagging which well could be part of a backlash against “the era of the expert.”

Specifically in education, there are several major signs indicating an increasing number of parents are beginning to again do more to “Take Charge” over their children instead of simply deferring to professional (expert) opinion. 

In public policy, the debate over Vouchers and the authorization of Charter Schools are both responses to demands by parents to be more involved in education decision making, especially involving their own children. Neither would get much attention if the public was generally willing to defer to the educational professionals (experts). 

School Board controversies over curriculum, textbook and School Board elections seem to be increasing. One important reason is many parents are speaking out and taking action who in past years would have been content to go along with whatever was decided by the School Board and educational professionals. 

The Home Schooling phenomenon is the most complete example of parents “Taking Charge” of their children’s education personally. The latest estimates indicate the number of children being home schooled in the US at more than a million, and rapidly increasing. Parent organizations like the BECCA Foundation in the State of Washington are springing up around the country to push for legislation more supportive of parents and families, and to provide networking assistance to parents with children making poor decisions. 

The loose network of emotional growth schools and programs for children with behavioral/emotional problems has rapidly expanded in the last ten to twenty years. This is a direct response to demands by parents for schools and programs better responsive to the needs of their children. A wide variety of approaches is now available, and the trick has become matching the strengths of the school/program to the needs of the child since the variety of options is beginning to match the wide variety in children’s needs. 

In my practice as an educational consultant specializing in working with parents who have children with behavioral/emotional problems, I still occasionally see the results of unquestioning acceptance of the opinion of experts. When I ask questions about a child’s academics or what he/she has been up to, parents sometimes say things like, “I don’t know, I’m not a teacher.” Or, “We didn’t see how it would help, but we did it because he/she was the psychiatrist.” But most parents I talk to don’t say this, at least anymore. Most tell stories of schools treating their child as a number, or of treatment centers having trouble getting past the diagnosis and seeing the individual child. 

In effect, parents enrolling children in emotional growth schools and programs are not passively accepting “expert”opinion and regular procedure when they feel their child’s individual needs are not being met. Instead they are “Taking Charge” to search elsewhere for what their child needs. And when they find it, are willing to provide what their child needs no matter what the cost. 

In selecting emotional growth schools and/or programs, in Home Schooling, in pushing for educational Vouchers or Charter Schools, and in parent activist groups, more and more parents are “Taking Charge” again. In doing this, they are beginning to accept and re-establish that indeed, parents are the real “experts” regarding their own children. And, they are making a strong statement that Ms. Edelman’s observation does not apply to them.

Copyright © 1997, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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