“Follow the Shoe!” How Groupthink Quashes Parent Empowerment


Do you remember Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”? Near the end Brian, who was born one manger over from the messiah, is attempting to evade some marauding Romans. But his flight is impeded by a throng of would-be disciples.

As he runs, one of his sandals falls off and is scooped up by the mob, whose members hold it aloft, proclaiming it “the sign!” and vowing to follow it.

Brian tries to shake them off: “Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!”

It doesn’t work.Yes!” the crowd replies in unison. “We’re all individuals!”

Brian tries again:You’re all different!”

Yes,” the followers chant, “we are all different!”

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Brian’s shoe – which was preceded by a gourd; follow the gourd! – as I’ve watched the previously sleepy Minneapolis Public School Parents Facebook page burst into controversy. Perpetually interested in why some schools acquire a “buzz” among the chattering classes while some don’t, I joined a number of years ago.

Until recently discussions centered on the kinds of decisions that loom large in families where a child is nearing school age. Has anybody toured the kindergarten at such-and-such school? Where can one obtain a list of start times? What can be done to encourage the bureaucracy to serve organic/sugar-free snacks?

Lately, though, it’s acquired some enforcers who swoop in every time a topic on the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers’ list of hot-buttons pops up. The new members have also been attempting to rally the young parents to attend the current teacher contract talks.

Last week a parent asked whether anyone had experience with Hiawatha Academies, which her family had just toured. Literally within five minutes another parent had chastised the first, insisting that Hiawatha’s schools were not public, they were charters, and the forum was for public school parents.

The first parent replied that she thought charter schools were public schools, and the thread was off to the races with one falsehood after another resisting truthifying. At one point, I couldn’t stand it and actually posted a relevant state statute, the one that says charter schools can’t pick and choose students but must admit all comers.

It didn’t matter one whit. The falsehoods just kept coming.

The enforcers – a handful of union activists and supporters – have been given actual factual information over and over and just keep asserting their worldview as the truth. No amount of evidence will convince them to give it up.

(Remember that other genius Monty Python skit: I’d like to buy an argument?)

My beef with the enforcers is this: Pounding away creates an environment where parents are likely to think twice before asking honest, reasonable questions. It shuts down dialogue.

The parent who started the thread never got an answer. If Hiawatha is as terrible as the conspiratorial crew insists, why not allow the discussion to go forward? What is so damn scary about disagreement?

You think I exaggerate? Let’s take a moment to examine one of the union proposals on the table, “Article VXIII, Teaching, not Testing.” The provision would put language in the contract preventing schools from giving any assessment that is not required by state or federal law, and would commit the district to doing away with the legally mandated exams that are used to evaluate school and, in part, teacher performance.

“Schools will agree by the second Friday of the regular school year and via a secret ballot vote approved by 75 percent of licensed staff at the site, any additional testing that will take place at the site,” the proposed contract language says.

(Secret ballot? Who’s in the fearful category, the opt-out proponents or the teachers who want data about their students’ needs?)

The proposal would also require the district to send home forms allowing families to opt their kids out of testing, and to make follow-up robo-calls. Teachers who don’t want to give the tests won’t have to.

I piped up on the parents’ Facebook forum not long ago to suggest that the tests had been beneficial to my family — in particular to a child of mine with an intellectual disability and a giant intellect who was perpetually underestimated by the system.

I periodically wave his high test scores around like a cudgel in an effort to surmount this belief gap and secure him classes and academic work that will challenge – and not warehouse – him.

The enforcers? They tried to get me kicked out of the group for not being a “real” Minneapolis public school parent. I mean, first off there were actual witnesses when I graphically became a parent, at least one of them with the letters MD behind his name. Second, we’re talking about a group that consists in large part of prospective school parents. The #fakenews squad mostly consists of district employees.

So how do we end up with Brian and his sad huarache? If it’s a campaign of indoctrination it’s likely to fail. The parents who are naturally and appropriately stressing about the start of their children’s academic careers are, of course, going to have their own experiences with the system. Whatever the trajectory, it will inform their beliefs.

Some of them – this particular group is pretty white and affluent – are going to place their kids in great schools where their major concern just might remain the polarizing presence of juice. Awesome.

Minneapolis being a community where lots of white people congratulate themselves on their progressivism while also promoting policies that reinforce a status quo that’s terrible for children of color and their families, some will plant an “All Are Welcome Here” sign in their yard and go back to fussing about recess.

Others at some point will acquire a reason to concern themselves with kids who aren’t doing so well. Maybe they will enroll their children in a school that doesn’t have “buzz” within the chattering class and have an awakening about racial disparities.

(Because one of the more interesting discussions underway on this page is that most families that aren’t crazy about large class sizes at many popular schools could mosey down the street to a more diverse school where under-enrollment has translated to small class sizes.)

Which is precisely the problem. We’re not going to achieve the equity the community’s children of color need in order to fulfill that One Minneapolis promise — which not for nothing has a major bearing on the city’s prosperity for decades to come – without enlisting parents with options and political capital in the quest.

We simply can’t afford to shut down a single parent or to create, even in a comments thread, an environment where ideas are disparaged.

Remember what happened to Brian? All the guys lined up for crucifixion insisted they were Brian, too, and Pontus Pilate pardoned the wrong one. The punchline, of course, being that the closing crane-shot depicted Brian on his petard singing and whistling his way to the graveyard: “Always look on the bright side of life….”


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