When Being ‘For The Kids’ Really Isn’t

Jeff Bryant

Last week, NBC News reported about a school near St. Louis that conducted an “active shooter drill” in which campus law officers and teachers instruct high schoolers on what to do “when you get shot.”

“‘Close your fingers and keep ‘em in,’” they were told, because, “’When the bad guy and the police come through, they’ll step all over you, and who will be saying they’re sorry?”

“’Nobody!’ the students cry in unison.”

According to the article, drills like this one have become more commonplace in schools since “mass shootings, from Columbine to Sandy Hook to many in between.” More schools have also devised new forms of “the standard lockdown drill … programs teaching kids self-defense,” and “proposals to train teachers with firearms.”

For sure, parents and community leaders take these measures to assure themselves that they are doing what’s necessary “to keep kids safe.”

But, as the article painfully noted, what these schools are doing – ostensibly “for the kids” – doesn’t really seem to do much good.

“School shootings are indeed increasing, despite the proliferation of drills and heightened security measures,” the article noted. And there is ample evidence that these efforts to exhort school children to take more “responsibility” for their own safety when they’re being attacked by a deranged gunman is nothing but an excuse for adults who refuse to take responsibility for the real causes of armed violence.

Indeed, as gun safety advocates Moms Demand Action and Mayors Against Illegal Guns recently reported, “Of the K-12 school shootings in which the shooter’s age was known, 70 percent (20 of 28 incidents) were perpetrated by minors,” three-quarters of whom “obtained their guns from home. In 16 cases – more than a third of all incidents – at least one person was shot after a schoolyard argument or confrontation escalated and a gun was at hand.”

So those two things – proximity to guns, and the mental states young people in our country are too often inflicted with – seem to be the issues to address. But apparently that’s too difficult. And what we have instead is “responsibility-shifting” from the adults in charge to the least capable in our society – our children.

“It is what it is,” goes the mantra of the day, and young people just have to learn to bear with it and “keep ‘em in,” because if you get stepped on, nobody “will be saying they’re sorry.”

The demands we’ve chosen to impose on our youngest citizens today – to cultivate “grit” and make every potential pitfall in life a matter of personal responsibility rather than a societal condition – are not confined to security.

Who Are The ‘Coddled’ Kids?

When New York Times columnist Frank Bruni asked recently, “Are kids too coddled?” he pulled examples from his recent meanderings through news articles without examining a shred of data.

When the Children’s Defense Fund recently released an updated report on the state of the nation’s children, we learned, “the data shows [sic] childhood poverty has reached record levels in America. One in five children in the country is poor, living in a household at, or below, the Federal Poverty Level.”

The United States now “is the second worst country when it comes to child poverty rates, just ahead of Romania.”

Also recently, the Southern Education Foundation reported that across much of America, especially, the South and West, a majority or near majority of school children live in poverty.

Other reports have found there are record numbers of school children who are homeless. The number of homeless children has increased 73 percent in the past five years, the CDF reported. And while the nation’s leaders were cutting the budget for food stamps for the poor, we learned that one in nine children lack access to adequate food.

Striving For The Impossible

The ramifications of such high poverty to children’s academic success and future livelihoods are quite well known.

Yet, as education researcher David Berliner explained on the blog of education historian Diane Ravitch, the way our leaders have chosen to deal with the effects that poverty has had on children is to impose harsher “accountability” measures designed to “get lazy students, teachers, and administrators to work harder” in school.

The way that has worked in at least one of those Southern states, North Carolina, according to Gene Nichol – a UNC law professor and director of the school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity – is that an “obsession to ‘reform’ our education system – through vouchers, charters, endless tests, performance measures and the like – is matched only by an unequaled, defining pledge to ignore and, in operation, actually increase child poverty.”

Nichol cited a recent study conducted in his state that found “by age 4, kids living in economic distress show diminished brain tissue essential to processing information. Potential identifying causes included poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, lack of suitable reading materials and stimulation, parental stress and unsafe physical environments. The causal list was long and non-exhaustive.”

He concluded, “The marriage of poverty and educational underperformance should give pause to the many Tar Heels who claim, I can attest, that the only anti-poverty program they support is education. It’s a consoling thought, perhaps. But it is literally, quite literally, impossible to secure equal educational opportunity while 26 percent of our children – 41 percent of our children of color – live in torturous poverty.”

“No Excuse” Is An Excuse

Much in the same way policy leaders have resorted to duck-and-cover drills as a way put the responsibility of school violence on children, our youngest citizens are being commanded to take on the problems of widespread poverty by making it a personal task to succeed academically despite all odds. Indeed, policy leaders have concluded the best way to help the nation’s increasingly at-risk children is to simply “raise the bar” on academics and tell them, “work hard, be nice.”

Indeed, one of the most acclaimed “education reforms” is embodied by an approach to school called the “no excuse” model. Students are taught – and educators are ordered to practice – an instructional approach that ignores any and all factors other than what is demanded of a particular academic task, usually a standardized test. And this is good for them!

Author and educator Alfie Kohn explains how this thinking goes: “More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseverance, self-discipline and will power … this will motivate them to try even harder next time and prepare them for the rigors of the unforgiving Real World.”

Much like Bruni overlooked evidence of the widespread condition of children in order to brand them as “coddled,” promoters of no excuse remedies ignore evidence too.

As Kohn explains, studies have found when “students were asked to solve problems that were rigged to ensure failure … even the latter problems paralyzed them because a spiral of failure had been set into motion.”

Certainly, “challenge,” says Kohn, “is a part of learning. That’s not something we’d want to eliminate.” But when students fail at challenges that “aren’t particularly engaging or relevant” – such as standardized tests, for instance – maybe what we’ve created is an “educational environment” that “emphasizes how well students are doing rather than what they’re doing.” (emphasis original)

So the problem, Kohn concludes, “isn’t with kids’ attitudes or motivation as much as it is with our practices and policies. Yet potential problems with the latter are typically ignored by people who tell kids to grit their teeth, pull up their socks, and try, try again.”

We Can’t Ignore The Harm

The way our nation’s leaders have chosen to deal with gun violence is to focus on protection rather than prevention. Indeed, we now have the proud distinction, as a recent report in The New York Times told us, of having a “far larger number” of “guard labor” – people we employ as security guards, police officers, military, and others in criminal justice and security system – “than we have of teachers at all levels.”

This rear-guard approach to solving a pervasive problem is taking us down an endless pathway to ever more alarming but essentially useless measures that begin to resemble abuse – especially as they are implemented on our most vulnerable citizens.

At least a few people involved in the active shooter drill described by NBC News above noticed something isn’t right about this.

“It’s going to make me second-guess my school,” one student admitted, and “you have to look at everyone as a threat.”

“It’s a bit nerve-wracking because I’m disabled and can’t really run away,” said another. As the drill concluded, “one girl, who has fallen on her stomach after getting ‘shot,’ doesn’t get up. Her body is trembling. It doesn’t take long to realize she is sobbing.”

NBC quoted Stephen Brock, a California State University professor and member of the National Association of School Psychologists, who warned, “Live drills can be very intense and potentially psychologically harmful for some people.”

What indeed are we getting in an exchange for this potential risk?

To tackle the persistent and growing problem of poverty, we’ve chosen a rear guard approach as well – one that is, again, likely producing more harm than good.

Instead of addressing root causes of poverty, we’ve chosen to treat it as a byproduct of our education system and make students and their teachers solve it by taking on evermore-stringent academic requirements. As more of these remedies for ratcheting down on students’ schoolwork roll out, too few leaders at the top question what has been produced, and when does reform become abuse.

Standardized testing of students is now being imposed on kindergartners. And flunking more third graders has now become the impassioned cry of the school reform community.

A recent extreme example of education accountability gone amok includes a standardized test being imposed on a boy who was dying. Wrote Valerie Strauss in the article, when some state lawmakers questioned if there were students who might deserve “waivers from taking these tests … The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter warning lawmakers to keep assessing all children.” (Shortly after Strauss published her article, she reported the boy died.)

Studies show that students of all ages and abilities are indeed stressed out by standardized testing. And a recent report from the American Psychological Association found, according to an article in The Huffington Post, “American teenagers are now the most stressed-out age group in the U.S.” Among other findings, “Teens report that their stress level during the school year (5.8/10) far exceeds what they believe to be a healthy level of stress (3.9/10).”

Meanwhile, we’re well into a second decade of these education policies, and poverty and lack of opportunity for school children has not declined one whit.

But hey, it’s for the kids.

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