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John Kuhn: Our Kids -- Coddled or Confident?

Guest post by John Kuhn.
 
Frank Bruni recently wrote an article for the New York Times in which he argued that American children are coddled. In related news, Frank Bruni apparently doesn't know any poor children.

I'm not as upset about the Bruni column as many of my friends because he's right about a subset of American kids. We do have coddled children. But we also have hungry children. Bruni comes off as strangely uncurious and out-of-touch with the realities of that tiny sliver of America that isn't Manhattan. He wrote the column primarily to advocate for the Common Core State Standards, a collection of nationally-adopted learning expectations adopted by a coalition of state leaders who had been incentivized to do so by Washington, D.C., in a pretty brazen gambit to sidestep laws prohibiting the US Department of Education from exercising "any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum."

Bruni, like the Department of Ed., feels that high-quality, nationally-shared minimum learning standards will improve our students' outcomes on standardized tests. He's probably right about that. The nations that do the best on tests like PISA tend to all have national standards. They also don't have our history--we started our government with Articles of Confederation precisely because our forebears were so nervous about an abusive federal executive, and then later we had this thing called the Civil War--so a set of federal standards was probably a little easier for Finland or Japan to implement.
 
But Bruni is probably right that high-quality national standards would help us improve our students' performance on the PISA test. I only have one question.

Is that our goal?

Is improved performance on the PISA test what we most want for American students?

I only ask that because of three things. First, during the PISA Day scores release Super Bowl extrava-palooza, Amanda Ripley asked some international students a bunch of questions and one of the students offered up an interesting tidbit about the role of sports in American schools. I think it was the girl from Brazil, and if I remember right what she implied was that having sports in American schools is good, in her opinion, because it gives kids confidence. I happen to agree with this idea. Students can demonstrate grit on a gridiron, not just on a Scantron.
 
Second, the PISA data showed clearly that American students are way more confident than they should be. They express more confidence than most students in the world regarding their math skills, even though their actual math performance is middling.

This second point is great fodder for the enthusiastic ridicule of American education, driven usually by smug American pundits. (People from Singapore and Shanghai are too polite to ridicule us, but we don't mind tearing our own team down). The joke is this, "Oh look at what 'the cult of self-esteem' has done to our children. We've patted them on the head so much that they all think they're good at math. But they're actually stupid. Ha ha."

Or something like that.

But I come at this confidence thing from a different, more generous angle. I think our kids' giant confidence is a strength, and I think that measure says something powerfully good about us as a people. What I noticed in high school (and since) is that when I'm confident in a given arena, I'm willing to take risks and 'go for it'. I'm a beast when I'm confident (though not necessarily at math). But when my confidence is shaken, I'm not worth a darn. I've given speeches I felt confident about in front of thousands of people, and they went over really well. I've also led small meetings of dozens of people where I was ill-prepared and totally lacked confidence, and my presentation was an unmitigated awkward disaster. In short, confidence is not some fluff thing--it makes a difference in real outcomes. It might even make a bigger difference in major outcomes like a nation's economic productivity than math ability, truth be told.

So that brings me to my third point, one raised repeatedly by Diane Ravitch. American kids have always done poorly on international tests, and yet they've always then grown up and dominated the world with their entrepreneurial spirit, openness to new ideas and technologies, and inventiveness. Doing poorly on international exams has served America well over the years.
 
Are American students merely coddled, or are they instead aptly confident? Perhaps instead of being hobbled by a mathematical deficit, our kids are instead empowered by a superabundance of hopeful freedom that allows them to dare big things. A child who is not allowed to fail becomes an adult who is afraid to try. I posit that, unchecked, our test-and-punish craze will hurt America's trial-and-error economy.

Is this trait of American children--a confidence the pundits believe is unmerited--a harbinger of doom, or is it a sign of great future accomplishment? Here's a fact that no one on either side wants to admit is indeed a fact: the jury is out. We don't know. Maybe the test-fretters are absolutely right and we're economically doomed if we don't get better PISA scores. Hanushek's curse may yet befall us. (When have the economists ever been wrong?) Or maybe this one time they're completely dead wrong and getting the highest PISA scores on the planet will kill something more valuable that lives in our kids today and in turn make them (and our nation) worse off than before.
 
What do you think? Are American children coddled or confident? 
 
John Kuhn is superintendent of schools in the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District, in the state of Texas. 
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