On Friday, the US Secretary of Education told a group of state superintendents of education that “white suburban moms” were rebelling against the Common Core reading and math standards because their children weren’t doing well on the new state tests. Duncan explained, “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought … and that’s pretty scary.” Once again, the Secretary of Education had casually maligned the intentions of those raising questions about the Common Core. Duncan’s outspoken cheerleading for the Common Core has consistently fueled fears that it will ultimately open the door to federal officials playing an ever-increasing role in state and local schooling, while his injection of race managed to further intensify a raging debate.
But most of the commentary has missed the two salient points.
First, Duncan showed that he doesn’t actually understand the ire of these “suburban moms” (of any shade). The new Common Core-aligned tests have not been rolled out yet. Meanwhile, only a couple states have really modified their tests to reflect the Common Core (most notably, New York); the vast majority of states haven’t seen any movement in test scores. So, the pushback Duncan is referencing has all basically preceded any change in test outcomes.
Second, the Common Core case has relied heavily on the supposition that new standards and tests are going to electrify suburban parents and prompt them to embrace the school reform agenda. Of course, not only may parents not respond as the advocates hope, but—even if they accepted the results at face value—suburban parents might be unconvinced that the reforms associated with the Common Core are good for their kids. As I observed a year ago “When I ask how exactly the Common Core is going to change teaching and learning, I’m mostly told that it’s going to finally shine a harsh light on the quality of suburban schools, shocking those families and voters into action.”
This will apparently entail three steps: First, politicians will actually embrace the Common Core assessments and then will use them to set cut scores that suggest huge numbers of suburban schools are failing. Then, parents and community members who previously liked their schools are going to believe the assessment results rather than their own lying eyes. (In the case of the No Child Left Behind Act, these same folks believed their eyes rather than the state tests, and questioned the validity of the latter–but the presumption is that things will be different this time.)
Finally, newly convinced that their schools stink, parents and voters will embrace ‘reform.’ However, most of today’s proffered remedies–including test-based teacher evaluation, efforts to move ‘effective’ teachers to low-income schools, charter schooling, and school turnarounds–don’t have a lot of fans in the suburbs or speak to the things that suburban parents are most concerned about.
What does all this portend? Even after the present furor fades, Secretary Duncan and the Common Core advocates are left with a real problem. As I said a year ago, “After failing miserably to convince suburban and middle-class voters that reforms designed for dysfunctional urban systems and at-risk kids are good for their children and their schools, Common Core advocates now evince an eerie confidence that they can scare these voters into embracing the ‘reform’ agenda. And this conviction has become the happy Kool-Aid that allows would-be reformers to ignore the fact that they’re not actually offering to tackle the things (like access to exam-style schools, world language mastery, music and arts instruction, and so on) that suburban parents are passionate about.”
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