Star Wars vs NASA: The importance of the universe of a child’s imagination

This essay first appeared in The Washington Post.

Last month, my family embarked on a day trip to Kennedy Space Center. Since our house is currently experiencing somewhat of a Star Wars craze, our trip coincided with a week filled with Lightsaber battles, Starship Lego creations, and Crayola pictures depicting life from alternate universes. While my oldest child had no trouble differentiating the realities of our day trip to the Space Center from the imaginary world in the Star Wars movies, the task wasn’t easy for my younger children. After we watched the IMAX movie, Journey to Space, I did my best to explain the differences, but my efforts were lost on them. They stared at me with wide eyes glaring, shoulders back, and their jaws dropped low. I bought them Popsicles and decided not to push the issue.

Over the next two weeks, the kids asked many questions, trying to understand how space and interplanetary travel were real, but that Star Wars, Luke, and Darth Vader were only pretend characters in a movie. I think they now understand as much as they are developmentally able to process. And after our first awkward conversations, the kids seem fine with my short explanations.

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I really struggled to find the right words to help my kids differentiate fact from fiction during this process. This difficulty has led me to the following question: What is the role of imagination in child development, and how can I best help my children navigate between the pretend worlds that make up most of their imaginative lives, and the real worlds they must traverse each day?

Discussing the issue of imagination with the Wall Street Journal, Paul Harris, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education explained “there is evidence that imagination and role play appears to have a key role in helping children take someone else’s perspective.” These experiences give them practical experience to learn how to process social cues. Playing pretend, it turns out, helps children navigate through reality as well.

The Star Wars series is not unique in that within its story, parents have an opportunity to teach children valuable lessons. For our family, we’ve enjoyed the depth of discussions that seem to take the story line past the actual plot and towards conversations centered at the deeper issues contained in the films. These conversations have made their way past the imaginary world depicted in the movie and into our day to day lives. For example, some of Yoda’s words are fantastic to help kids visualize smart choices. My current favorite is an old Yoda quote from The Empire Strikes Back. In that movie, Yoda smartly reminds young Luke, “You will know the good from the bad when you are calm.”

The conversations in our home still often center around imaginary Starships and follow almost instantaneously by dreams of one day traveling to the moon. I’ve assisted in building my fair share of Lego battle fleets and I am getting quite good at drawing Darth Vader. I still can’t fully explain the nuanced differences between space travel in Star Wars and the awesomeness of NASA rockets. But I can help my children by asking questions and helping them seek out the truth themselves. In the great words of Yoda, “Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.”

Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. She is also a lifestyle photographer and a mom. Follow Stacey on Twitter @sgsteinberg or view Stacey’s photography on Facebook.

How to parent against rape culture (for one thing, start young)

co authored by Dr. Jennifer Sager, Ph.D.

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This post was first published in The Washington Post.

In the news, we’ve recently been bombarded with outrageous examples of male dominance, sexual control and coercion, and the objectification of women in very public forums. For example, a fraternity was recently suspended in Virginia after hanging a sign off their front porch that read, “Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time.”

On Facebook, an accused rapist wrote, “women are not people god just put them here for mans entertainment [sic].”

And Bill Cosby nonchalantly discussed his abuse of women in an interview surrounding his recent sex abuse scandal.

Rape Culture is a term coined to explain the very public and often pervasive attitudes in society that highlight coercion and control as central to a culture where sexual objectification exists. And while many parents discuss with older children and teens how to improve their safety in this culture, families are often silent about these issues during the early stages of childhood development. Yet it is during this crucial period that parents can give children the most effective tools to recognize these high risk attitudes in society.

By incorporating the following lessons into daily life, parents can empower their children to understand and regulate their emotions, responses, and reactions, and can teach their children to appreciate these same feelings in others.

1. Teach children that all emotions are important and should be respected. Children must be allowed to cry, to sulk, and to be disappointed. When we rescue children rapidly (with promises of candy or another present), we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to accept these feelings. By doing so, we also demonstrate that we, as the parents, are uncomfortable with our natural range of emotions.

2. When you say no, mean it and don’t backtrack. It’s well documented that inconsistent parenting can exacerbate a child’s behavior problems, but it also means the child does not develop the self-soothing skills needed to accept disappointment. In that same vein, allow your child to occasionally say no, and in those instances, allow your child to stand firm. When a younger child wants to play a game with her sister and the sister wants to play alone, it is tempting to require the older child to share with her younger sibling. But by doing so consistently, this teaches the older child that she needs to change her mind and ignore her own needs as she instead focuses on pleasing someone else. This also misses an opportunity to teach the younger child how to cope when things don’t go her way.

3. Allow children to backtrack. And when you backtrack (as parents inevitably will do), use it as a learning opportunity to teach children that we all have the right to change our minds. It may sound counter-intuitive, but think about it. Imagine packing everything up in the car, finally paying and getting into the ice skating rink, lacing up the skates, and hearing your child say “I don’t want to skate.” Our initial thought would probably be to feel exasperated. We might reasonably think, “I took all this time to get us here. You begged to come here! I paid for your skates. Last time you enjoyed it.” But 10 years from now, as parents, we hope that our daughter’s date respects her feelings if she changes her mind about sexual activity. If your child changes his or her mind about something, respect your child’s instincts and encourage your child to talk about these thoughts and feelings. In the end, your instruction as the parent must prevail, but use these scenarios as opportunities to foster your child’s intuition and to teach your child how to appropriately be heard and respected.

4. Recognize sexual objectification. Do not engage in body shaming. Learn to recognize instances when advertising makes a woman’s (or man’s) body into an object. Discuss this reality with your children and encourage them to think about people’s thoughts and feelings when they see images in the media and other outlets.

There is no way to inoculate our children from becoming victims or perpetrators of rape. But parents can help their children recognize and avoid the erroneous and harmful attitudes surrounding sex, power, control, and coercion. Teach children to respect their bodies, instincts, and emotions. At the same time, give them tools to recognize and respect the same thing in others. Perhaps by doing so, we can shift the dialog and begin to create a culture that fosters healthy boundaries and ends all forms sexual violence.

School Discipline: Standing Up for All Children in the Public School System

Two kindergartners were sent to the principal’s office during their second week of school. One hit a little girl after she refused to share a toy. The other smacked a little boy after he cut to the front in the lunch line.

At the principal’s office, each child was asked what happened in their respective confrontations. Both admitted they used their hands, and both knew they were in the wrong. As would happen in many American schools, both boys were issued two-day suspensions.

One child, Bobby, had been removed from his parents’ care and lived with a foster family. The other child, Sam, lived with his parents, both college educated and involved at the school.

That evening, Bobby received a brief lecture from his foster mother. He was sent to his room early, and the next morning he spent the day at his social worker’s office, watching television and playing video games, as his foster mother could not take off work to stay home with him. A week after the incident, Bobby’s regular social worker received an official letter from the school board, notifying her that Bobby’s suspension was now a part of his educational record. Next year, his new teacher would learn of the incident before even meeting Bobby. If Bobby one day applied to a magnet program, the admissions committee would not only consider his grades but would also review his disciplinary record.

Sam’s parents also took a stern tone with him that night, refused his request for dessert and sent him to bed early. Later that evening, their anger shifted away from their son, and they became outraged at the school’s disciplinary policy.

How could a kindergartner, yet to have taken a spelling test or bring home a report card, now have a permanent disciplinary record?

How could a school system create a policy that sets young children up to face such serious consequences for developmentally normal early childhood behaviors?

The next morning, Sam’s father made an appointment to speak with the school’s principal. At the meeting, he acknowledged that his son was in the wrong. Sam’s father suggested other options, like not letting Sam attend the school’s ice cream social, asking that Sam meet with the guidance counselor, or requiring his son to stay inside during recess for a few days. The principal agreed to the father’s request. She decided to change Sam’s punishment. The principal tore up the suspension paperwork and instead required Sam to miss a week’s worth of recess and to meet with the guidance counselor during his classroom’s monthly ice cream party.

A young school boy is standing with a book bag and looking at school buses in the background.

Because of his father’s intervention, Sam no longer had a disciplinary record. His first grade teacher would never hear of the incident. If Sam applied to a magnet program, it would be as if it never even happened.

The dichotomy of Sam’s time-out and counseling compared to Bobby’s suspension and permanent record might seem appalling, but these sorts of inequities occur in schools across the country every day. Clearly, Sam benefited from his parents having the skills, time, and motivation to challenge the status quo. But not all children have the benefit of confident, involved parents to help them navigate in the public school system.

Generally, parental involvement in a child’s school life decreases behavioral problems and enhances student achievement. While children living with family members may benefit from their support, children in foster care are at a significant disadvantage due to the transitional nature of foster care and the large caseloads of social workers. In addition to the difficulties foster care workers confront, researchers at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that, “foster parents and child welfare caseworkers alike often do not feel empowered or times are not available to advocate for a child to be reinstated in school or receive necessary services.”

While one might be quick to point the finger at Sam’s father for “giving him an easy way out,” it could be argued that a five-year-old is more likely to feel the weight of a missed ice cream party than a day home from school. Unlike suspensions, which do little to stop repeated episodes of misbehavior, effective behavioral modifications reduce referrals to administrator offices which benefits a child’s academic performance. Though a child might not mind missing a day of school, research shows that suspending children actually has lasting, harmful effects.

Early childhood is a time for children to develop their social skills and gain respect for the educational process. Frustrating this process, suspension stigmatizes a child and “may also delay or interfere with the process of identifying and addressing underlying issues, which may include disabilities or mental health issues.” Unlike counseling or the disappointment of missing recess, suspension does little to address the underlying problematic behavior, like hitting another child in response to a stressful situation.

Many organizations are stepping up efforts to help foster children succeed in school. Volunteer Guardian ad Litems and Court Appointed Special Advocates speak on behalf of children both in court and in the school system. Many states have created laws allowing for the appointment of special educational surrogates to represent foster children and other at-risk youth. Similarly, some school districts train community members to serve as both mentors and advocates for all at-risk students.

These are great bandages to solve the problem of inequity in our school systems, but the permanent solution must lie in changing the landscape of school discipline in public education. Sam’s father wasn’t wrong in advocating on behalf of his son. As a parent and child welfare attorney, I also advocate for my own children (both biological and court appointed) in the same individualized manner. However, I recognize that true change will come not as the result of advocacy for the select few. Perhaps we can all resolve to not only look out for our own when faced with an antiquated or unfair policy but instead take these opportunities to engage policymakers in a meaningful discussion that could improve the lives of all children in our public school system.

This essay first appeared on the Huffington Post on September 3, 2015.

Parenting in the Facebook Age: Should We Rethink How We Share?

This essay was first published on the Washington Post.

As parents, we often question how parenting in the age of social media affects us. We worry that by constantly posting status updates, we aren’t living in the moment. We are warned not to compare ourselves to other parents in our news feed. I’m starting to wonder if we’ve been focusing too much on the impact social media has on our own lives and maybe we should focus instead on how social media affects the lives of our children.

Should we allow our children some control over their digital footprint?

As a children’s rights advocate, photographer and mom, this question haunts me. I bring it up when discussing child rearing with friends and family. I casually slide it into conversations with child welfare and constitutional law experts. I am fascinated by debates centered at the intersection of parent/child rights, an issue that is not limited to social media and online sharing. The law has tried to balance the competing interests of parents and their children for generations.

Where does a parent’s right to control the upbringing of the child end and a child’s right to some semblance of a private life begin?

As a mother, I am guilty of at times over-sharing even the most mundane of parenting experiences. My oldest son was born just a year before I signed up for my Facebook account. His life has been the highlight reel of my news feed and my news feed contains more milestones than I’ve written about in his baby book. My son’s images plaster the walls of my virtual cloud, a place he is only beginning to know even exists. But as my son enters an age where he can express an opinion about his digital footprint, I am starting to think about these issues a little deeper. Armed with a law degree and a passion for juvenile law, I can’t help but wonder if my social media habits will one day be outlined in legal casebooks and social science research.

HIPPA prohibits medical professionals from sharing personal information about patients without written consent. FERPA requires teachers and administrators to protect the privacy of a student’s educational records. Delinquency statutes protect some juvenile records from public disclosure. Societal norms encourage us to use restraint before publicly sharing personal information about our friends and family. But nothing stops a parent from sharing their children’s embarrassing or private stories with the virtual world.

Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children grants children a right to privacy. The United States signed this document, but the U.S. is the only United Nations member country not to have ratified it. I am not saying that simply ratifying this document will (or should) grant a child control over their parent’s Facebook feed, but I wonder if we owe it to our children to think more about this issue.

Should we ask our older children for permission before posting their picture online? I recognize that children are unable to fully understand the consequences of over-sharing in the virtual world. As their parents, we have a responsibility to protect their online identity. When our children one day learn of the personal stories we’ve shared, will we find ourselves asking them for forgiveness?

As a photographer, I often feature families who have struggled through complex medical circumstances on my photography page. Recently, these stories were featured on The Huffington Post. I stand by my decision to publish thboyinfield (1 of 1)e images. These human experiences raise awareness for important social issues and help solicit funding for important medical research. When struggling families share openly, others similarly situated gain support and knowledge. Not only do families in similar circumstances benefit, but we all have the opportunity to deeply connect with one another and recognize the rich diversity in society.

In the 1800s, children were seen as the property of their parents. Since that time, we’ve learned so much about childhood development. Sometime between the birth of Facebook and the coming of age of my son, I’ve started thinking about myself as the protector of my children’s digital identity. I am still learning how to balance this role with my desire to share my own story.

Unlike parents of the future, I don’t have the benefit of research, data, or even case law to guide my decisions. This is the parenting issue of our generation and the conversation is only just beginning. As we think through these issues, perhaps we should invite our children to join in the discussion.

6 Things Great Dads Have Mastered

This essay was first published on the Washington Post.

I woke up this morning and watched the sun peek through the blinds. I realized my husband had already gotten out of bed. His familiar voice sang to our daughter, who was erupting in giggles down the hall. I took a deep breath and rolled over for just a few more moments of sleep. I knew I had a long day ahead of me, and I smiled at the beautiful sounds of fatherhood echoing from down the hall.

 Like almost 60% of American households, my husband and I both work outside the home. And while we both often feel stressed, rushed, and overwhelmed balancing home and work responsibilities, I am lucky we share in our family’s child rearing responsibilities. I’m not alone. Compared to 1965, fathers nationwide have almost tripled the amount of time they spend with their children. And the results of this quality time are evident in the research. Studies show that father-child contact decreases behavioral issues in children and increases a child’s cognitive well-being.
 
It’s not just the statistics that help me see the importance of the role of dads in family life. I see the benefits firsthand in my own home. In honor of Father’s Day, here are six things great dads have mastered.
 
1.      Great dads understand that caring for their children isn’t “babysitting.” It’s fatherhood. In fact, 46% of dads wish they could spend more time with their kids.
 
2.      Great dads respect their spouse’s contributions to the family. They recognize the value of both stay at home moms and working moms. Great dads also honor and encourage their significant other to achieve both their personal and professional goals.
 
3.      Great dads plan for the future. They prioritize saving for college over splurging on fast cars. They invest in bunk beds instead of motorcycles. Whenever possible, great dads consider the value of life insurance, retirement savings, and college funds. That said, great dads also see the value in family vacations and appreciate the pleasure of an occasional splurge.
 
4.      Great dads might not be able to attend every tea party, baseball game, and parent-teacher conference, but they know mom might not be able to attend every event either. Great dads are flexible and work with their spouse to share parental responsibilities.
 
5.      Great dads know that by being involved in their own children’s lives, their children are more likely to do the same for the next generation. University of Florida researchers Fogarty and Evans found that “fathers who recall a secure, loving relationship with both parents are more involved in the lives of their infants and more supportive to their wives.”
 
6.      Great dads don’t always live with their children’s mom, might parent with another great dad, and sometimes are single parents. Family structure doesn’t define a great dad. Being a loving, supportive, and involved father makes a dad great.
 
Thank you to all the fathers who get up early, go to bed late, and fill their days dancing to the beautiful beat of parenthood.

6 Tools to Help Protect Children from Sexual Abuse

Co-authored by Jennifer Sager, Ph.D.

Child welfare professionals were not surprised to learn that sexual abuse occurred in the Duggar home. With nineteen children (and counting), the odds suggested that at least a fifth of the children in the home would experience sexual abuse in their lifetime. The first sign of sexual abuse was a tragic occurrence. The multiple acts that followed were an outrage, and likely, those multiple acts could have been stopped
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When we (Stacey Steinberg, J.D. and Jennifer Sager, Ph.D.) introduce ourselves to teachers and other parents, questions about our careers and backgrounds often result in awkward pauses followed by intense conversation. As child advocates having working with both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, parents often ask us, “What can I do to keep my child safe?”

In light of the Duggar abuse scandal, protecting children from sexual abuse is on many parents’ minds. Avoiding all risk is unlikely, but there are steps parents can take to minimize their child’s risk of sexual abuse. These tools will also help children get help if victimization occurs.

    1. Accept that sexual abuse is prevalent. 1 in 662,000 children will become an Olympic athlete. 1 in 2,872 children will become a doctor. 1 out of every 4 girls and 1 out of every 6 boys will be sexually abused. Put down the STEM kit and stop obsessing about finding the perfect pair of running shoes. Realize that the best thing you can do to help your child succeed is prioritize his or her safety.
    2. Know that in about 93% of sexual abuse cases, the child knows the abuser. Stranger is not the real danger. The abuser is typically a family member, a babysitter, a coach, or a teacher. Although most of the abuse is done by men, females also sexually abuse. This is typically where parents get scared. “Who can I trust?” It’s important to evaluate everyone in your child’s life. And to continue to evaluate as time passes. There are some people who are attracted only to young children. There are some that will only be attracted once your child has hit puberty. Just because someone was safe, doesn’t mean they are always going to be safe.
    3. Name the body parts. Butt, vagina, vulva, penis. Using cute names tells children that those areas are funny and that you, as the parent, are uncomfortable talking about those parts of their body. Plus, it doesn’t help when a little girl tells her teacher “Uncle Johnny licked my cookie” when she means her vagina area. When we give a child proper vocabulary, we give her tools to get help when she needs it.
  1. Teach body awareness. When a child cries over a cut on his finger don’t say, “You are fine, don’t worry about it.” If we minimize his feelings, we teach the child that we know his body better than he does. Acknowledge his pain. When he cries, say, “that hurts, but it will get better.” Stop what you are doing and connect with the child, so that he knows you will listen when he needs you.
  2. Talk about body safety. When you are tickling your child and she says “stop,” stop. She might obviously want you to continue. She might even scoot her body over towards you. Say, “stop means stop. And no means no. When you are ready for me to tickle again, just ask.” Allow her to ask before continuing the tickling. This teaches a child that she is in control of her body.
  3. The last tip is a big one for us. Remove the word Secret from your child’s vocabulary. A Secret is something that is kept hidden forever. A Surprise is a gift or event, which is revealed at a certain time. It is always eventually told. Use words like Hidden, Mystery, Private, Surprise, Confidential, or Super Agent (instead of secret agent). There are no “good secrets” or “bad secrets.” Tell your children that families can have surprises, but no secrets.

The terrifying reality is that there isn’t a surefire way to protect your child from sexual abuse. Despite using all the tools, someone can still hurt your child. However, by being aware and talking to your child, you can help protect your child and decrease the risk of sexual abuse.

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To report child sexual abuse, call the National Child Sexual Abuse hotline at 1-866-FOR-LIGHT (866-367-5444) or for immediate help, dial 9-1-1.


The information contained in this article is for general knowledge and should not be a substitute for professional medical or legal advice.

These Illustrations Celebrate the Beauty of Parenthood

Naava Katz  is a mother and artist whose illustrations capture the “beauty in the details” of life as a new parent. Though she’s been drawing all her life, it wasn’t until after she had her children that she discovered a new love for illustrating the journey of parenthood.

Naava Katz - Hug
As new mothers, we are knee deep in the fields of finding that elusive “life balance”. There are so many tiny details that made up our day. Piled on top of one another, it can feel overwhelming. Moment to moment, it seems mundane. But as we tuck our children into bed and reflect on all we accomplished, all those details blend together to form a melody.

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To the Heroes Advocating on Behalf of Children

Dear Child Advocate,

I remember him as if we met yesterday. Johnny, not even six months old, sat on my lap and giggled as I finished getting together my court documents. I was a young attorney for Florida’s Department of Children and Families, learning how to navigate the complexities of child welfare. Johnny had bruises on his body, his runny nose had crusted over, and he was dirty. I wanted to drop everything and scrub away his despair.

Something in me changed that day.

Before becoming a law professor, before starting my photography business, before blogging, I had one “job” other than motherhood. I was a child welfare attorney, working alongside child advocates just like you. I worked with men and women who, on a daily basis, risked their own safety and sacrificed their own personal needs to protect abused and neglected children in my community. We worked as a team, but it was not until a social worker got sick and asked me to watch Johnny that I realized that while I led the fight in the courtroom, the real heroes led the fight on the ground.

The concerned citizen who calls in an abuse report. The social worker who brings a child to safety. The foster parent who answers phone calls in the middle of the night. The therapist who heals the broken heart. The doctor who fixes the broken bone. The nurse who provides nutrition to the neglected belly. The schoolteacher who provides continuity during a time of great upheaval. The volunteer who collects Christmas presents and advocates through philanthropic service. The adoptive parent who gives a child a forever home.

A social worker made the brave and necessary decision to remove Johnny from his parents earlier that morning. That evening, a foster mother would wash his tattered clothes. Tomorrow, a volunteer might agree to serve as his Guardian ad Litem.

I know caring for abused and neglected children is a thankless calling. Child welfare professionals only get attention when things go wrong. The day-to-day victories often go unnoticed.

Please remember that you change lives every single day. You see things most ‘regular people’ pretend don’t exist. You nurture broken hearts by day and fall asleep at night wishing only that you could have done more. You give everything you have to mend the pieces of shattered lives and then awaken the following morning to do it again and again.

Before going to court, I looked into Johnny’s big brown eyes. I felt the warmth of his skin and was touched by his beautiful gaze. He chewed on my suit jacket and smiled at me. And he broke my heart. Not just because his life was already harder than any I could imagine, and only in part because his future would likely be filled with challenges, but because I knew that as much as I wanted to save and protect Johnny, tomorrow another Johnny would need me, and I would have to shift my focus away from this precious life. I felt a weight on my shoulders and an ache in my heart. I gently placed Johnny on the blanket next to my desk and prepared his court documents.

That day, I provided comfort to Johnny. The following morning, I successfully advocated on his behalf. But by the following week, my focus shifted away from him. Another child needed my undivided attention. Johnny’s life was no longer in my hands.

My favorite author, Brian Andreas, whimsically says, “Anyone can slay a dragon…but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.” You are on the front lines slaying dragons every day. You go to bed each night like a warrior, and you wake up each morning ready to fight yet another battle.

Thank you for loving the world so much that you are willing to wake up tomorrow and protect yet another child, even at the expense of your own heartache. You are not only my hero, but you are a hero for all the Johnnys I’ve ever met.

With deepest respect and gratitude,
Stacey

This post was originally featured on The Huffington Post.

5 Truths About Parenting Generation Z

Born in the late seventies, I am either one of youngest members of Generation X or the very oldest of the Millennials. I entered my teenage years without an email account, and left for college without a cell phone. I had a beeper, and I remember the Gulf War. I was already an adult when the planes struck on 9/11, and dial-up internet was a thing of the past by the time I hit my junior year of college.

I’ve read a million parenting articles geared towards making sure our kids enjoy the perks we knew and loved during our coming of age, but what are the shared experiences that make up parenting a Generation Z kid? After consulting with parents and educators, I’ve created a list of five Generation Z truths I believe are universal.

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Set Up to Fail : High Stakes Testing in Public Schools

Imagine being a nine year old child. Picture yourself studying for a test, walking into class, feeling confident you prepared the best you could. How would you feel if after finishing the test you only understood half the questions? Would your confidence be shaken?

Over 1/3 of students failed Utah’s state required standardized assessment last year. Florida purchased questions for its standardized test (commonly called the “FSA”) from this seemingly flawed Utah test and many expect Florida will see similar results. Earlier this month, Florida legislators, recognizing the potential issues with the test, signed a bill promising not to hold back third graders who fail the FSA this year. However, elementary students had already walked away from testing a week earlier feeling inadequate and confused. High stakes testing sets a child up to fail.

Now picture yourself as a young schoolteacher. You are a recent graduate, excited to make a difference in the lives of young children. You want to work at a school close to your home, and, much to your surprise, that school is hiring! You apply and get the job. You familiarize yourself with the bonus and promotion structure and learn that financial incentives are closely tied to your students’ performance on standardized tests.

Even when a school employs hardworking teachers and has the support of parents and local business partners, some schools serve students that live in homes that fall below the poverty line. Research tells us that the number one indicator of how a child will perform on a standardized test is whether or not that child lives in poverty. Our flawed standardized testing model sets even the most talented teacher up to fail.

For a moment, walk in the shoes of a school administrator. You want to guide your teachers and provide a solid curriculum for the students enrolled in your district. However, states are purchasing required tests from large for-profit corporations. You are caught between trying to provide quality education to your students and maintaining the financial backing from the state to do so. Unfortunately, these goals are often mutually exclusive. High stakes testing sets up even the most altruistic school administrator up to fail.

Now take the perspective of a parent. You childproof your home. You vaccinate your child. You put your child in a car seat and you teach her the golden rule. After providing your child a foundation, you send her off to public school, dropping her off at the schoolhouse gate confident that the school system will be your key partner in her education. As the school’s partner, you plan to stay involved every step of the way.

But you soon find out that corporations, not teachers, created the tests your child will take.

You learn that the innovation and creativity you worked so diligently to harness during her first few years of life could be jeopardized by the “high-stakes” testing culture saturating her public school classroom.

You watch as important subjects like history, art, and music slowly drop from the curriculum as these subjects are not covered by the standardized test. 

You know your child needs an empathetic and patient teacher, yet you watch as teachers shift focus because of standardized testing standards. Assets like empathy and patience work against our best teachers who know their performance review will be based on how much and how quickly your child is able to learn.

Perhaps worst of all, your child takes her first standardized test and comes home reporting that she was required to sign a piece of paper promising not to talk to you about the test or the testing procedure itself.

High stakes testing sets parents up for failure, too.

This is the current climate of public education in our country. Students, teachers, and administrators know the system isn’t working. It’s not too late to fix it. Children desperately want to learn and succeed. Talented teachers are ready to provide comprehensive, engaging, and exciting lessons to their students. School administrators are eager to motivate and inspire their districts to use innovative and creative approaches in the classroom. Parents want to partner with their local public schools.

Teachers and administrators can’t fix the system alone. But parents and community members can help. “To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers. One who does not vote has no right to complain.”  Louis L’Amour

Get involved. Write to your state and national legislatures. Let’s change course and set students, teachers, administrators, and parents up for success.

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.

The views contained in this post are Stacey’s own and do not represent the views her employer.

 

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