I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Dumb Things White People Say About Schools: Frank Bruni

Let me start by apologizing to Tom Friedman. You see, for years I've thought that the Mustache of Understanding was the silliest, most wankeriffic pontificator within in the NY Times's Op-Ed Page hierarchy of mandarins. But it's clear to me now I was completely wrong. The proof?

Frank Bruni's latest column, in which he jumps into the pool of education policy unencumbered by the water wings of knowledge [all emphases mine]:
AT a middle school near Boston not long ago, teachers and administrators noticed that children would frequently return from a classmate’s weekend bar mitzvah with commemorative T-shirts, swag that advertised a party to which many fellow students hadn’t been invited. 
So administrators moved to ban the clothing. 
They explained, in a letter to parents, that “while the students wearing the labeled clothing are all chatting excitedly,” the students without it “tend to walk by, trying not to take notice.” What an ordeal. 
Many parents favored the ban, a prophylactic against disappointment. 
Some did not, noting that life would soon enough deal the kids much worse blows along these lines. And one observer, in a Facebook thread, said this, according to a local TV station’s report: “Perhaps they should dress the children in Bubble Wrap and tie mattresses to their backs so they don’t get hurt.”
OK, stop right there.

Frank, you write for the freakin' New York Times. The most-respected (at least at one time) newspaper in the country. The paper of record. You are a full-time, well-compensated journalist writing in the Sunday Review section, perhaps the most influential piece of real estate in print media today. You want to start your op-ed with a little anecdote? Fine.

But the only original work you did to present an illustrative example of your thesis was to watch a local TV station report on a two-year old story that was mentioned in a Facebook thread?! Did you even roll out of bed for this? Or did you do your research in the time you had between shaving and brushing your teeth?

Oh, I'm being petty, am I? Well, let's see how hard Bruni worked on the rest of his little screed. Let's check which "experts" Bruni decided to interview. Let's see who would back up his contention that today's kids are a bunching of coddled, mewling brats:
“Our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess,” wrote Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Education Week. “They don’t expect to spend much time studying, but they confidently expect good grades and marketable degrees.”
David Coleman, one of the principal architects of the Common Core, told me that he’s all for self-esteem, but that rigorous standards “redefine self-esteem as something achieved through hard work.”
“Students will not enjoy every step of it,” he added. But if it takes them somewhere big and real, they’ll discover a satisfaction that redeems the sweat.
And they’ll be ready to compete globally, an ability that too much worry over their egos could hinder. As Tucker observed, “While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”
I swear that's it - those are apparently the only two vaunted child development "experts" Bruni could manage to get to reply to his emails. Oh, sorry - he didn't even interview Tucker; Bruni just quotes him from a piece in EdWeek where Tucker makes a whole bunch of assertions about how American kids suck without any citations or links to sources. (Go ahead, follow the link and read Tucker, then tell me where he cites anyone on his contention that "our colleges are providing fewer and fewer hours of instruction with every passing year and students are spending less and less time studying. But they still get the same degrees." I dare you.)

The one guy Bruni managed to actually get on the phone is the foul-mouthed David Coleman, whose official biography shows he spent no time working with children as a professional educator, psychologist, therapist, or cognitive development researcher. In other words: after declaring that America's children need to toughen up, the only guy Frank Bruni bothered to interview to back up his theory is a man who is completely unqualified to offer an opinion.

Bob Somerby's been on this for years: the vast majority of our punditocracy will swear up and down that education is so bloody important...  but when you read their work on the topic, it's obvious that they really couldn't give a flying fig about it. That the NY Times put this lazy, indifferent, who-gives-a-s@#% piece of fluff in its most influential space speaks volumes.

As to Bruni and the Common Core:
If children are unraveling to this extent, it’s a grave problem. But before we beat a hasty retreat from potentially crucial education reforms, 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 and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.
Contempt for parents: always a winning rhetorical device...
There are sports teams and leagues in which no kid is allowed too much more playing time than another and in which excessive victory margins are outlawed. Losing is looked upon as pure trauma, to be doled out gingerly. After one Texas high school football team beat another last month by a lopsided score of 91-0, the parent of a losing player filed a formal complaint of bullying against the winning team’s coach.
It used to be that trophies went to victors; now, in many leagues, they go to everybody — for participation. Some teams no longer have one or two captains, elected by the other players, but a rotating cast, so that nobody’s left out.
Some high schools have 10, 20 or 30 valedictorians, along with bloated honor rolls and a surfeit of graduation prizes. Many kids at all grade levels are Bubble-Wrapped in a culture that praises effort nearly as much as it does accomplishment.
Frank, allow me explain this to you - slowly:

Sports teams and honor rolls are about competition: someone wins, and someone loses. We can talk about the appropriate age to introduce this concept, but there is no question that children, by the time they reach high school, all feel the pressure of competition: in academics, in college admissions, in sports, in the arts, and in every other aspect of their lives. I'm pretty sure there is no high school football league in America were everyone gets a trophy. (And beating a team 91-0 is very bad form, even in the NCAA - that coach should have been sanctioned by the state governing sports body for unsportsmanlike conduct.)

But competition between students should have nothing to do with standards-based education. The entire point of standards is that they are supposed to be a baseline: they are supposed to be what we want most, if not all, of our students to be able to do.

I've not written much about the Common Core because - unlike Bruni or Coleman - I actually know my limitations. I don't know if the CCSS for math and language arts are developmentally appropriate: I do know many people who work with kids have problems with the standards, and that the people who are experts in these things were left out of the development of the Common Core. The fact that the process was run by a guy like Coleman, who is clearly unqualified for the job, ought to give us all pause as we rush ahead to implement tests based on CCSS that have high-stakes consequences, all premised on the useless and phony metric of "college and career readiness."

The real question, then, is whether CCSS is developmentally appropriate: does it set standards that we can reasonably expect most students to meet? Because it's really easy to jack the bar way up high: hell, why not just say all 7th graders should be able to do differential calculus? Some undoubtedly will be able to, so why not everyone? The answer is obvious: because that would be inappropriate.

Are the CCSS age-appropriate? Again, I'm not the guy to say, although I don't see how a standard can possibly be reasonable if so many kids can't meet it. So we can debate this - but that's not what Bruni is doing here. Instead, he uses cocktail party stories to say kids are afraid of competition, and that's what's keeping standards low. Which is not only an ignorant argument - it's also incredibly lazy. How hard is it to find a child development expert to talk to? How hard is it to get a teacher on the line?

But such is our punditocracy when it comes to just about anything having to do with kids. As Diane Ravitch says:

His [Bruni's] latest effort was a strident defense of the Common Core standards and tests, in which he made fun of the parents who spoke out against the overuse and misuse of standardized testing. His thesis was that American kids are “too coddled.”

Surely, he was not referring to the majority of public school students in the south and the west who–according to the Southern Education Fund–live in poverty. Are they coddled?

Does he know that in New York State, only 3% of English learners passed the tests; only 5% of students with disabilities; only 15-18% of black and Hispanic students? What will we do with these students if large numbers fail these “rigorous” tests in the future? Surely they won’t be coddled.
Here's a little exercise: plug "bruni poverty children site:nytimes.com" into Google and see what comes up. How much time has Frank Bruni spent on the topic? Has he informed his readers that America's "coddled" children live in a country that has the highest poverty rate for kids in the world (Romania is not a developed country)? Where more than 12 million children live with food insecurity? And where even children who are well-cared for are facing stress and pressures never seen in the post-WWII middle class?

When Frank Bruni has done the work, he can sneer at America's children and parents about how they need to toughen up. Until that day comes, however, keep in mind that Frank Bruni's job, before he decided to become America's drill sergeant, was to eat at fancy restaurants. Talk about extreme pressure! But somehow, Frank soldiered on through this adversity and is a better man for it.

If only America's "coddled" children had his grit...

Next White Person Who Says Dumb Things About Schools: you-know-who...
Standby for Arne...


Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene said...

"unencumbered by the water wings of knowledge" It's turns of phrase like this, that remind me why you're one of my favorite writers! It's precisely the kind of stylistic flourish that David Coleman will stomp out with CCSS' subordination of literature.

Duke said...

You made my day, Robert! Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Ian Berger said...

Yeah, I read that column and said to myself “WFT? This guy doesn't know *anything*!” How is this guy allowed to spout off such ignorance?

Ian Berger said...

I mean “WTF?” Stupid fingers of mine!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Skeels: You had me at "water wings."

My children are statistically insignificant at their 80% Title I, 97% Hispanic and black middle school. Their classmates need pencils and erasers and uniforms. Yet when I advocate for them at the LA Board of Ed, I am perceived as a white suburban mom with no understanding of the "civil rights issue of our time." Now, thanks to Bruni, those misperceptions are codified.

Unknown said...

Frank Bruni seems to exist beyond the world of 'consequences' or accountability. It does not matter that he will either read your post of deign to compose a response.

You wrote what need to be written.

Thanks you.

Scott McLeod said...

Smoked salmon bruschetta:

Farro salad and straciatella:

But it's our kids, not Frank Bruni, who are coddled...

clyde gaw said...

Too funny! Frank Bruni caught with his pants down!

Unknown said...

Bruni was somewhat interesting and mildly entertaining when he first started his op-ed column. However, this common core rant is typifies his more recent writing. Since when is whining about the supposed whining of others a worthwhile read.

Unknown said...

Best moment of every one life which is school life School Sports Team Pictures

Douglas Green said...

Excellent work. It seemed a bit long but it sucked my in. I'm only sorry I just discovered you. I'm posting a link to this today at http://DrDougGreen.Com and look forward to more.