Why Arne Duncan is talking about 'white suburban moms'

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Longtime Obama friend and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is under fire for controversial comments last Friday, when he suggested that opposition to a new education initiative called Common Core is driven by “white suburban moms who [discover]— 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 they were.”

Common Core is a set of standards for how much Americans students should learn in math and “English language arts” that were created by a coalition led by state governors and state education commissioners over the last several years and now are being implemented in 45 states. It is the latest “education reform” idea designed to improve American schools and evaluate students and teachers more carefully through tests.

But the creators of Common Core, aware of the controversy that plagued the No Child Left Behind Act over the last decade, explicitly have let states take the lead in the standards, and the federal government has a limited role in the program. (“The federal government had no role in the development of the Common Core State Standards and will not have a role in their implementation,” reads a line on the Common Core website.)

But Duncan and the Obama administration, perhaps unwisely in a political sense, are publicly supportive of Common Core and encouraged states to adopt the standards if they wanted to receive federal funding through the “Race to the Top” program. And Common Core has become controversial for the same reasons No Child Left Behind was: Many liberals oppose standardized tests as a way to measure students and schools, while conservatives are wary of a program that effectively creates national education standards, even though they were developed by a group of state leaders.

Enter Duncan. What test results from New York and Kentucky, two of the earliest states to implement Common Core, have shown is that one often-expressed view of American education — that low-income, often non-white children are struggling but upper-income students are doing well — may not be true. In New York, only 31 percent of students grades 3-8 were deemed “proficient” in language arts under the state’s new standards that are aligned with Common Core. The achievement gap still remained, as only 16 percent of black students performed well on the tests, but just 40 percent of white students did.

Duncan, in very impolitic terms, was trying to make an important point: lackluster American schools are not just a black and brown problem.

“I want to encourage a difficult conversation and challenge the underlying assumption that when we talk about the need to improve our nation’s schools, we are talking only about poor minority students in inner cities,” Duncan said in a blog post that was published Monday on the Education Department’s website and was an obvious attempt at damage control.

He added, “This is simply not true. Research demonstrates that as a country, every demographic group has room for improvement. Raising standards has come with challenging news in a variety of places; scores have dropped as a result of a more realistic assessment of students’ knowledge and skills.”

Duncan should be applauded for the forthrightness with which he regularly speaks about race, class and education and how those three issues are inter-related.

But this more measured comment won’t get as much attention as when Duncan referred to “white suburban moms.” And Duncan’s clear frustration with these parents is not unlike what education reformers have faced for decades or that President Obama is dealing with now on health care: shifting the status quo in a major sector of American life is very difficult, particularly when the federal government is involved, like the Affordable Care Act, or thought to be involved, in the case of Common Core.