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Fight the government! But not with your kids

Students with hands raised in classroom
ER Productions Ltd. | Blend Images | Getty Images

The fight over Common Core standardized testing is reaching a fever pitch in New York this week as a huge percentage of parents are allowing their kids to opt out of tests. The protests aren't so much about the content of Common Core, but the entire concept of standardized testing. The concerns are justified but parents using their children as pawns by "opting them out" of these tests are making a mistake.

Common Core is just the latest "big idea" attempt to improve American education standards with a one-size-fits-all approach. Common Core standardized testing, beginning in the 3rd grade, is a method to make sure teachers are doing a competent job teaching the Common Core and those test scores are now going to be used to evaluate their overall job performance and even future career prospects.

Is this fair? Is this right? Will this work? The answer is probably "no" to all those questions. And I'm all for fighting Big Government, and it doesn't get more Big Government than the public school system. But that fight should be one parents, teachers and politicians conduct among themselves and other adults, with "adults" being the key word. The use of kids as a proxy to battle the new curriculum and the testing isn't okay in the same way that divorced parents shouldn't use their kids as pawns in even the most legitimate arguments they're having with their ex-spouses. The stressed out kids I'm seeing at my daughters' school and in news reports from my state resemble the way children often react when their parents are divorcing. Some even looked as psychologically torn as the children of former couples having disputes with serious accusations.

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Let's get something straight. The people behind Common Core and the testing process are not responsible for this psychological scarring. They're trying to calm people down. It's overzealous parents, teachers and politicians who are the culprits here as they fuel the hysteria about what is indeed an unfair process, but is hardly a serious threat to children in the grand scheme of things. As millions of children in other countries face wars and real physical threats every day, we have millions of parents and teachers in this country who are adding to their kids' anxiety by portraying this testing process as some kind of lifelong emotionally damaging event. Somewhere along the line, this justified resistance to another Big Government education concept has taken over these parents' natural role as calming influences. Instead, they're now in the process of convincing children as young as eight years old that a few days of testing, as annoying and misguided as those tests may be, are making them serious victims of a Civil Rights violation.

I understand teachers are worried about how they may lose their jobs or standing based on the results of these tests. But for the kids themselves, we're really going too far when we tell them that taking a handful of tests is something to be feared and avoided like the plague. Again, I don't endorse these tests or the process in general. But I do endorse the idea of letting our children face more non-physically harmful challenges during their school years. And I'm horrified by the chance that so many American kids may learn a bad lesson from opting out and come to believe that they can run away from their problems and get mommy and daddy to fix them. Life isn't fair and if we can teach our kids that lesson without leaving a real scar, we should do it. Our foreign competitors put their school kids through a heck of a lot more than six or seven days of standardized testing and it shows as they continue to outrank us especially in math and science. Hundreds of millions of parents from those foreign countries would jump at the chance to send their children to the U.S. to take these tests and more.

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Another problem with opting out is that significantly reducing the numbers of test takers will slow and potentially kill the process of improving the Common Core and the way it's taught. I've been checking my older daughter's Common Core math homework for fours years. In that time, I've noticed improvements compared to the way math was taught in the program a few years ago and also compared to the way I learned some of those same math concepts 35 years ago. Common Core is not going to be repealed anytime soon, so we need those improvements to keep coming. If too few students take the tests and provide an accurate sample, it will be harder to make those tweaks. In other words, opting out will likely make the every day classroom and homework course for our kids a lot worse.

It's for all these reasons that I'm not opting out my own kids and neither should you. But the anger at Common Core and this testing process is still legitimate. So let me give you a few suggestions about better ways to channel that anger that don't require using your minor children to march ahead of you on the front lines.

Don't fool yourself into thinking this is just about Common Core or testing. This is about the entire public school system that has been failing our children for so long. I'm not happy that so many parents are being too protective of their children in this opt-out movement, but I do like that so many of them are realizing that they can't trust the government to provide adequate education for their kids. This is a lesson all too many lower income and minority parents have known for decades. Those are the parents who literally line up in the cold every year to get their kids spaces in charter schools. Those are the parents who have to petition their local politicians for private school vouchers. And those are the parents who know that our tax money that's supposed to be used to improve their kids' educations isn't being used properly. Instead of focusing on an annual test, join them and the older and better movement to give more parents like them more of a voice and better school choice.

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And remember — standardized testing is nothing new. Ask yourselves why the teachers unions never seemed to be so vehemently against them until they were used to determine their career prospects. Critics of standardized tests have a lot of great points, but we still need a better way than just seniority and certifications to evaluate teachers and administrators. Teachers unions are a huge reason why our public schools are failing our kids, so why would we want to give them more power by joining them in the opt-out push? Teachers' union influence must be diminished and that means defeating their opposition to charter schools and vouchers and reducing their undue political influence in the very cities and states where public schools are failing our poorest kids.

And finally, remember that educating our children is a 365-days-a-year proposition. Good for you if you're a parent concerned about two weeks of tests. But can you honestly say you're aware of what your kid is learning the rest of the year? If so, do you think it's effective and current? And finally, are you aware of how your tax money is being used to educate all the other kids in this country? Isn't it about time we stop thinking that throwing more money at the problem without changing the management will work?

When it comes to answering and doing something about the above questions, this is not the time to opt out. It's time to opt in.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.