Saturday, February 8, 2014

If Not for Those Darn Kids

I was in a CCSS training, and the trainer stopped to make an observation about how Kids These Days lack discipline and order. She even illustrated it with a story about her own child. And  light bulb went on for me.

I have long considered that the Masters of Reforming Our Nation's Schools view children as widgets, as little programmable devices, as interchangeable gears, as nothing more than Data Generation Units. I had considered that these MoRONS were indifferent to children. What I had not considered was that reformers are actively hostile to children.

I have certainly heard people in the ed world complain about Those Darn Kids, and I have taught in the building with more than one person who blames all their classroom woes on terrible awful no good pretty bad students. I try to be understanding. If I hear it once or twice, I assume somebody is having a bad day. If I hear it many times, I assume somebody is a bad teacher.

But a hostile teacher is one thing. A movement that institutionalizes that hostility is a whole other level of awful.

After I wrote about my experience, other teachers shared more of the same. Tales of trainers talking about how Kids These Days need to be rigorously rigored into a state of rigor. And as I reread old materials, I could see the hostility bubbling beneath the surface.

Sometimes it is misplaced and out of date. There are still education commentators railing against the self esteem movement, and while I don't disagree with some of the criticism, it's like complaining that too many Kids These Days are spending too much time on their new computers and listening to the rap music. That ship has sailed, Grampa.

Sometimes it is not even beneath the surface. What is a "no excuse" school, except a school founded on the premise that Kids These Days are all hooligans that will take a mile if you give them an inch. Or even one of those new-fangled millimeters. And when Arne Duncan suggests that those suburban white moms have over-inflated images of the abilities of their coddled children, isn't he already suggesting that those over-protective parents need to step aside so their kids can be whipped into shape.

Or Frank Bruni's op-ed that unambiguously declared Duncan correct and opponents of CCSS a raft of child-coddlers:

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? 

The narrative here is not a new one. See if you can recognize some of the key points. We live in a meritocracy that rewards hard work and grit. Therefor, anyone who is poor and unsuccessful must have failed to show merit, hard work, and grit. If we have a lot of poor people, it's because they are all slackers-- and it starts when they're kids. If we could get to them when they were little and whip them into shape, then poverty would be gone. Fixing education would cure poverty.

So to fix poverty, we have to toughen these little slackers up. They need to be toughly uncoddled with rigorous excuse-free punches to their tiny brains. These children are one of the big obstacles to fixing our society (along with the teachers who won't properly kick their little asses). And just look at how dumb and lazy they are! Look at all the factoids about the things they don't know, and the low test scores they get! Back in my day, students got such much better scores and, buddy, we knew stuff. These kids have to be brought up to snuff.

Is your kid wasting time playing? Stop coddling. Did a lesson make him so frustrated he burst into tears? Good-- maybe he'll start taking school seriously now. Did he fail his big test? Let that be a wake-up call for you. Is his spirit being crushed? Then his spirit is too weak and whiny, and his spirit needs to get its act together.

That this sort of program should originate in the halls of power and privilege is unsurprising. These are men who must believe that their own vast success is the result of their own merit and awesomeness, not luck, timing, underhanded gamesmanship or simply the result of a privileged background. Nor is it surprising that they don't subject their own children to Reformed School, because they know that their own children already possess the qualities of virtue that they are so ardently trying to beat into Other People's Children.

Is this is some sort of bizarro generational theater in which Boomers are trying to fix the children they believe Millenials are unfit to raise? Are Americans having another Calvinist flashback?

I don't know. What I do believe is that the reformy movement carries a strong thread of anti-child fervor (or at least anti-Other People's Children), and that this belief that children should be beaten into shape rather than cherished and nurtured.

Look, if you ask my students if I coddle them, they will laugh at you and tell you that I am the least warm, most unfuzzy teacher they've ever dealt with. I believe in many of the virtues that these virtuous crusaders espouse. I even believe that sometimes love means facing hard, painful things.

But I had a superintendent once who used to tell a story about a horse trainer who was asked about the secret of his success. He asked his inquisitors what they thought the first step was, and they made many guesses, all dealing with technical horse trainy actions. Said the trainer, "First, you have to love the horse."

How we can possibly teach students we don't love or respect or value is beyond me. How we enter a classroom with a program that assumes they are unworthy, weak, and fundamentally deficient, and then teach effectively is a mystery. And how we start with the belief that our students are essentially worthless until a hero teacher fixes them-- well, that encompasses so much arrogant, wrong-headed, ineffective and just plain evil mess. If that's our attitude-- or the attitude that we are supposed to embrace-- I know one more reason that CCSS reformy stuff is destined to fail.


  1. I agree with a lot of what you are saying.
    When you mentioned how education is supposed to be the cure for poverty, I remembered a conversation I had about how racism still sustains poverty in some ways.
    For instance, imagine if all of the kids that needed help were white. Don't you think there would be a lot more kids being adopted or helped in a variety of ways? Racism keeps poverty locked up in communities of color.

  2. You are spot on. Teaching, or being in a classroom as a student should not be so stressful. Your "anti-child" feeling is recognized by me.

  3. I agree with your post--thanks for sharing what so many of want to say.

  4. Great post. However, there is a reason why people act the way they do. So what is "driving" the thoughts and minds of those who blame kids? What is the genesis of the actions od reformers? Let's face it---its a lot of em! And while some will say that they have very good reasons for reform, namely a better economy, there is still something deeper that is driving them. What is it? And why is it so common? Is it the way they were raised by their parents? Then how do we as a society change that?

  5. I agree with much of what you wrote, and although I support the primary idea behind Common Core, its a muddled mess that has absorbed much of the worst recent trends in education almost by default. By virtue of coming into being in the benighted era of miseducation, it delivers us a package full of flaws. But the central premise, that certain core standards should be present for a school to call itself a school and its process to be accurately called education, is good. ESPECIALLY in this time of hippy, feel good, religious outlets backchanneling federal funding into their coffers while barely providing what might not even be called an education, but rather a programming session. Accountability, not for children, but for adults, is what is being called for so loudly...and the largest part of opposition to the accountability has come from, predictably, from adults who might suddenly have to meet a basic standard.

    I empathize with the children, who have endured more shuffling from school to school, more soulless testing, more drudgery and goalpost-moving, more endless lists of rules and regulations than anyone ought to endure. I feel no particular empathy for the adults...who, being adults, really ought to be above the blame shifting game and just take their lumps instead of whinging about it being the childrens fault.

    Is CCSS, as it stands, a great remedy for our ills? Not even remotely. It's a warped reflection of our multiple layers of failure. Unfortunately, it seems to be the only major undertaking with even a half hearted intent to make any repairs at all. Tragically, it is defined by its opposition...which consists of so many shady characters that one is left feeling like taking a stand against CCSS is like joining the mafia to oppose 'restraint of trade' by law enforcement.

  6. I myself is a teacher from Denmark. I have attended some international and transatlantic courses and I visit different teacher forums regularly and honestly I have to say that I am very often shocked about my american colleges attitude towards not only children, but also parents. I have tried to point it out a few times only to be meet by a hail storm of "you don't know how terrible the kids in our country is"

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