The tears and screaming come during math homework.
Math homework is not what it used to be. It’s much harder, even at the elementary school level. The Common Core curriculum has arrived in the Blue Valley district, and despair has arrived at our kitchen table.
The despair isn’t my son’s, though. He’s unconcerned about achievement of any kind. Points and grades and smiley faces and gold stars mean nothing to him. The tears and the screaming, I am not proud to say, are mine. Because Iam
concerned about achievement, especially his. And because the Common Core worksheets remind me every night of how utterly incompetent I am in math.
I’m also incompetent in teaching. It requires far more patience and insight than I’ll ever have, which is why I want to scream not only at my son and at myself, but at people who think teachers have an easy job. The only easy part of teaching is the part when school isn’t in session.
To be honest, I want to scream at lots of things these days. I want to scream at state legislators who think they know more than classroom teachers when it comes to helping children like my son. I want to scream at school districts that pour money into programs for highly advanced students — who we all know will do just fine no matter what — but don’t have programs in which those students spend time teaching social and academic skills to children like mine. The special-ed teachers are wonderful, but they’re underfunded and overworked, and they can’t provide what many kids need most of all: friends.
The allotment of funding at the district level often reminds me of the American economy: The academically rich get richer. The academically poor get distraught mothers who are completely flummoxed by fourth-grade math.
What I don’t want to scream at is the Common Core standards themselves. The U.S. is far behind much of the developed world in elementary and secondary education, especially in the fields most important to the 21st-century tech-centric economy. As a whole, American children need a tougher curriculum. Expectations for what U.S. high school graduates should know are much higher now than when I was a teen, but apparently they’re still nowhere near the expectations in other developed nations. I couldn’t graduate from a U.S. high school under today’s math and science standards — even before you factor in Common Core. Any reasonably competent primary school student in Japan or South Korea could outscore me easily.
But the painful truth for many of us is that tougher standards won’t make much difference. I’m a realist, not one of those mothers who thinks her child is brilliant despite all evidence to the contrary. My son can be sweet and funny and outgoing, and he has an unbelievably good memory and a talent for art, but it’s likely that he’ll always struggle academically. There are days that I can accept that gracefully, and there are days that I cannot.
And so, while the world’s gifted students march across stages to accept their grant money and awards and college scholarships, my husband and I struggle to light a spark of academic enthusiasm — or, failing that, simply comprehension — in our son.
We don’t spend time wondering when the national policy uproars and the state funding debates will finally fade into irrelevancy for us, because we already know: When we’re sitting at a kitchen table in Kansas and the tears begin to flow.