School Talk

No. Common Core Did Not Cause a Spike in Middle School Suicides (And to Say It Did Is Reprehensible)

You’ve got to be kidding me. Steven Singer has actually penned a piece in which he makes the claim that Common Core has led to a spike in middle school suicides. Though he does admit that there are a variety of reasons for the increase, he stands firm in his claim that the Common Core State Standards are one of them.

I grew up and used to teach in metro-west Boston which has its share of affluent districts known to be pressure cookers for kids and where adolescent suicide has devastated families and rocked school communities. They are places where the schools and parents’ expectations are high and where it’s not unusual for students to be doing extra work and SAT prep after-school, where high priced tutors abound to keep the dreaded C+ at bay, where parents dole out many thousands of dollars to pay for a private college counselor, and where the only acceptable colleges are the most prestigious (and selective) ones. Many students do fine and even thrive in the pressure filled environment but some internalize the pressure to a point that the expectations they put on themselves make them quite literally, sick. Because we know that no one who is mentally healthy takes their own life.

When a rash of suicides hit Newton, Massachusetts in 2014, no one mentioned the Common Core.

An excerpt from the Boston Globe:

His family, who moved here 14 years ago from Israel, believes the stress of an overwhelming course load and an American obsession with elite universities contributed to his death, though they recognize there could have been additional — still unknown — factors.

In the aftermath of the suicides, other parents in town have also begun to question the culture of a high-achieving school community that routinely sends numerous graduates to elite colleges.

But psychiatrists, counselors, and school officials agree: The impetus to suicide is usually far more complex than anxiety about school work and is almost always linked to depression and other mental health problems.

Researchers have not found that school stress directly causes students to take their own lives, said Susan Swick, chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

However, she said, a stressful event, such as failing an important test or a relationship breakup, could trigger a suicide attempt in an adolescent with other risk factors, such as depression.


And contrary to Singer’s hypothesis that Common Core is so evil that it induces suicide, many in Massachusetts were actually reluctant to adopt Common Core because they saw them as a step down in terms of rigor and expectations.

I happen to be the mom of three in a Common Core state; my experience as a parent tells me that Singer’s claims aren’t only wrong. They’re dumb.  First of all, Common Core is meant to be a floor, not a ceiling and for what it’s worth, I wish my son was being pushed harder. I also don’t live in a town known for its high achieving school culture or a fixation on selective colleges. While mental health and suicide are concerns of mine as a parent, former educator and someone who loves kids, uniform standards and an annual proficiency test are not what keep me up at night.

The mixed messages that bombard kids in the media keep me up at night.

The over-sexualization of young girls and the confusion it causes in their young minds keeps me up at night.

The epidemic of sexual abuse—including in our nation’s classrooms—keeps me up at night.

The 24 hour cycle of cruelty and bullying that torments some children (made possible by social media) keeps me up at night.

The naïveté of our children around the consequences and the permanence of their online behavior keeps me up at night. They are not equipped to deal with the tools that modern day America places in their hand all day every day—a smartphone that allows them access to anything and everything and opens up communication with anyone and everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All of us know that many adults haven’t figured out how to use social media appropriately so how can we expect a child to navigate it without support, and coaching and boundaries?

I had (and continue to have) huge concerns over the controversial Netflix series ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ and I understand why so many mental health experts, trained psychologists, and school administrators remain concerned as it gets ready to launch season 2. We know that upon its release, troubling trends emerged.

Google search volumes for things like “how to commit suicide,” “commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself” all decisively spiked during the 19-day window after the show’s release. A 2009 study suggested “suicide search trends are correlated with actual suicides,” according to a letter accompanying the study in JAMA. (VOA News)

Did Singer include any of that in his piece?  Nope.

Did he even mention the issue of trauma and all that we know about the impact it has on children as they move into adolescence? Nope.

Did he talk about the suicide clusters in the high pressure communities where Common Core is barely a blip on the radar in the excessive stress and competition some kids endure every day? Nope.

He was too busy talking about China and South Korea to even mention what is actually happening with our children in America.

It is healthy and important for people with different views about education policy and even education philosophy to spar over and debate substantive issues on the merits. But this reckless attempt by Singer to link Common Core to a spike in middle school suicides is indefensible and shows a callous disregard for the families who have lost children to suicide and who know, without a doubt, that their state’s academic state standards had nothing to do with it.



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