'White moms' remark fuels Common Core clash
By: Stephanie Simon
November 18, 2013 08:07 AM EST
Education Secretary Arne Duncan realized fairly quickly that he had stumbled.
He had just told a gathering of state superintendents of education that “white suburban moms” were rebelling against the Common Core academic standards — new guidelines for math and language arts instruction — because their kids had done poorly on the tough new tests.
“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,” Duncan said at the event Friday.
Two hours later, with those comments sparking outrage on social media, Duncan told POLITICO that he “didn’t say it perfectly.” But he stood by his thesis: To oppose the Common Core is to oppose progress.
“Do we want more for our kids, or do we want less?” Duncan said. “Do we want higher standards or not?”
That’s the debate that Duncan dearly wants to have.
It’s not, however, the debate he’s getting.
To the immense frustration of Common Core supporters, an eclectic array of critics have raised sustained and impassioned objections about the new standards. From New York to Florida to Michigan to Louisiana, their voices are so loud and their critiques so varied that they have muddied the narrative around Common Core. It’s no longer a focused national debate about high standards; it’s hundreds of local debates, about everything from student privacy rights to cursive handwriting to computerized testing to the value of Shakespeare.
Over the summer, Duncan complained that opponents were “fringe groups” who make “outlandish claims” about “really wacky stuff” such as “mind control, robots, and biometric brain mapping.” There is undoubtedly some of that.
But there are also substantive critiques from all corners. Catholic scholars say the standards aren’t rigorous enough. Early childhood experts say they demand too much. Liberals complain the Common Core opens the door to excessive testing. Conservatives complain it opens the door to federal influence in local schools. Teachers don’t like the new textbooks. Parents don’t like the new homework.
And some critics sense a conspiracy, suggesting that the difficult Common Core tests are designed to make public schools look so bad that parents everywhere — including white, suburban moms — will rush to embrace charter schools, cyber schools, vouchers and other models that turn public education over to private entrepreneurs.
All but four states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which aim to guide instruction in math and language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade. The standards have been endorsed by a broad coalition of politicians and business and education leaders. Supporters include the national teachers unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, President Barack Obama and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Yet even as the new standards are rolled out in classrooms from coast to coast, anger continues to bubble. Opponents have organized rallies, circulated petitions, bombarded lawmakers with calls and pulled their children out of standardized tests. One group of Common Core critics has even declared Monday “National Don’t Send Your Child To School Day” as a form of protest.
Against this backdrop, activists on both sides say Duncan’s off-the-cuff remark was clumsy, insensitive — and certain to stir the already-roiling pot of dissent.
“He’s made it sound as if to question Common Core is to be unreasonable,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education, a consulting firm that has worked to promote the new standards. Smarick called the speech “divisive” and predicted it wouldn’t help the cause.
Many parent activists agreed. They called Duncan’s remark patronizing and said it fit into a pattern of state and national education officials dismissing parents and ignoring their concerns. Some also said Duncan was off base to assume that mothers — or fathers — of any race would judge either their children or their local schools poorly because of low scores on standardized tests.
“My children were brilliant before Common Core and they will be brilliant after it’s gone,” said Debbie Ryan, a mother of three public school students in Ridge, N.Y.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers — and a backer of the Common Core — called on Duncan to retract his statement. “Arne-if u are reading- you shld walk this back,” she tweeted, “very insensitive-and not right-moms care abt their kids!!”
And Darcie Cimarusti, a blogger who opposes much of the Duncan education agenda, said she believed the remark would prove a turning point: “It’s when the suburban moms get pissed that things start to actually change,” said Cimarusti, a mother of two who lives in Highland Park, N.J. “He now runs the real risk of losing control of the messaging and he knows it.”
But Massie Ritsch, assistant secretary for communications in the Education Department, said he believed the uproar over the white moms comment was mostly confined to a familiar group of critics who have been sniping at Duncan and his education agenda for years.
He said supporters of the new standards should focus on the substantial number of parents who routinely tell pollsters they don’t know enough about the Common Core to have a firm opinion.
“The far right and the far left have made up their minds, but there’s angst in the middle — which includes many open-minded suburban parents — that needs to be addressed,” Ritsch said.
Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said he rarely hears from parents who are thrilled with their public schools. It’s far more common, he said, to hear from parents who “think their kids are doing well all along,” only to get a nasty shock when the kids “go off to college and have to take remedial classes and take five or six years to graduate.”
Those are the parents, he said, that Common Core supporters aim to win over with the argument that the new standards will prepare students far better. “It is challenging,” he said, “but what gives me hope is that there are a lot of folks out there who believe in higher standards for kids.”
In his remarks Friday, Duncan suggested selling the Common Core by reminding parents that their children are not just competing against their neighbors, but against “India, China, Singapore and South Korea” for jobs in the global economy.
In fact, kids at well-to-do suburban schools do exceedingly well against global competition on international reading and math exams. The U.S. average is dragged down to middling, or worse, in the global rankings by its high concentration of high-poverty schools.
And some parents who live in those communities say they don’t understand how higher standards will automatically lift their children to higher achievement.
“It’s not so much that I oppose higher standards for our children. We definitely need improvement,” said Karran Harper Royal, whose 17-year-old son attends a charter school in New Orleans. “The issues I have with Common Core have more to do with the lack of real supports to help our most challenged children reach those standards.”
Smarick, the education consultant, said he would advise Duncan and other Common Core supporters to deal with the dissent by sticking to upbeat talking points.
“Stay positive and relentlessly talk about how the new standards are rigorous and will help prepare our kids for college and career,” he said. “No more talk about Tea Partiers, conspiracy theories, the D.C. bubble, the blogosphere or scared white suburban moms. Defend Common Core on its merits. That’s the winning strategy.”
But critics are not about to let the moment pass. They have launched an online petition that calls on the president to fire Duncan, citing the “white moms” remark as evidence that he “consistently and flagrantly disregards the concerns of the parents.” By Monday morning, it had nearly 1,700 signatures.
They have also created a Facebook page topped with a feisty manifesto: “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has insulted the Moms of America and our children! … He picked the WRONG group to mess with!” Within a day, more than 1,200 members had joined.
The name of the group: Moms Against Duncan. Or, as the manifesto read: “We are MAD.”