Parent, Heal Thyself

by Linda Szugyi | May 5th, 2014

Readability

Parent, Heal Thyself

by Linda Szu­gyi

My expe­ri­ence with edu­ca­tion is a love/​hate rela­tion­ship. In ele­men­tary school, I loved get­ting ‘A’s, read­ing books, and writ­ing poetry. (I wanted to be a poet when I grew up.) I remem­ber ador­ing the stan­dard­ized test at the end of the year. It was so excit­ing: the solem­nity, the neces­sity of fill­ing the bub­bles neatly, the fun of try­ing to deduce the answer when choices were unclear (darn you T/​F prob­lems, I see grey in almost every­thing!), and the thrill of com­pet­ing with every same-​grade stu­dent for that top per­centile standing.

But I hated the ten­dency schools have to be bureau­cratic, even before I knew the word ‘bureau­cratic.’ Rules that didn’t make sense, either as a prac­ti­cal mat­ter or as a mat­ter of jus­tice, burned me up with anger. The appli­ca­tion of rules in an overly dog­matic man­ner did the same thing. The smaller and more incon­se­quen­tial the rule, the worse it was somehow.

A good exam­ple is the kinder­garten teacher’s assis­tant who made me turn the pic­ture I was col­or­ing right-​side-​up. It was a pic­ture of a toy sol­dier. She said he can’t march while stand­ing on his head. Good grief lady, I am left-​handed and it’s hard to color while the paper is in that posi­tion! is what I would have said if I had the wis­dom to do so, which I did not. So I just tried to fin­ish the pic­ture with­out cry­ing, and didn’t really under­stand why her non­sen­si­cal rule upset me so much.

The other thing I hated was the tedium. The read­ing com­pre­hen­sion ques­tions at the end of a short story were often so banal, so lame, that the require­ment to think up and write down com­plete sen­tences in response made me, once again, burn with anger. Good grief, why are you wast­ing my time? is what I would have said if I had the wis­dom to do so, which I did not. So I just tried to answer the ques­tions as quickly as pos­si­ble, and didn’t really under­stand why some­times, the end-​of-​reading ques­tions made me so mad I wanted to scrib­ble them out with dark, force­ful strokes of my #2 pencil.

I hope all this doesn’t sound like a brag about being too smart or too much of a spe­cial, spe­cial flower for school. My point may be even worse than brag­ging, though. My point is that every kid is too smart for schools as they cur­rently oper­ate and have oper­ated for sev­eral decades. That is, all chil­dren have their own unique strengths and weak­nesses. A rigid approach to edu­cat­ing these unique indi­vid­u­als will inevitably mute some strengths while exac­er­bat­ing some weak­nesses in every child who endures it.

This com­plaint is hardly new, of course:

That’s why Com­mon Core pro­po­nents have a point when they ask, why in the world do you assume a national set of stan­dards and test­ing will be so dif­fer­ent from the state stan­dards and test­ing already in place?

Com­mon Core is worse, what with all of its copy­right lim­i­ta­tions and data-​collecting spook­i­ness. But much of it is noth­ing dif­fer­ent from what has gone on for a long time. If any­thing, it’s the next log­i­cal step, given the direc­tion we’ve allowed our edu­ca­tion experts to march for so long. Pro­po­nents are prob­a­bly quite bewil­dered by the way the name “Com­mon Core” has unleashed a back­lash that keeps spread­ing like wild­fire.

In a sense, all Com­mon Core did to ignite this wild­fire was finally pro­vide a label – a name for some­thing most of us never really under­stood, but which nev­er­the­less gave us an inchoate, uneasy feel­ing first about our own edu­ca­tion, and later about the edu­ca­tion of our chil­dren. I can hardly blame Com­mon Core pro­po­nents for react­ing, in their bewil­der­ment, by call­ing crit­ics things like hys­ter­i­cal, or over­pro­tec­tive white sub­ur­ban moms.

Wait a minute. Yes I can.

Any­way, the prob­lem with Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion is older and deeper than Com­mon Core:

The cur­rent debate about whether we should have a national cur­ricu­lum is phony; we already have one, locked up in the six lessons I’ve told you about and a few more I’ve spared you. This cur­ricu­lum pro­duces moral and intel­lec­tual paral­y­sis, and no cur­ricu­lum of con­tent will be suf­fi­cient to reverse its bad effects. What is under dis­cus­sion is a great irrelevancy.”

John Tay­lor Gatto wrote those words in 1991.

In our dreams … peo­ple yield them­selves with per­fect docil­ity to our mold­ing hands. The present edu­ca­tional con­ven­tions [of intel­lec­tual and moral edu­ca­tion] fade from our minds, and unham­pered by tra­di­tion, we work our own good will upon a grate­ful and respon­sive folk. We shall not try to make these peo­ple or any of their chil­dren into philoso­phers or men of learn­ing or men of sci­ence. We have not to raise up from among them authors, edu­ca­tors, poets or men of let­ters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musi­cians, nor lawyers, doc­tors, preach­ers, politi­cians, states­men – of whom we have an ample sup­ply. The task we set before our­selves is very sim­ple … we will orga­nize chil­dren … and teach them to do in a per­fect way the things their fathers and moth­ers are doing in an imper­fect way.”

John Rockefeller’s Gen­eral Edu­ca­tion Board penned those words in 1906.

I know there is no per­fect solu­tion. There will always be times in both child­hood and adult­hood when we have to put up with some bore­dom or other dis­com­fort. I’m not sug­gest­ing a sun­shine and rain­bows world where the chil­dren run free in the meadow all day, and yet still mag­i­cally learn how to be musi­cians, doc­tors, elec­tri­cal engi­neers, and all the other things we need them to be in the future.

But the edu­ca­tion sys­tem in Amer­ica today has become so cal­ci­fied that it harms not just spe­cial lit­tle flow­ers like me, but even the more resilient among us. Can you imag­ine any seven-​year old resilient enough to han­dle get­ting hand­cuffed at school for hav­ing a non­vi­o­lent melt­down, for example?

We are unfor­tu­nately forced by cir­cum­stances to focus on Com­mon Core and its repeal in state leg­is­la­tures. It is unfor­tu­nate because by doing so, we are focus­ing on merely a symp­tom of the prob­lem, instead of the prob­lem itself. After all, if tomor­row every state in the union repealed Com­mon Core and burned every page of Com­mon Core-​aligned mate­r­ial, our schools would still be a hot mess.

I hate to admit it, but the real prob­lem … is us. The par­ents. We need to real­ize that our reliance on edu­ca­tion experts and their academia-​speak is an imped­i­ment to learn­ing. We need to real­ize that teach­ing from a script writ­ten by those experts is a phony kind of teach­ing that sucks the air out of a class­room. We need to accept the fact that there is no magic for­mula that the school sys­tem can apply in order to open every child’s mind to learning.

Home­school­ing par­ents are included in this prob­lem, by the way. We have a hard time trust­ing our own judg­ment and abil­i­ties, where edu­ca­tion is con­cerned. We are just as prone to rely on experts as every­one else. That’s why home­school­ers tend to research, ana­lyze, and dis­cuss cur­ric­ula until they are blue in the face, always search­ing for the elu­sive “best cur­ricu­lum” and “best teach­ing style” for their chil­dren. Home­school­ers often end up read­ing from a script, too. That script may be more ide­o­log­i­cally to our lik­ing, but it can also be as awk­ward and phony as a Com­mon Core les­son.

I should know. I’ve tried to use the detailed teacher instruc­tions and work­sheets included in Son­light cur­ric­ula for two years, and I’ve felt guilty for the times I’ve skipped them. I’m not crit­i­ciz­ing the Son­light prod­uct – they assem­ble a won­der­ful assort­ment of text­books and fic­tion that weave together a rich and engag­ing story. I’m crit­i­ciz­ing my own over-​reliance on the sup­ple­men­tal material.

Anne Sul­li­van didn’t suc­ceed in teach­ing Helen Keller because she was an expert, or because she relied on expert mate­r­ial. She suc­ceeded because she had a gift for teach­ing and a pas­sion to do what­ever it took to open Helen’s mind. In the long-​term, the only real solu­tion lies within this kind of indi­vid­ual pas­sion. Whether it’s pub­lic school or home­school­ing, the solu­tion will always be found where the rub­ber hits the road–a teacher pas­sion­ately shar­ing knowl­edge, and a stu­dent striv­ing to gain it.

We can’t get there from here. First, we have to get rid of the Com­mon Core threat to teacher auton­omy. Next, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top need repeal­ing. Heck, just go ahead and shut down the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion. Only then can the states work with­out their hands tied, and find their own ways to reward the tal­ented, pas­sion­ate teach­ers who open our children’s minds, and either retrain or fire the rest.

Even then, such fixes won’t suc­ceed unless we par­ents fix our­selves. The pro-​Common Core edu­ca­tion experts cur­rently hold sway because we ceded to them the respon­si­bil­ity of know­ing what’s best for our chil­dren. We gave them the power they now abuse.

by Linda Szugyi

My experience with education is a love/hate relationship.  In elementary school, I loved getting ‘A’s, reading books, and writing poetry.  (I wanted to be a poet when I grew up.)  I remember adoring the standardized test at the end of the year.  It was so exciting:  the solemnity, the necessity of filling the bubbles neatly, the fun of trying to deduce the answer when choices were unclear (darn you T/F problems, I see grey in almost everything!), and the thrill of competing with every same-grade student for that top percentile standing.

But I hated the tendency schools have to be bureaucratic, even before I knew the word ‘bureaucratic.’  Rules that didn’t make sense, either as a practical matter or as a matter of justice, burned me up with anger.  The application of rules in an overly dogmatic manner did the same thing.  The smaller and more inconsequential the rule, the worse it was somehow.

A good example is the kindergarten teacher’s assistant who made me turn the picture I was coloring right-side-up.  It was a picture of a toy soldier.  She said he can’t march while standing on his head.  Good grief lady, I am left-handed and it’s hard to color while the paper is in that position! is what I would have said if I had the wisdom to do so, which I did not.  So I just tried to finish the picture without crying, and didn’t really understand why her nonsensical rule upset me so much.

The other thing I hated was the tedium.  The reading comprehension questions at the end of a short story were often so banal, so lame, that the requirement to think up and write down complete sentences in response made me, once again, burn with anger.  Good grief, why are you wasting my time? is what I would have said if I had the wisdom to do so, which I did not.  So I just tried to answer the questions as quickly as possible, and didn’t really understand why sometimes, the end-of-reading questions made me so mad I wanted to scribble them out with dark, forceful strokes of my #2 pencil.

I hope all this doesn’t sound like a brag about being too smart or too much of a special, special flower for school.  My point may be even worse than bragging, though.  My point is that every kid is too smart for schools as they currently operate and have operated for several decades.  That is, all children have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.  A rigid approach to educating these unique individuals will inevitably mute some strengths while exacerbating some weaknesses in every child who endures it.

This complaint is hardly new, of course:

That’s why Common Core proponents have a point when they ask, why in the world do you assume a national set of standards and testing will be so different from the state standards and testing already in place?

Common Core is worse, what with all of its copyright limitations and data-collecting spookiness.  But much of it is nothing different from what has gone on for a long time.  If anything, it’s the next logical step, given the direction we’ve allowed our education experts to march for so long.  Proponents are probably quite bewildered by the way the name “Common Core” has unleashed a backlash that keeps spreading like wildfire.

In a sense, all Common Core did to ignite this wildfire was finally provide a label–a name for something most of us never really understood, but which nevertheless gave us an inchoate, uneasy feeling first about our own education, and later about the education of our children.  I can hardly blame Common Core proponents for reacting, in their bewilderment, by calling critics things like hysterical, or overprotective white suburban moms.

Wait a minute.  Yes I can.

Anyway, the problem with American education is older and deeper than Common Core:

“The current debate about whether we should have a national curriculum is phony; we already have one, locked up in the six lessons I’ve told you about and a few more I’ve spared you. This curriculum produces moral and intellectual paralysis, and no curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its bad effects. What is under discussion is a great irrelevancy.”

John Taylor Gatto wrote those words in 1991.

“In our dreams . . . people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands.  The present educational conventions [of intellectual and moral education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk.  We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science.  We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters.  We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen – of whom we have an ample supply.  The task we set before ourselves is very simple . . . we will organize children . . . and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.”

John Rockefeller’s General Education Board penned those words in 1906.

I know there is no perfect solution.  There will always be times in both childhood and adulthood when we have to put up with some boredom or other discomfort.  I’m not suggesting a sunshine and rainbows world where the children run free in the meadow all day, and yet still magically learn how to be musicians, doctors, electrical engineers, and all the other things we need them to be in the future.

But the education system in America today has become so calcified that it harms not just special little flowers like me, but even the more resilient among us.  Can you imagine any seven-year old resilient enough to handle getting handcuffed at school for having a nonviolent meltdown, for example?

We are unfortunately forced by circumstances to focus on Common Core and its repeal in state legislatures.  It is unfortunate because by doing so, we are focusing on merely a symptom of the problem, instead of the problem itself.  After all, if tomorrow every state in the union repealed Common Core and burned every page of Common Core-aligned material, our schools would still be a hot mess.

I hate to admit it, but the real problem . . . is us.  The parents.  We need to realize that our reliance on education experts and their academia-speak is an impediment to learning.  We need to realize that teaching from a script written by those experts is a phony kind of teaching that sucks the air out of a classroom.  We need to accept the fact that there is no magic formula that the school system can apply in order to open every child’s mind to learning.

Homeschooling parents are included in this problem, by the way.  We have a hard time trusting our own judgment and abilities, where education is concerned.  We are just as prone to rely on experts as everyone else.  That’s why homeschoolers tend to research, analyze, and discuss curricula until they are blue in the face, always searching for the elusive “best curriculum” and “best teaching style” for their children.  Homeschoolers often end up reading from a script, too.  That script may be more ideologically to our liking, but it can also be as awkward and phony as a Common Core lesson.

I should know.  I’ve tried to use the detailed teacher instructions and worksheets included in Sonlight curricula for two years, and I’ve felt guilty for the times I’ve skipped them.  I’m not criticizing the Sonlight product–they assemble a wonderful assortment of textbooks and fiction that weave together a rich and engaging story.  I’m criticizing my own over-reliance on the supplemental material.

Anne Sullivan didn’t succeed in teaching Helen Keller because she was an expert, or because she relied on expert material.  She succeeded because she had a gift for teaching and a passion to do whatever it took to open Helen’s mind.  In the long-term, the only real solution lies within this kind of individual passion.  Whether it’s public school or homeschooling, the solution will always be found where the rubber hits the road–a teacher passionately sharing knowledge, and a student striving to gain it.

We can’t get there from here.  First, we have to get rid of the Common Core threat to teacher autonomy.  Next, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top need repealing.  Heck, just go ahead and shut down the Department of Education.  Only then can the states work without their hands tied, and find their own ways to reward the talented, passionate teachers who open our children’s minds, and either retrain or fire the rest.

Even then, such fixes won’t succeed unless we parents fix ourselves.  The pro-Common Core education experts currently hold sway because we ceded to them the responsibility of knowing what’s best for our children.  We gave them the power they now abuse.

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