the scarecrow

He was my very favorite character.


I first saw “The Wizard of Oz” at some point during our time in Dodge City, Kansas… putting me at around age 5 or 6. A brain. It was definitely the best thing to ask Oz for. It seemed the most substantive.

Having children in public elementary school… it’s strange. You experience this very basic thing anew, through your children’s eyes, but your memories of how you learned, and what mattered most to you, cloud so much.

My husband tells me that his memory of school is pretty foggy. He doesn’t recall how he performed, what he liked or didn’t like, what motivated him or what didn’t… none of that until he was a teenager. When he talks about his childhood, he talks about adventures–like taking a raft, with a friend, up some little river, only to find later that he and his friend were lost (he got home safely), or about the model cars he built, or the paper route he had. When he talks about his teenage years, he talks about his trip to Russia. His college years: skiing in Vermont, and a semester in Tanzania. After college: the Peace Corps in Poland, where he taught himself Polish. (Have you ever looked at that language?)

Me? I remember every single teacher, who my friends were in each class, I can even visualize some of the assignments we had, the videos we watched, the homework I completed. For 19 years, from kindergarten through grad school, mostly in Wisconsin (with two months in Washington, DC. when I was 23, and three months in India when I was 10), school memories are freakishly clear:  I can tell you about every grade, every test score I earned. (It’s a boring conversation.)

I look at our kids and wonder what they’ll remember most: what they’ll talk about when they talk about growing up.

Our daughter’s favorite character from “The Wizard of Oz?” Toto. “He was funny.” And she doesn’t know this word yet, but he was “tenacious.” Our son’s? “I liked that Lion, he was cute.” And of course, brave.

Maybe this is a sign that our children have a foundation for that thing called “grit.” You know that thing, folks are talking about it a lot lately in some academic circles. Perseverance, dedication and commitment to a long-term goal, drive, zeal, passion, things that drive an individual’s long-term success — none of that is contingent on having a “brain.”

In our public schools, in the state in which I live, public dollars support special programming for students with demonstrated brain power. In our state it’s called “Gifted Education.” Students who have an IQ of 130 or more (or 120 if from a socioeconomically disadvantaged household) generally qualify, if they are first screened. In 2007, two-thirds of school districts in our state used parent input as a criterion for whether a student should be screened for the gifted program, and the gifted student population grew faster than overall student enrollment–which declined. Gifted education is a big deal for parents, as is funding for it (about $42 million in our district this year).

We’re also spending a lot of money on lots of tests of all our other students, establishing baselines, measuring progress in the aggregate, using those measures to grade (and financially reward or punish) schools (read: teachers) on their performance. It’s a conversation that is as boring as it is infuriating.

All this money, all these tests, all this effort: there’s not much conclusive proof of its long-term impact on any student’s life-long success.

If I were off to see the Wizard, I’d ask if we could re-allocate money spent on new testing and assessment procedures and spend it on school-wide programs designed to promote and measure “grit.”

But how do you measure it? How do you reward a six-year-old for continuing to try, with a smile on his face, to read a very hard book, because it’s about Star Wars, and he loves Star Wars more than anything? How do you document on a third-grade girl’s record that when she’s told she made a mistake, her response is to review her work and understand her error, like it’s a puzzle, not a burden? How do you prove to a school that a teacher has succeeded in uncovering a child’s passion?

Is any of this possible?

If we only had a brain…  Oh, wait, we do. We already have the power.

Clicking my heels over here. 

Chicken Little didn’t fare well, you know…

Here’s why I don’t like the debate over Common Core State Standards. It tends to devolve pretty quickly into parental chest-beating about the ill fit of Common Core to the needs of one’s own child.

Consider this parent, a self-described CFO. She wrote a letter to the Governor of Georgia, essentially claiming that Common Core standards have (perhaps I’m overstating this, but read for yourself) ruined her child’s education.

I would like to also tell you a little bit about my daughter. She is a very intelligent, strong willed, caring and motivated child. She was tested in 1st grade for the advanced learning class placement. She tested well and has been in the advanced class since 1st grade. She is now in 3rd grade. She had a great education in kindergarten and first grade. She excelled beyond my expectations. She enjoyed every minute of school. She loved math and she loved to read. She was very eager to learn anything that anyone could throw her way. Sadly this has all changed with the Common Core Standards.

Wow, huh? I can almost hear “dunh dunh duuuuuuuunh,” can you?

CFO parent bemoans second grade math education: “My daughter is being shown a method of math that not even I, a CFO, can help her with. She is being shown how to break down numbers in a way that makes no sense.”

Wow, again. No sense, at all? Is she sure?

CFO parent tested her now third-grade daughter at home, offering seven triple-digit subtraction problems. The daughter missed four out of seven (not attempting two of them). In the CFO parent’s mind, this home-administered test proves that Common Core methods don’t work. The CFO parents is upset that her daughter doesn’t know what “borrowing and carrying” is.*

And a third “wow.” That test sure has a lot of power in this parent’s mind. Remember, this is a test of math according to the mother’s curriculum/standards, when her daughter has apparently been taught to different ones, that make no sense to the mother. Hmm.

Look. Parents want their children to do well in school. They want them to learn what they need to learn to graduate, to go on to college if they want, to be employed right away if they want, to excel, to be a productive member of society.

Parents do not help matters when they claim that the sky is falling.

New standards. They’re a pain in the a**, no question. Teachers are scrambling to understand them, develop curricula so that students can master them, and throughout, they are doing their very best to teach our children. They just are. They’ll continue to do that, no matter what the standards are—no matter how many governors say they will use them or not use them. They’ll continue to do that, no matter which publishing company or other corporation profits from new testing materials, new text books, new whatever.

Teachers will continue to teach our children, as best as they can. It is what they do.

CFO parent—who rejects her daughter’s teacher’s efforts at math instruction, though she casts blame on an entire set of standards—says, “I do not put my daughter in school for her to come home and for me have to teach her all over again. I am a tax payer and I pay for my daughter to be educated.”

Maybe her taxes are too low.

Parents of school-age children out there? Especially those of us who complain about our tax burdens? We put our children in school, and our tax dollars are not our only required contribution to the process. It is in fact our job, as parents, to help and support our teachers as best we can, by learning and reinforcing whatever it is that our teachers are trying to do, as best we can. Every day.

If you’re going to write your governor about a problem, be constructive, don’t run around like Chicken Little, yelling about a problem but doing little to mitigate it. (“Common Core is awful! Get rid of it!” And then what? Would we not see another set of standards, another set of special interests backing those standards? Would the sky never fall again?)

That means:

  • Ask your governor to make sure that teachers have the resources and training they need to make Common Core (or whatever standards your state chooses) work. For every student, of all ages and abilities.
  • Ask your governor to consider research that might run counter to his/her established conclusion, if you’re concerned about anything. Valid, good research (not a home-administered 7-question test). If you’re worried about something, do your homework.
  • Ask your governor not to rely on tests alone to prove whether or not our collective efforts are successful. Ask your governor not to give those tests too much weight in a teacher or school evaluation. Remind him or her that those tests shouldn’t be a factor at ALL in the first year (or two) of any curriculum’s rollout.
  • Ask your governor to invest some more money in educating parents about what your states’ teachers are trying to accomplish. Acknowledge that you, as a parent need to know more, that you want to know more, that you are your child’s teacher’s partner.

Our public education infrastructure is weak, and we need to strengthen it, together. But it is not so weak that we need to panic. Focus less on that one little acorn that hit your head (the acorn symbolizes Common Core!), and more on that fox, who loves that you are so distracted that he can easily trick you (and utterly ignore your children).

Now who does that fox symbolize? I know who it is in my state. He’s getting a letter from me.


*Regrouping – it’s what is taught now, and I believe that term predates Common Core—as my nephews, both now in upper high school grades, used it, in another state.