Common Core Standards
“Nothing’s wrong,” the school social worker says, which is the first lie. She wants to talk to me about my oldest daughter. Desi reverses her letters, transposes words, neglects punctuation, writes sentences that, with their randomized use of capitals, look like ransom notes. “Her teacher is concerned about her,” the social worker continues, which is the second lie. Next year Desi will take the third grade standardized tests in English and Math, along with every other public school student in the country. Her school won a prestigious national award this year and ranks in the top-ten of city elementary schools. Since the citywide school rating system subtracts points for lack of improvement, the new principal is eager to distinguish himself by raising the exacting standards of his predecessor. Moreover, teacher evaluation now rests upon the test scores of students. The new core standards emphasize writing more than ever before. Desi cannot write. Her teacher is very concerned, yes, but not necessarily about her. “She is actually very smart,” I protest, lamely, knowing that the kind-voiced, overworked lady on the other end of the phone doesn’t believe me and it doesn’t matter anyway. Desi does not fit into the system.
Sunday mornings at 9:30, my children’s paternal grandparents take them to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament on 35th Avenue for the children’s mass. When they first began going, last spring, Desi returned full of questions. She wanted to know how one person could know everything, why that one person was a man, and how he could be alive and dead, everywhere and nowhere. “Where does he live?” she asked me, “I mean really, Mama, where, because they told me Heaven but I know there is no such place. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars,” she listed, counting on her fingers. “No Heaven.” I told her that I didn’t think there was an actual place called Heaven, or one entity who controlled the entire world, but that nobody knew for sure, and different people believed different things. The next day she came home from school, upset. She had told some of her friends that she didn’t believe in God or Heaven. When her classmate Matthew had refuted her thesis and called her a liar, she offered the most compelling evidence she could think of: she said her mother didn’t believe in God or Heaven either. “Then Sophia said I was lying too because my Mama would never tell me that.” I didn’t know what to say. I think I told her that people get very emotional about religion, but that nobody should tell anyone else how to think.
Every year for Christmas, Desi asks for a science-related gift. Two years ago it was a microscope. Last year it was a chemistry kit. This year she wants a telescope. She constantly asks questions about her role in the family, culture, country, world, and universe. The depth and complexity of her questions astound me. Yet, her report card this year indicated she has not met grade level standards in any subject except reading. In the Parent Teacher conference, her teacher explained that although Desi has a lot of ideas, she often seems distracted. That day, in a discussion about a book they had all read, Desi turned her back on the circle. “In a small group, though,” her teacher said, “she shines.” I didn’t know how to ask this woman to help my daughter. How could I? She has 25 students, all of whom she has to prepare for next year. I can’t ask her to change her entire teaching structure to accommodate one child. My husband suggested that if she isn’t participating, maybe, it is because she doesn’t think her ideas would be accepted. Maybe she is afraid that she would be ridiculed for her insights or questions. Her teacher agreed. “Desi is a different sort of kid,” she said. “Most of the other kids are just trying to figure out the easiest way to get by in class but Desi is full of ideas.” The conferences are supposed to be ten minutes long; we had already taken fifteen. Two more sets of parents were waiting outside the door and we had to go meet with my younger daughter’s kindergarten teacher. Nothing was resolved. I felt terrible. At the door, I turned and said, “It makes me sad to think that Desi is in school all day, with so much to say, but yet she doesn’t have a voice.” “I know,” her teacher said, not unsympathetically.
Desi’s illustrated essays are never displayed in the hallway galleries in her school. Her photograph never appears on the “Students of the Month!” bulletin board outside the main office. She does not get chosen for the after-school enrichment clusters in dance, pottery, art, and fiction writing. Instead she spends an hour after school in the classroom with her teacher and a cohort of other differentiated students; they take turns at the Promethean Board in the front of the classroom. They stand on a chair and grip the stylus; they practice writing properly punctuated sentences. She is in school from 8 am to 3:30 pm. Then she comes home and does homework. It takes her nearly two hours, each night, to finish. After an hour she usually puts her head down on the table. She tells me that her neck hurts. Every night I want to write a letter to her teacher and the principal, to Dennis Walcott and Arne Duncan, stating that I refuse to make her do so much work. She is only seven years old, forty-six pounds, not quite four feet tall. She is too slight, too young, to bear the weight of the city, state, and national educational experiments in standardization. The school social worker has called, she tells me, to recommend more extensive academic testing. She wants my permission and I give it. I may want to write that letter, but I never do.