Change often brings controversy. That is certainly true these days about the new Common Core curriculum in education. An attempt to establish more rigorous education standards, it has created much debate about an emphasis on testing and its impact on children.
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 new standards explicitly states that they have been informed by top-performing countries, so that American students are prepared to succeed in our global economy.
The focus on global competition is most striking. 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. 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. 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. Educators differ about which content is the most important, and about when it is appropriate from a child development point of view to introduce certain material. Ultimately it is the skill of the teacher that counts most in teaching material in creative ways and in promoting children’s learning. Efforts have been made to reevaluate teacher training and teacher performance. Teachers have been judged in terms of student progress, measured in turn by test results. The emphasis placed on test results has 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 primarily to enable them to do well on tests.
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 more difficult material, and from being judged by frequent testing.
This has led to a renewed criticism of parents as being overprotective – too worried about their children’s self-esteem and feelings of failure. Parents are accused of being opposed to tougher instruction because it makes children feel inadequate, and of seeking to coddle kids rather than to challenge them.
Several things are getting mixed together here. The content of education has not declined because parents are coddling their kids. Numerous factors have caused lowered standards in education, and if anything, parents have put more stress on children trying to compensate for deficiencies in the educational system.
What has been labeled parental over-protection and undue concern about self-esteem may be a result of misinterpreted child-development research translated into advice for parents, which is worth examining further. But 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.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.