I don’t know, ARE our kids too coddled?

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.

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About dfgately

Middle School Principal Jericho, NY
This entry was posted in Educational Focus, Inside the Middle School, Personal Best, Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to I don’t know, ARE our kids too coddled?

  1. We in the Jericho School District have high standards (and expectations) for our students, teachers, and our District. So when parents feel that our high standards are being disregarded, we get upset (in a big way). Do we coddle our kids? Yes, we do! We coddle so that they will thrive when they are no longer under our rules and over 18. I remember a maternity room nurse who told me while delivering my son, “You give birth, so they can grow up, move out and become independent adults who will thrive on their own.” We, as parents, expect all who work with our children to push them to meet (or even exceed) standards, it’s a Jericho thing! We objected to the way the Common Core was started, and tested as though it was in place for years. It was unnecessary and brutal for all in involved. Testing is part of the way of life this won’t change. If last years testing was started this year, I don’t think the complaints would have happened.

    So yes, we coddle and we love it!

  2. rdobek says:

    My feeling about Bruni’s use of the term, “coddling” is that he uses it to be dismissive of the legitimate complaints about Common Core. It is a too often used tactic in persuasive writing and/or debating: denigrate people with an opposing point of view by using cartoonishly extreme terms, in order to influence the reader or listener accordingly.

    It isn’t “coddling” to oppose the Common Core, and the notion that standards need to be raised is something that many people find fallacious. It compels some into an unnecessarily defensive posture for fear of appearing to be against high standards by not being for the one’s that are imposed.

    Many think, as I do, that the Common Core standards are not high at all. they are narrow.

  3. Joanna M says:

    Kids in this generation are way too coodled. There must be a balance… work hard & play hard.
    In 2012, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed US ranked 26th in mathematics, 21st in science and 17th in reading among 34 developed nations. Why? How I wish we are in Finland… but in reality school is hard. You’ve got to spend a lot of time at it. You’ve got to work hard and success will follow you….

  4. rdobek says:

    There are so many flaws in the design, use, and interpretation of results of these international comparison studies. The media does a very poor job of mining through and examining the data.

  5. rdobek says:

    http://www.epi.org/blog/pisa-day-ideological-hyperventilated-exercise/
    Interpretations of the results of international comparison studies should be made with extreme caution and skepticism.

  6. There is plenty of room to debate the interpretation of PISA. Sampling methods may not be correct; and some argue that because there are more ‘disadvantaged’ children in the US, the results are not as bad as they seem. (i’m not sure we should discount ‘disadvantaged’ children – but that’s the argument) But even after all the adjustments, we are not suddenly #1. We need to look deeper to see what PISA can really tell us – true, but let’s not ignore it.
    As for the stress of Common Core, this is largely in the hands of adults (teachers and parents). I was happy to hear the guidance from one of my kid’s teachers to not stress over the test, and if can’t help yourself, don’t let your kids perceive your stress. In my view, the ‘opt-out’ movement is quite dangerous in this respect. I would rather see my kids rise to the challenge and use a bad score as a motivation to work harder in that area rather than see the test as so horrible that someone should step in and save them. ‘Opt-out’ sends a message to those that actually opt-out that they are not smart enough and even hard work will not get them a good score, so it is better to hide from it. If adults want to argue about Common Core, that’s great. There is plenty to argue about, good and bad, but parents can act without ‘opting out’ and teachers can keep the mirth in the classroom. (I just went to curriculum night – I’m happy to report there is definitely mirth in Jericho! Great work principals and teachers.)

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