For a parent, there is almost nothing worse than seeing one of their children in pain. The pain can be physical – from illness or injury. Or it can be emotional, like the pain of failure. The parental sensation is gut-wrenching, and it fills the mind not only with the agony of the child’s present but also fear for the child’s future. Every parent knows about this – some more than others. But all of us parents have had at least a taste.
That’s why it’s so difficult for parents to learn to allow their children to fail. We start early, by allowing our kids to fall after the first few steps. And it moves on to taking off the training wheels and waiting for the inevitable scrapes and bruises; to putting on a team uniform and trying to impress a group of other kids by hitting that darn little speeding ball with that skinny little bat; to taking a math class that maybe seems a little too difficult (and in which the parent dreads not being able to provide assistance); to sending a new driver off on her or his first solo drive; to setting a college or career goal that seems a little too ambitious.
We are now living in a time when a parent’s angst can be much more than just a temporary inconvenience for a child. When I graduated from college thirty years ago, a college degree – any college degree – was a guarantee of a good job. Even relatively unskilled high school graduates (and many high school dropouts) could achieve a middle class lifestyle by getting a manufacturing job or a clerical job in a small service business or large corporation. But those jobs are mostly gone. Even our nation’s recent manufacturing renaissance is being driven by technology and is bringing back only one-tenth of the jobs that disappeared years ago. And those few jobs are going to highly trained individuals who are good at math, know enough science to understand the technology with which they work, and are able to express themselves well verbally and in writing. “Not being a math person” and “not being a writing person” are no longer options – either one could result in economic failure.
Our kids are going to be competing with smart, high-achieving kids from nations where ambition is driven by the sure knowledge that poverty and family catastrophe are only one stumble away. It’s tough to compete with the desperate – but that’s what our kids must do. And our kids can only win the middle class lifestyle we crave for them if they are harder working and better educated than the world’s driven masses.
Hence the Common Core, which will rip the cover off the inadequacies of the students of our state and others by setting the bar high and ruthlessly measuring each child against the competition from Massachusetts, China, Singapore and Finland – the same kids against whom our children will be competing for their whole lives.
Think Florida’s bar is already high enough? Think again: Florida says that 51% of its 8th graders are proficient in math (earning an FCAT score of 3 or higher). Massachusetts – the reigning national champ in K-12 achievement – says that 55% of its 8th graders are proficient in math. Seems like Florida is doing OK, right? Not so fast. There is a common yardstick – the National Assessement of Educational Progress, or NAEP. NAEP says that in 2011 51% of Massachusetts 8th graders were proficient in math – so NAEP and the Massachusetts Department of Education pretty much agree on how many of that state’s 8th graders are proficient in math.
But here’s what NAEP says about Florida: Only 28% of the state’s 8th graders are proficient in math. But what about the FCAT result that says 51% of Florida’s 8th graders are proficient? That’s because Florida’s FCAT 8th grade math proficiency bar is too low – it’s far lower than the proficiency bar in Massachusetts.
And that’s what Common Core – and the multistate assessment programs that go with it – will solve. Florida and Massachusetts will have the same bar – the 8th graders from the two states will have to compete head to head, using the same measurements and rules.
Seems like a good thing, right? Yes, until you realize that half of the students in Florida who are now being told they are proficient in math will be told they are not proficient once the multistate Common Core assessments are implemented. It’s enough to cause angst – that oh-so-familiar worry that their kids might have to face failure – to many of the parents in Florida who otherwise would have thought their kids are doing just fine.
The most commonly-voiced objection to the Common Core and the associated multistate assessment programs is that they represent a federal takeover of K-12 education, which has traditionally been a local and state function. There are some real ideological zealots who are willing to ignore the historic failure of the present K-12 system to adequately prepare kids for the economic armageddon they are facing for the sake of tilting at the windmills of federal overreach.
But perhaps just under the surface of the present backlash against the Common Core are the parents who are worried that maybe their kids will experience failure when measured against the Common Core and the competition from Massachusetts for the first time. After all, the NAEP results suggest that many fewer Florida students will pass the Common Core exams than pass the FCAT.
But you wouldn’t expect these parents to say in public that they oppose Common Core because it’s too hard and because their kids might not make the grade. How many parents would do that? Perhaps some of those worried parents are grabbing at the specter of federal overreach to hide their own fears, even from themselves.
When it comes to Common Core and raising the bar, every parent should start by thinking about their child’s first heart-rending fall onto the pavement after the training wheels came off. Despite the scrapes, you encouraged your kid to get up and do it again. And again. Because it seemed important.
If riding a two-wheeler was important, then how much more so is becoming a productive member of society? Lots of kids will fall off the Common Core bike. Then they’ll have to get up and try it again. And again. It will be agony for many of the parents watching, but the alternative – letting our next generation flounder without an economic ride – would be much worse.