Society and Culture, Education

Education Secretary Duncan and ‘white suburban moms’ and the Common Core

Image Credit: USDAgov (Flickr) CC

Image Credit: USDAgov (Flickr) CC

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.”

I noted:

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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5 thoughts on “Education Secretary Duncan and ‘white suburban moms’ and the Common Core

  1. We have several foreign exchange students in my daughter’s school. The are ahead in math and science. Most have taken Algebra II/Trigonometry by 9th grade (then go onto Calculus and Stats). Common Core requires only Algebra II/Trig to graduate. This low math standard makes it impossible for kids to have a STEMS college experience. You cannot take Chemistry or Physics without taking higher level math. You cannot expect to do well in engineering or science course if you haven’t even taken pre-calculus in high school.

  2. The key feature of this method of reform is impatience.

    Like the mighty Persian Xerxes who had the Bosporus whipped when it did not cooperate with his invasion of Greece, these reformers chose violence, the stick, and a removed and lordly approach to solving problems that do not admit to a solution available to such reformers. Convincing families, communities, schools, and school districts of the need for educative and–at bottom–cultural reforms cannot be accomplished with the long whip of standardized tests wielded from afar.

    Xerxes had the good fortune of calmer weather after his show of impatience and impotence; I doubt the common core edutopians will be so lucky.

    Patience, respect, sacrifice, and careful reform on the micro level will lead to a wildfire of freely chosen reform. The sovereign powers have already done what they can (truancy laws, funding, even some minimal standards and requests for reform), but shocking, disrupting, and upsetting the local educational communities? This is the impatience of overlords, ones who refuse to engage actual communities and do the actual work of education reform.

    Xerxes could not wait to pillage Greece.

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