I have never seen someone gag as hard as our daughter did the first time we tried to feed her green vegetables. After successfully introducing fruit purees, sweet potatoes, and squash, we tried broccoli. Wailing and gnashing of teeth (well, gums) ensued. Three nights later, the message was clear: no broccoli, Mama; I’ll have the peach puree, thank you.
We wanted our daughter to learn to eat green things without any added fat or sugar, but fighting the green vegetable battle became overwhelming. It was far easier to feed her a fruit puree we knew she would eat and move along to the next crisis on the road of raising a baby in a household with working parents. Long story short, we started mixing green vegetables with pears. It worked, but we couldn’t help feeling a bit defeated.
My day job is running a nonprofit that aims to improve public education in Mississippi. These days, there is a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Common Core State Standards, a set of literacy and math learning standards for K-12 students. The Common Core State Standards are the green vegetables of the education world. We know from independent analyses that they are better than Mississippi’s former low-quality standards. We know that students who master them will be prepared for a better future. And we know that the alternative—going back to our former standards or coming up with new bad standards—is not an option if we want our kids to succeed.
But change of this magnitude is really, really hard—as hard as getting kids to eat green vegetables.
Mississippi parents of school-age kids know that there are surefire ways to get even the pickiest eaters to eat vegetables. Fry the okra. Smother broccoli in cheese. Bake green beans in a casserole and top it with cheese and French fried onions. Delicious, yes, but all of these methods eliminate the nutritional value of eating vegetables in the first place.
For years, we’ve been teaching our kids the fried version of learning standards. There’s educational value somewhere in there, but it’s watered down to make it easier for everyone involved. When our kids graduate after a diet of low standards, they find the consequences stick with them as doggedly as bad eating habits will. Nonetheless, we kept shoveling the same standards and telling kids the scale must be wrong when the numbers show bad results.
Getting a kid who has always been allowed plenty of butter, cream, and cheese with his broccoli to eat it without the added fat and sugar is perhaps even harder than getting him to eat broccoli in the first place. Yet that’s where we are right now with most of our kids and the higher standards in Common Core, and everyone—teachers, parents, and kids—feels caught in the middle.
Lately, politicians have been tempting us with tales that are too good to be true at the exact moment when the work is the hardest. Get rid of Common Core, they promise, and we can come up with new standards that would be just as educational (even though that has never happened in Mississippi before) and not nearly this hard. It’s like saying that they have found a way to make fatty fried food just as healthy as steamed broccoli.
The reality is that there is no substitute for green vegetables. Any high-quality standards are going to look a lot like Common Core, and any high-quality standards are going to be hard—really, really hard—to implement.
In my house, we’re still learning how to get our daughter to eat green vegetables. I feel the pain of every parent that doesn’t want to have to suit up to do battle over broccoli or fight over fractions after a long day of work. We have to keep going. For our children to do better than we did, we can’t settle for the bad standards of our own childhoods, no matter how easy or pleasing in the moment. We can do this, Mississippi. Let’s get to it.