“Are Kids too Coddled?”
Challenging Bruni’s Opinion with Scientific Data and EvidenceDenny Taylor, 2013
“Are kids too coddled?” Frank Bruni asks in The New York Times, November 24, 2013.
Bruni wants parents to stop whining and kids to toughen up. It’s a predictable piece of writing, the kind that second career students, who have opted-out of journalism or investment banking, often write in graduate classes when their careers have been interrupted by the technological or economic squeeze that has left them scrambling for an easy alternative.
In the piece Bruni denigrates parents, dismisses the concerns of teachers, and does not understand that the testimony of the social worker is factual testimony and not uninformed opinion as he professes. Bruni dismisses parents, teachers, and social workers, and he genders moral authority when he quotes David Coleman’s simplistic and fundamentally flawed proposition that rigorous standards “redefine self-esteem as something achieved through hard work”.
In the US there are many people who have worked hard all their lives and are looking for work. Similarly, there are many children in public schools who work hard and are failing for reasons over which they have no control. In many public schools kids have had the self esteem knocked out of them by the developmentally inappropriate curriculum known as the Common Core.
If Bruni handed me his opinion piece of writing in a graduate literacy course that I was teaching, I would hand it back to him and give him the opportunity to rewrite it. If he chose not to rewrite, he would receive an inflated C for the piece and his final grade would be impacted by the choice he had made. He would need A’s in all his other assignments to squeak by with a B.
At the meeting that would follow the return of his paper we would discuss the meaning of “opinion” – whether it be in journalism or in a graduate course in education. I would probably say something about the Supreme Court – that while US Supreme Court Justices render opinions, they are opinions informed by deep knowledge of Constitutional Law, by a lifetime of experience in the legal profession, and by rigorous legal research as it pertains to the cases that require the Supreme Court Justices to express their collective opinion.
Given that Bruni criticizes “coddling”, I would not “coddle” him. I would tell him that his off-the-cuff piece was opportunistic, filled with writing contrivances, written at the expense of others, and lacking in any substantive understanding of the topic on which he had chosen to write. I would tell Bruni to do his homework, which he clearly has not, and to rewrite and resubmit the essay.
I would explain that I expect him to work to the best of his ability, and that I expect rigorous scholarship, even though in more than four decades in education I have never administered a test, standardized or otherwise. I would tell him that my job as a teacher is to ensure he has every opportunity to think deeply about his scholarship, and to produce a piece of writing that is imaginative and creative, as well as firmly grounded in disciplined and systematic research.
“Don’t tell me to think,” a graduate student once told me. “Just tell me what you want me to do!”
“What I want you to do,” I replied, “is think.”
I would ask Bruni to think. I would ask him to consider whether tacked together anecdotes actually constitute an opinion piece, and then take the anecdotes one by one and help him to really think about them.
I would begin with his statement about the “welling hysteria from right wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals”.
I would advise him to read “Whose Knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies: How the Federal Government Used Science to Take Over Public Schools” by the renowned reading scholar Robert Calfee.
“In January 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Let Behind Act (NCLB; PL 107-110) instituting a major federal encroachment on public education in the United States,” Calfee writes. “The focus is on literacy, but the implications are far reaching, and go to the core of the intersections of science and politics, of knowledge and power, and of the balance between federal and local control, as these affect the education of young children.”
I would urge Bruni to drop the gratuitous rhetoric of “welling hysteria”, and do his homework. An opinion piece on the loss of local control of public education has very serious implications that he has either missed or ignored.
Similarly, Bruni’s “from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats” could be a critical site for inquiry. He could start with Pearson.
“Global education is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Pearson’s CEO, John Fallon, stressed in explaining the company’s strategy for the educational market in Pearson’s 2012 annual report. “We think education will turn out to be the great growth industry of the 21st Century.” He states, “As the world’s leading learning company, Pearson has a once-in-a generation opportunity. To seize it, we must transform the company again. Our strategy is sound; we are now accelerating.”
In the 2012 annual report, Pearson states that “North American education is Pearson’s largest business, with 2012 sales of ₤2,7 bn and operating profit of ₤536 m” ($4.34 billion and $862 million respectively, as of 11-7-13)”. The annual report also notes that, “In the US we actively monitor changes through participation in advisory boards and representation on standard setting committees. Our customer relationships teams have detailed knowledge of each state market.”
Moreover, Pearson states that the company works “through our own government relations team,” and that the company is also “monitoring municipal funding and the impact on our education receivables.”
I would advise Bruni to be cautious in creating dualisms, and advise him to adopt a position that relies on scientific research and not on political ideology. Many scholars take a third position that is transdisciplinary, combining insights from research in the physical, social, and biological sciences, with systematic documentation of human experience.
I would encourage Bruni to unpackage his unquestioning acceptance of the claim that the Common Core is a “laudable set of guidelines”.
On a daily basis I receive emails from researchers and educators on specific aspects of the Common Core that are problematic. It is an ill thought out, poorly constructed, inadequately researched national experiment, in which public school children are the mandated experimental subjects. It is an experiment that is being conducted without parental permission and without institutional human subject review.
Given the tenor of Bruni’s “opinion” piece it is unlikely that the last statement would sit well with him. I would encourage him to take up the challenge, resist the pressures of policy makers, ditch the pundits and talking heads, and conduct a thorough, data driven analysis.
He could start by visiting the website of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University where he would find a link, among many others, to a recently published scientific paper by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. The paper focuses on the importance of young children developing, as the Scientific Council states, “in an environment of relationships”.
Bruni would find that this eminent group of child psychiatrists, pediatricians, neuroscientists, and professors of child development, working in the interface between science and public policy, draw attention to the connections between young children’s social experiences and the developing architecture of the brain: “healthy development depends on the quality and reliability of a young child’s relationships with the important people in his or her life, both within and outside the family. Even the development of a child’s brain architecture depends on the establishment of these relationships”.
The idea that children’s social environments can impact their brain architecture is a significant scientific finding of which Bruni does not seem to be aware. Given the high stress educational environments that are a direct result of the Common Core experiment, the implications of this scientific fact are potentially devastating for young children, their families, and US society
At my meeting with Bruni I would encourage him to reflect on these scientific findings, and on his disparaging remarks about the father who spoke at the Poughkeepsie meeting with New York State Education Commissioner John King. Putting the father on the spot was not only unwarranted but also wrongheaded. The dad gets it. Bruni doesn’t. It is a scientific fact that the higher the stress levels caused by developmentally inappropriate classroom instruction, the less children achieve in school.
I would also suggest to Bruni that if a social worker testifies that elementary school children say they feel stupid and that school is too hard, that they are throwing temper tantrums and begging to stay home, that they are so upset they are vomiting, or if they say they are having suicidal thoughts and they are self mutilating (cutting), no New York Times reporter or public official should so glibly dismiss such testimony.
If Bruni were in my graduate class I would tell him in no uncertain terms that I regard his opinion with regard to the testimony of the social worker to be grossly irresponsible. He states, “If children are unraveling to this extent, it’s a grave problem”, but cautions that “we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos”.
I would tell Bruni the implication of his “opinion” is that the social worker is lying. She is not. I would advise him to take her testimony seriously, and to give up the idea that kids in the US are “insulated” from “blows to their ego”. I would point out to him that the scientific evidence, both in the US and from international comparative studies, leaves no doubt that children in the US are negative outliers on every measure of health and well being of children in the developed world.
I would give Bruni a copy of The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and encourage him to visit the website of Equality Trust. I would put in his hands the Eleventh Innocenti Report Card, Child well-being in rich countries: A comparative overview, produced by the UNICEF Office of Research, and point out to him that the bottom four places in the league tables on child well-being are occupied by three of the poorest countries in the survey, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania, and by one of the richest, the United States of America.
Simply put, the high stress environments in which children in the US are raised are unhealthy, detrimental to their well being, and have a negative impact on their academic development. This is not opinion. It is fact. Wilkinson and Pickett provide the epidemiological analysis based on medical research as well as social science that they link to poor academic achievement. These rankings correspond with the international rankings of children’s health and well-being reported in the Eleventh Innocenti Report Card, and in other similar international comparative studies.
None of these negative findings should surprise Bruni. If you write opinions in the New York Times, many readers will ascribe to you both the authority and integrity of the press. Given that this is the case, readers, especially parents and teachers, should know that government officials have openly admitted that to bring about unpopular educational reform “astute use of media and communications have a proven ability to effect changes in mindsets and actions”.
The quote is taken from an infamous report entitled “US Education Reform and National Security”. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State for the George W. Bush Administration, and Joel Klein, CEO and Executive VP of News Corporation, who was once Chancellor of New York City’s school system, co-chaired the committee that produced the report. The report was written in support of the Common Core.
Rice and Klein write, “This public awareness campaign should be managed by a coalition of government, business, and military leaders. It should aim to keep everyone in the country focused on the national goal of improving education to safeguard America’s security today and in the future”. They state “The group believes that a targeted, annual campaign, led by the Department of Education in collaboration with the U.S. States, the Department of Defense and State, and the intelligence agencies could have this impact.”
Parents, teachers, and the public are not “coddling” kids, they are trying to protect them. There is much in the report that is rational and reasonable, but in a democratic society the overall tenor of the report is chilling.
I would encourage Bruni to disaggregate the TIMSS-R data as David Berliner did as far back as 2001. Berliner said then, as he has since with the data from 2009, that the “critics were misreading those scores”.
“TIMSS-R confirms a point many of us have long believed,” Berliner wrote in 2001. “Not all our schools district should change. Despite the doomsayers, some of our schools are doing fine. The U. S. average masks the scores of students from terrific public schools and hides the scores of students attending shamefully inadequate schools.”
“The moral is clear,” Berliner is decisive. “Average scores mislead completely in a country as heterogeneous as ours. We have many excellent public schools, and many that are not nearly as good. Those who want to undermine our public schools often condemn the whole system rather than face the inequities within it. They should focus their attention instead on rescuing the underfunded and ill-equipped schools that are failing children in our poorest neighborhoods.”
The bottom line is that there is a bifurcation of the US data in the international league tables, and the indisputable problem is the high rate of poverty and gross inequality that needs to be fixed.
To ensure that Bruni has the most recent data I would point him in the direction of the results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which were released on December 3, 2013. These latest PISA test results add to previous extensive evidence that extreme inequality in the US is the most damaging factor impacting the educational achievement of US students.
“Get the data,” I would tell Bruni. “And do your own research.”
To get him started I’d suggest he take a look at Commissioner Jack Buckley’s Briefing Slides, which were attached to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) December 3, 2013 “NCES Statement on PISA 2012”, that presents the PISA data without any political spin. I would also make sure that he knows that OECD is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and that ESCS stands for Economic, Social and Cultural Status.
“The ESCS is a critical factor in any analysis of US students,” I would explain, “because of the extreme inequality that we tolerate in America.”
With a little digging Bruni would find that US fifteen year old students in the high poverty group, who were in bottom quarter on the OECD scale of ESCS, had low scores in math, science and reading. Thus we can state that US students who are the recipients of America’s extreme inequality in the US scored significantly below the US and OECD average scores. Furthermore, these US students, who are deprived of the fundamental right to a public education comparable with US students in well funded school districts, had scores comparable to students in high poverty countries such as Kazakhstan, Romania and Cyprus.
In contrast, US fifteen year old students in the top quarter on the OECD ESCS scale had average scores that would rank around second in reading, fourth in math, and ninth in science when compared to the worldwide country averages. The “score gaps” between the top and bottom quarter ESCS groups of US fifteen year olds were found to be significant in all three areas – math, science and reading.
It is also important to note that three US states, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida opted to have the PISA tests administered to additional students so that they could receive their own ratings. The analysis of the disaggregated data revealed that Massachusetts and Connecticut students achieved outstanding results on a worldwide basis in reading and science and solid scores in math. However, Florida students scored significantly lower in math and science than the US average and only average in reading. This is critical data for Bruni to consider, given that Florida, which has higher rates of poverty, has also been a leader of the educational reform movement that has lead to the establishment of the Common Core.
Could it be that the Common Core is now a critical factor in what Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stated is “a picture of education stagnation”?
Whatever the argument that is presented by policy makers and pundits, US policy makers can no longer state that the current educational reforms are “evidence based”. To the contrary, there is overwhelming scientific evidence that they are not.
Helen Ladd states that current educational reforms “have the potential to do serious harm” in her presidential address, Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence, to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM), November, 2011. Ladd writes, “Because these policy initiatives do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, they have contributed little – and are not likely to contribute much in the future – to raising overall students achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students”.
At my meeting with Bruni I would urge him to reconsider his opinion based on the evidence. I would encourage him to read the Rice-Klein report and to take seriously the three M’s – the politically sanctioned monetization, marketization and militarization of public education.
I would suggest that he juxtapose this documentation with the research presented by Wilkinson and Pickett, and ask himself why it is that children in the US are a negative statistical outlier on every international comparative analysis of health, well-being, and academic development. If he needs more evidence of the depth of the problem, I would add one more data set for him to study, the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research.
I would put it to him that the situation is very grave indeed, that we are in the middle of a national emergency, and that the people who are speaking up have been so disenfranchised that no public official or newspaper reporter is listening to them.
I would tell him I stand with the father of the eight year old who spoke up. His son isn’t “bubble wrapped”, he is “fill-in-the-bubble trapped”. I stand with all the teachers and parents in Poughkeepsie who were brave enough to stand up to John King, even though they knew he would denigrate them, as he did.
I stand against the real negative outliers, who are the architects of the Common Core, the policy makers who have mandated it, and the multinational corporations who profit from it.
I stand for a new government mandate that no child shall come to school hungry, that every child shall have a bed to sleep on at night and a place to call “home”, that no child shall be left behind riding the subways or buses at night or sleeping in hospital emergency waiting rooms, as they do in New York City, and that no child shall be called “human capital” in any official report on educational reform and national security, as they are in the Rice-Klein report.
If America’s children are not safe then how can the nation be safe?
I stand with the social worker who testified that elementary school children are distressed to the point of having suicidal thoughts and who reported that children are self mutilating. I stand with the principals, teachers, and parents who are vocal in this struggle, with the Save Our Schools Movement, and with the OPT Out Movement. I stand with the teachers in Garfield High School in Seattle who refused to test the children in their school. .
I stand for a cessation of the developmentally inappropriate testing of young children, and for no tests to be administered before fourth grade. I stand for school districts to be allowed to reallocate the vast amounts of money they are presently forced to spend on testing so the money can be a funding source for developmentally appropriate curricular practices to ensure the health and well being of children as well as their academic development.
I stand for a nationwide emergency relief effort for children in high poverty schools, including a first response mobilization of the public to fill the classrooms of children who are poor with children’s books and all other essential school supplies.
Our schools should be filled with children who are not hungry, who are not among the most anxious children in the world, who participate in learning activities enhanced by technology, who conduct science experiments, participate in math projects, play musical instruments in bands and orchestras, sing in choirs, collaborate in art projects, actively engage in reading fiction and nonfiction paper and virtual books, and write on paper and tablets.
This is what it will take to nurture children’s imagination and creativity and enhance their scholarship, nothing less.
School can be and often is hard work, but it does not have to be “mirthless”, as Bruni would have us believe. Learning is quite literally and metaphorically about minds and hearts, and it can actually be joyful.
Let’s hope Bruni stands up for the nation’s children, and that the New York Times rethinks the editorial stance the newspaper has taken on public education, and does some investigative reporting first, to uncover why the scientific evidence is being obfuscated, and second, why the national emergency that is currently taking place in America’s public schools is not being reported.
PostscriptThe street art on the Garn Press Website accompanying this response to Frank Bruni is a line from Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake:
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.