Monday, April 19, 2010


I am in love with Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane E. Levin, two education professors who wrote a moving, passionate column arguing against national English and math standards in yesterday's Boston Sunday Globe. These standards are currently all the rage in education, at least up here in Massachusetts.

And that's where the title of this post comes in:
buzzword - n. A word or phrase connected with a specialized field or group that usually sounds important or technical and is used primarily to impress laypersons (from

Fans of The Common Core Standards Initiative want parents to support national standards as The Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything. Proponents routinely describe standards, as Dr. David P. Driscoll does in a counterpoint column on the same op-ed page, as "strong," playing "a major role in the academic success of our [Massachusetts] students over the past decade."

Buzzwords like 'strong,' 'academic rigor,' 'challenging,' and 'clear improvement' are meant to persuade laypeople that we must adopt these standards.

Like, yesterday.

But I'm not persuaded.

Dr. Driscoll laments later in his ode to the standard: "We do not hold our kids to high enough standards of conduct [or] work ethic..." On the contrary, I think that too often we impose an adult's standard of conduct and work ethic onto children who are too young to understand why we have these standards.

The other day, when Owen enthusiastically greeted a very obese woman with "wow, you're really fat!" he learned something new: the standard of conduct is we don't speak of these things. Until the statement was out of his mouth, he didn't know there would be anything wrong with expressing it. This was evidenced by his question later: "can I tell really skinny people that they're really skinny?" At five, he just doesn't understand why - but from the reaction of the adults around him, he learned that commenting on somebody's size is not appropriate. Learning is what childhood is all about. (My face is red as I write this. I'm so, so sorry that my son caused such hurt feelings.)

'Work ethic' is another buzzword that really gets my goat. To make young children work at tasks they're not yet ready for seems to be priority number one in modern public schools - and if they express their displeasure, by hitting, or crying, or feeling nauseous and losing sleep, or biting others, they are condemned as having a 'poor work ethic.' (Some may even conclude, at the ripe old age of nine, that they are below average.) I believe that kids who are encouraged to learn on their own timetable end up with a far stronger work ethic than those who are exposed to school standards. The learning that they do is motivated intrinsically, because it's something they really need to know.

Drs. Carlsson-Paige and Levin write that these standards "contradict decades of early education theory and research about how young children learn best."

And they ought to know:
Dr. Carlsson-Paige has written extensively about learning through play, non-violence, and conflict resolution. One year at the Lesley Kindergarten Conference I got to attend her seminar on play and learning (best part: her description of how her two boys played together as youngsters, one creating costumes and sets and the other - Matt Damon - doing the acting). Many of her ideas show up in my parenting/teaching still.
In addition to teaching teachers, Dr. Levin writes about the sexualization of childhood and is a founding member of The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
Both women are on the board of The Alliance for Childhood, a group of prominent educators who, supported by a raft of research, have concluded that childhood in America is endangered... by all the damn standardized tests.

Now, I know what you're thinking: what about those pesky buzzwords that I use in favor of my arguments? What about 'play,' 'non-violence,' 'conflict resolution'? It's true, I do like to use fancy words, but the difference lies herein: the fancy words I use refer to Real Life, while the standards-fans' pertain merely to school.

I use them because I want to encourage people (laypeople, heh) to think about how there is nobody standing by while adults resolve conflicts non-violently, waiting to grade them on how 'strong' their position is. By adulthood we're supposed to have absorbed the standards of conduct. We're supposed to have a great work ethic.

But how will kids know those things, if they don't get the chance to learn them? Drs. Carlsson-Paige and Levin are two of my heroes today, for writing so eloquently about why standards won't help children learn what they'll need to know out in the real world.


Lise said...

Oh, thanks for letting me know about this article. Those two are two of my educational heroes, as well. And "standards" is one of my pet peeves. Off to read it...

Jena said...

You know, the proof is in the pudding. Public schooling does a miraculous job of producing young adults with an amazing work ethic. We all should follow their lead.


jugglingpaynes said...

Wonderful, wonderful article! I will have to check out The Alliance for Childhood. I've spoken against tests for years.

I'm sorry you didn't know I was hosting the carnival. If I had seen this sooner I definitely would have bullied you into submitting it. ;o) I'll get you next time!

Peace and Laughter,

Rana said...

This sounds like a great article. I'm all for no standards and absolutely no testing. Karen your son in not the only one to make a comment like that.