Standards Opinion

Are We Coddling the Children?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 26, 2013 6 min read
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Are parents coddling their children? Are schools complicit in this overprotective act? Is it a bad thing? In his Op-Ed article in the New York Times, Frank Bruni thinks so. He describes parents and schools who go out of their way to protect children from feeling excluded or unsuccessful. He describes overwhelming acts of protection that leave children feeling falsely confident and with unearned self-esteem. About a year ago, Bruni wrote about his father saying, “He was rooting for my happiness, no matter how that happiness came to me.” This summer, he wrote about Anthony Weiner. He wisely observed that “When you become a parent you take on the awesome of responsibilities: to safeguard another person’s happiness; to usher another person toward a successful and meaningful life.” Clearly, he understands parental love, and, we assume, that educators sit “in loci parentis”. It is not coddling to protect if protection means to hope for children to be included, to be successful and to learn and grow.

Bruni brought the Common Core into the discussion and Secretary Duncan’s response to its impassioned opponents. He states Duncan’s adamant defense of the Common Core was “wholly justified, that tougher instruction not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them.” Really...education is not in business to make children feel inadequate! And raising standards is not intended to result in that consequence either. Where is the common thread with which we can reweave an educational system in which children can learn without feeling threatened or inadequate? And what in Bruni’s and Duncan’s thoughts are worth consideration in the process?

Before the Common Core was brought forward with the accompanying pushback from alarmed parents and educators, there existed evidence that our education system was in need of change. Thirty years ago A Nation At Risk was published. It begins,

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility...the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur-- others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

Whatever improvements we implemented, we have not affected a result that allows us to challenge these findings...even thirty years later. During those same years, the numbers of students entering our schools who spoke languages other than English rose and programs needed to be developed to help them learn the language while learning our curriculum. Unemployment rose. Banks collapsed. Detroit fell. The technology bubble grew and popped. Families became more mobile. The world became flat. Poverty levels rose. Research invited us to create inclusive environments in which all children were welcomed and would achieve the same outcomes...to be college and career ready. Our challenges rose and our results stayed about the same. That took hard work. But, it is not enough.

So if in 1983 we weren’t meeting the mark and were slipping toward mediocrity...it is not a surprise that two educational systems have grown side by side. Schools in communities that maintained economic success then and enjoy it now are afforded distinct advantages. And although schools in areas in which poverty exist received state and federal government funding in an attempt to level the playing field, has it been leveled?

Where are we now? Public schools do a tremendous amount of good work. There is a lot of work yet to be done. Having national standards doesn’t seem like a bad idea although strict constructionists object. With mobility being what it is, more children move between district and state lines than ever before. Isn’t it a good thing for them to meet the same expectations no matter where they receive their public education in this country? If the Common Core can unify public education’s expectation for standards of performance, why would that be a bad thing, especially since the standards only address English language arts and math? Education watchers may think people are opposing the Common Core because they require the system to work harder. They ask questions like Bruni: Aren’t aspects of schools 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?

We say resoundingly NO! That is a description of the antithesis of a learning environment. Learning should be joyful, even if hard work is required. If stress is not healthy for adults, how can it be beneficial for our learners? And, as for fixed judgments, they lock us in, prevent us from growing and changing, and often times, they are simply wrong, based on someone else’s limited view of the world and of each of us. Shame on those who render fixed judgments on the little ones, who create boxes in which they learn, not to read, but that they are inadequate.

So we come to a place where the fight is misdirected. We cannot ignore everything we know about child development. We cannot expect children to grow up successfully in spite of us. Schools need to be places in which children are encouraged and challenged to become excited, engaged learners. Giving students time to ‘grapple’ with increasingly challenging text as teachers provide support and guidance is not a bad thing. Giving students opportunities to make sense of text, understand applications of mathematical thinking, and the interdisciplinary nature of previously separate subjects all makes sense. Using the current technologies in order to work with the information students are seeking and working with is essential. How that looks in rural South Dakota as opposed to urban New York is yet to be worked out.

No matter what side you are on, for the Common Core or against it, you are paying attention. For the first item in a long time, this controversy is making education a public concern again. That attention has called more people into the conversation about the education of our students. That is a good thing! While engaging the struggle and determining local value and needed changes whatever they may be, we must remain focused on what we know best. Children need to be given safe places to learn even the most difficult lessons. On November 17th we wrote about Resilience and Schools in which we said, “How we meet adversity depends upon our lives as children.” We can help children learn resilience by providing the building blocks to help them work their way out of difficult and challenging learning and life situations. If parents, and if we, are coddling children, that is not necessarily a good thing. But to ignore the need for safe and nurturing environments in which children can garner courage and a willingness to take learning risks is to ask children to grow up without our guidance.

While the Common Core battle rages, we can insure something just as important for our students. No matter the standards or the methods used, if we continue to build and maintain environments in which children can learn how to face adversity and work their way through it, we will be giving them a lifelong skill. And, Mr. Bruni, in addition to all of the academics children learn in school, this is another contribution toward their successful and meaningful life.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.