Frank Bruni, a writer for the New York Times has been getting beaten up in the “blog-world” (see Tony Wagner, Jersey Jazzman, Paul Karrer, Patrick Walsh, and John Horn) for a recently published editorial entitled: Are our kids too coddled? The article couldn’t help but get my attention because in the first paragraph, Bruni describes a school in California that instituted a rule that bans students wearing to school sweatshirts they received from a party the previous weekend. That sounded familiar to me. Bruni states that the school put this rule in place because students came to school and had to endure large numbers of the classmates advertising the fact that they went to a party to which they weren’t invited. With discernible sarcasm, he states, “What an ordeal!” As you may or may not be aware, we have such a policy at this school. I happen to think it makes sense. I think it’s sensible for a school to take action to address situations that are under its control and which create a climate in which large numbers of students are adversely affected.
But, Bruni’s piece was not about party sweatshirts. It was about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Bruni attributes opposition to the CCSS to parents who are hell-bent on protecting their children from failure. He connects this to the self-esteem movement. Parents are rising up against the CCSS, in Bruni’s view, because they are unwilling to allow their children to experience any sort of discomfort in their lives whatsoever. Learning should be difficult, he states: “Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work? Apparently not, to judge from some reactions to the common core in New York, which has been holding hearings on the guidelines.”
I had a professor in college who would tell us, “If your stomach ain’t churning, you ain’t learning.” I agree with this aphorism. Think of the life experiences you have learned from, were they easy, or were they hard? I love leisure reading but I don’t remember too many of the books I read on the beach. I can speak intelligently however about books I read in my high school, college and postgraduate studies. This is because I was asked to do difficult things with these works. I had to write papers, make presentations, and discuss challenging ideas with classmates. I have taken sightseeing tours that were quite pleasant and comfortable, but I remember much more of the things I learned while I traveled alone as a student in Europe over the winter break when I was 19 years old, because it was hard to do. I agree that learning is usually challenging, but it should also be enjoyable. People like to face challenges because it’s rewarding when we prevail. We’re proud of ourselves when we overcome obstacles. But that doesn’t mean it should be without joy.
Here is an example of an eighth grade Common Core State Standard:
Students will be able to: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence. a. Introduce claim(s), acknowledge alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically. b. Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text. c. Use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claim(s), reasons, and evidence. d. Establish and maintain a formal style. e. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.
As a middle school principal and as the parent of an eighth grade boy, I’m in full support of this standard. Is it challenging? Sure it is. But I’m certain that my 12 and 13-year-olds can reach this standard with their teachers’ help. What I’m not happy with is the way that children (and their teachers and principals) can be punished for not meeting these standards. Students can be punished by losing the opportunity to take the rich diversity of courses offered at the middle school at the expense of remedial courses or in some schools (not ours) being retained in a grade. Teachers can be punished by being rated ineffective as a result of their students’ scores on standardized tests, placed on teacher improvement plans and, perhaps, even terminated.
I agree that learning should be difficult, but mirthless… hey, don’t take away MIRTH. If you’re gonna tell me we can’t have mirth then I’m not coming to work in the morning! Herein lies the problem with what is going on in schools at the present time. No one opposes higher standards, but ideal learning environments are characterized by the absence of fear and an abundance of support. With the present NYSED testing model and program for teacher evaluation, students are challenged with these new higher standards in a climate that is the opposite of this. To paraphrase Rick Wormeli, one of the most influential voices in middle level education, this approach might best be described as, “Learn or I will hurt you!”
What I would most like to see in the public discourse about the Common Core State Standards would be to separate consideration of the standards from opposition to testing and teacher evaluation. When Bruni indicts parents for coddling their children by opposing the common core he is mixing up the common core state standards with the assessments. But that’s to be expected, many others are doing this too, including those who stand up in opposition to the tests, they often sound like they’re against the CCSS too.
So, are our kids too coddled? Of course they are! When I was in eighth grade I would take the subway from Flatbush Avenue to Yankee Stadium with my friends to watch a baseball game. I would never dream of letting my eighth grade son do that today. And New York City is far safer today than it was when I grew up. What Bruni is mistaking for overprotectiveness is parents’ reaction to so-called high stakes testing. What parent doesn’t want the school to expect more from their children? As our assistant principal, Joseph Wiener, said at a recent panel discussion on the CCSS, “So much of what I learned when I was in school, I can look up and find in a matter of seconds today on my phone. If the common core standards are going to help our children become better thinkers and problem solvers, I’m all for it!”
So, yes, parents and educational leaders will speak up when we recognize something that is interfering with our kids’ well-being and success, like the state assessments. We want our children to be challenged, to persevere and cultivate grit. But we do not want them to do it in an environment that is “mirthless”. Opponents of testing are simply asking State Ed to address a situation that is adversely affecting large numbers of students and that is under its control.