Too Much Coddling?

Change often brings controversy.  That is certainly true these days about the new Common Core curriculum in education.  Part of an attempt to establish more rigorous education standards, adopted in more than 45 states, it has created much debate about an emphasis on testing and its impact on children.

The Mission Statement of the Common Core State Standards gives as its goal providing a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so that their teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them learn.  The standards are intended to reflect the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.  “With American students fully prepared for the future our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

The impetus for developing these Common Core standards has come from the generally acknowledged decline in American K-12 education, and particularly from the increasingly lower ranking of our educational results in comparison to other countries.  The description of the development of new standards explicitly states that it has been informed by top-performing countries, so that American students are prepared to succeed in our global economy.

For example, the standards for reading state that all students must be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school.  They must ultimately be able to read and comprehend independently and proficiently the kind of texts commonly found in college and careers.  Yet research indicates that while the demands placed for reading has steadily increased over time, texts used in school have declined in difficulty as has the fostering of independent reading.

There are a number of thoughts to be drawn from all this.  Perhaps most striking is the matter of global competition.  We are not keeping up with other countries academically, which suggests that the United States is likely to fall behind in terms of international competition and power.  Since this is a driving force in making educational changes, it undoubtedly then influences the way results are evaluated and rated.

Part of this focus is the emphasis on national success as compared to an interest in individual development.  As in many areas, education is influenced by values.  If the primary value is a competitive one in terms of national success, this influences the direction of the curriculum toward power and commerce.  It also influences which skills and attributes are valued, and therefore the valuing of some individuals over others.

Much criticism of the Core curriculum relates to the implementation of state standards that have been developed.  Even among educators there are differences of opinion about which material in particular subjects is the most important, and also about when it is appropriate from a child development point of view to introduce certain material.  It would seem that ultimately it is the skill of the teacher that counts most in teaching material in creative ways and in promoting children’s learning.

Along with changing educational content has been the effort to reevaluate teacher training and teacher performance.  Attempts have been made to quantify outcomes for children and teachers, making a connection between the two.  Teachers have been judged in terms of student progress, in turn measured by – test results – of course!  The emphasis placed on test results had aroused much criticism from both teachers and parents.  Judging children, teachers and schools by test results has created the much cited “teaching to the test”, meaning that children are taught content specifically to enable them to do well on tests, and encourages both the teaching and memorizing of facts, rather than ideas.

Finally, as is too often the case, the blame for educational problems is placed on parents.  Parents have push backed against the Common Core Curriculum, against the emphasis on testing, and against sharp changes in curriculum content.  Many complaints have focused on the stress children are under from having to master large bodies of new and more difficult material, and from being judged in a significant way by frequent testing.

This has led to a renewed criticism of parents as being overprotective, and – going back to the “Chinese Tiger” mother – too worried about their children’s self-esteem and feelings of failure.  For example, Frank Bruni complains in a N.Y. Times article that parents are opposed to tougher instruction because it makes children feel inadequate, and seek to coddle kids rather than to challenge them.  He suggests that panic is trickling down to kids from their parents, and asks whether “we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.”

It seems that several things are getting mixed together here.  The content of education has not declined because parents are coddling their kids.  There are numerous factors that have caused lowered standards in education, including overcrowded schools and many more children unprepared in terms of language and other skills to master difficult material.  If anything, parents have put more stress on children trying to compensate for deficiencies in the educational system.

In term of what has been labeled parental over-protection and undue concern about self-esteem, this appears to be a result of misinterpreted child-development research translated into advice for parents, which is worth examining further.  But despite that, suddenly changing the expectations of children, and the ways in which they are challenged, will undoubtedly require a period of adjustment for all involved.

It would be more productive if changes in education were examined on their merits, in terms of our values, rather than as still another indictment of child-rearing.