The Problem Is Not The White Moms, It’s The Whitewash

Plenty of outrage (both genuine and manufactured) over Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s comments this weekend that “white suburban moms” are behind the angst about Common Core.  It was an inartful way to make the point that school reform meets a lot resistance in the suburbs because of the pandemic of complacency that exists there.  But it’s hardly the first time the Secretary has become overly enthusiastic on a political point and walked into a gaffe. So while it’s catnip for some, I wouldn’t read too much into it.

The larger problem it points up, however, is how mangled the administration’s message is here and the absence of any semblance of a real argument.  One reason the suburbs are complacent is that politicians, notable amongst them Duncan and the President, spent a lot of time telling suburban voters there that any law that said 40 percent of the nation’s schools needed improvement was obviously flawed.  They were talking about the No Child Left Behind Act.  And the rhetoric was a good fit for a suburban/exurban political strategy but at odds with what we know about educational achievement in this country.

Now, when the same resistance is emerging around a more ambitious set of standards Duncan is stuck tacking back and effectively saying ‘wait, your schools aren’t as good as I said they were just a few years ago.’ This problem is greatly magnified because the administration is pretty much fully reactive on K-12 policy now and doesn’t have a forward-looking argument to make about K-12 schools. This lets the Common Core critics have a field day (and they are, even without gaffes that make their job easier). Meanwhile, on the other side Civil Rights groups are increasingly up in arms over the looseness of the No Child Left Behind waiver process and what it means for currently underserved students.

More generally the Common Core is facing increasing trouble because of the same leap in ambition.  The nation struggled with the substance and politics of No Child Left Behind – a law that just told the states to make their own standards more meaningful.  When that didn’t work, in no small part because of political resistance, the response was Common Core – a set of standards that are substantially more ambitious than the ones No Child told states to make real.  It’s basically like a couple in troubled marriage who decide that since things are not working having a baby is the next logical step.

That, rather than an ill-considered remark, is the real story here and if history is any guide should be a real cause for concern for those who support the new standards.

29 Replies to “The Problem Is Not The White Moms, It’s The Whitewash”

  1. I don’t think it’s engaging in necrohipposadism to point out that raising expectations for our children and grandchildren is a different challenge from equity and managerial competence. They’re not entirely disjoint, but the overlap is much less than what education reform policy has presupposed over the past 15-20 years.

  2. Seems more like it’s conservative/libertarian ideologues who are pushing back against the Common Core. Duncan is more out of touch than even I thought.

  3. Whitewash? More like airing dirty laundry and facing the neighbors’ wrath. I seriously doubt you can find any example where Duncan or Obama told middle class parents their schools were just fine and not to worry. Duncan’s main critique of NCLB was that it became meaningless because it painted everyone with the same brush and allowed/encouraged wildly different standards. As for an argument, Duncan’s been pretty clear: set a high bar, let states figure out how to to meet it, and hold them accountable. Finally, if he was being political he wouldn’t push reform on his party’s base. When suburban parents realize their kids’s schools aren’t living up to the promise, education will finally be a real voting issue. Can’t wait!

  4. Hi Peter – Thanks for the comment.

    One example of this is language like this from a budget hearing earlier this year, from

    “Duncan said that NCLB has become a well-intended, but overly-prescriptive law that created incentives to lower standards, encouraged teaching to the test, mislabeled many schools as failures, and prescribed a one-size-fits-all accountability system that failed to support local solutions and innovation.”

    Never mind that states both raised and lowered standards during the NCLB-era (an inconvenient) fact for those who want to paint it as a constant slide to lower standards), the signals in here to suburban parents about mislabeled many schools are clear. The law said that schools where all kids were not reaching goals “need improvement,’ it didn’t even use the word failure. Yet on explaining that, crickets.

    Meanwhile, when the numbers of “mislabeled” schools were not high enough you all cooked up an outrageous 82 percent figure:

    Which clearly fueled – and was intended to fuel – this narrative about ‘too many schools’ even though it was a bogus number and didn’t come to pass.

    And when the president uses lines like “principals don’t like being labeled as failures” (delivered at a suburban middle school with big achievement gaps, by the way) as with the ‘too many schools’ line, the dog whistle politics here are pretty obvious.

  5. Your example hardly makes the case we gave middle class schools a pass and attached pre-election speeches clearly show Duncan raising concerns about middle class complacency around education reform.

    Between RTT and waivers we’re on record in favor of college and career-ready standards and evaluation. I know all the dogs heard that whistle because there has been plenty of barking.

  6. Sure, Peter, and you all also repeatedly said ‘we’re lying to our kids.’ That’s all good. But it was all generalities, you never connected those dots with an accountability policy. On the contrary you constantly attacked NCLB for labeling “too many schools” despite – for all the law’s problems – it had laid that reality bare in a very specific and non-generalized way.

    Not squaring that circle and preparing that ground is one reason the new Common Core tests are not surprisingly sparking resistance on the one hand and why the Civil Rights groups are up in arms on the other hand.

  7. CCR standards for RTT and waivers is a specific policy directly linked to the message “stop lying to kids.” Those are not generalities. NCLB, on the other hand, was not specific. A high-achieving school with an achievement gap was treated the same as a low-achieving school under NCLB. The problem is not the same nor is the solution. One of them calls for a targeted and limited intervention. The other calls for an overhaul.

  8. After the first two years of interventions (four years of missing targets) which were offering public school choice in year one and free tutoring in year two, schools were not treated the same, states could do pretty much anything and did. In fact, the option to do very little was the most common one states took. Some of that is lack of state capacity but a lot of it is politics. And why shouldn’t a suburban school with lousy outcomes for disabled kids or minority kids be held accountable for doing something about that? The law never said you had to overhaul that school, it said clearly that the intervention should be focused on the problem.

    The “overhaul” language is exactly what I’m talking about here. Suburban parents were concerned that their schools would be overhauled and no one ever told them that wasn’t the case. Instead it was all about “too many schools” and what might happen.

  9. Andy, as sympathetic as I am to your desire to hold achievement gap schools accountable, I think you’re not addressing the crux of Peter’s point. Whether intended as such or not, NCLB translated for most of the country into a form of school report card. “Not making AYP” meant “failing” to every school I’ve ever talked to or worked at.

    As a labeling system, NCLB tagged many schools, which parents, staff, and community did not feel were “failures.” You can claim that this is a PR failure, but I would argue that this was a natural and inevitable consequence of having a binary “meets vs doesn’t meet” label, and a menu of interventions that was the same regardless of reason for not meeting AYP.

    When I was teaching at KIPP:Key Academy, we were the #1 school (for test scores) in DC, and we were serving low-income, minority students dramatically better than almost any school you could name, but we failed to meet AYP because of not meeting the special education targets in our early grade levels (when kids had been with us for very little time). There was nothing in the law that that labeled or treated us any differently than a school that failed to teach anything to anybody. The natural response to this type of label, is “there’s something wrong with the labeling system.” There is no amount of PR, no nuanced statement, or no pointing out flexibility in the law, that would alter this fundamental credibility gap. People felt like the law’s labeling system was so blunt as to be nonsensical.

    I would argue that Duncan didn’t undermine the credibility of Common Core by blasting NCLB; instead NCLB undermined the credibility of attempts to raise standards, by talking about school quality in a way that didn’t resonate with most of the country.

  10. There is a great deal of nonsense regarding accountability in the present “reform” movement. Here’s just one:

    A very low-performing school has five to ten high-performing students in almost every classroom. By “high-performing” I mean that these children score at or above grade level. On standardized tests many are above the 75th percentile. Still, this school is labeled “very low performing.”

    Now when a charter school opens up, the parents of the high performing students apply in March so there children can attend in September. The new school has a waiting list but admits children whose parents agree to a longer day and year. They must also agree to be supportive of the school. This school then boasts much higher test scores than the traditional school and is lauded for high achievement.

    The good news: Now that “suburban moms” are involved, we can expect to see an end to this nonsense. Our people are not stupid.

  11. Silas –

    Good point but it’s worth asking how the challenges you describe relate to the law and how they relate to how states/localities chose to implement it (and in fairness how they were supported in doing so in the early days of the law)? There was a circuit breaker, for instance, for kids who had not been in a school long.

    Both the substance and politics of those issues are not going away with Common Core and I would argue they are not unique to any piece of legislation but rather broader problems in the sector that are now just reemerging under a new issue – Common Core.

  12. “When I was teaching at KIPP: Key Academy, we were the #1 school (for test scores) and…. low income minority students [did] dramatically better than almost any school you could name.”

    Almost all schools that are selective (magnet, charter, parochial, private) have higher test scores than schools that must take and keep everyone. These improved test scores usually reflect the characteristics of the student population and not necessarily improved instruction. KIPP is likely doing an excellent job but it must be compared with other selective schools and not with “almost any school you can name.”

    There is nothing wrong with a selective school, which I chose for my own sons. However, it’s extremely important to deal with reality in education. If we start from a false premise, then all our information will be false, but if we start with the truth, we can begin to make authentic changes.

    The problem we face is this: How do we provide a quality education for MOST low-income children of color? We’ve always known how to do it for a few.

  13. If spending & new paradigms every 3-5 years were the solutions, the US would be head & shoulders above all other countries, and sadly it isn’t so. It’s cultural or subcultural in cause, not economic.

    The reason most white suburban moms (and dads & people of all colors) take issue with Common Core or any other education “reform” of the month, is not complacency, but rather satisfaction with how the education system performs for their families. Parental involvement is one of the highest correlating factors with academic performance, and suburban parents in general are more involved with their kids’ schooling & the school itself.

    Suburban parents are more connected with their schools, are more empowered to provide influence through volunteering & consistent participation in school board meetings & other forums. Education quality is much higher as a result & is nothing to apologize for – these parents have elected to invest time in their children & communities rather than their entertainment & leisure pursuits (Dancing with the Idols, anyone??).

    Many people incorrectly claim greater financial resources in suburban school districts are the primary drivers behind their better results. It’s only true in part – the main differentiator is family unit support of a child’s education. The disintegration of the family unit & trend toward outsourcing of traditional parental responsibilities (helping with homework) drive the dreary results of education in inner cities & other regions where education has diminished perceived value.

  14. Common Core has several wonderful objectives but fails to address the most significant hurdle to improved US public education – family reinforcement of a student’s education. Most students today spend many more hours with electronic media & other leisure pursuits than in learning or homework, and mainly because parents are distracted, self-absorbed, or assume schools are doing all the necessary educating of their kids.

    People spend their time, money, emotion, and effort on their true priorities, and education simply isn’t a priority to way too many families today. This is not opinion – look at the inverse correlation between student test scores and the increasing amount of time spent in social media & other non-goal oriented tasks. Too few parents reinforce to their kids the need for education to have a much greater priority in their daily lives.

    By contrast, families which highly value education produce the highest performing students, regardless of family income or demographics. Many 1st generation families for many decades have produced the most productive members of US society, since many of them were able to come to the US because of their advanced education & skill set. They’re genuinely handsomely rewarded for their hard & smart work in the form of admission to leading colleges & scholarships. They are to be emulated & congratulated, not maligned or attacked.

  15. I’m sorry to enter this conversation so late, but I must. Peter Cunningham makes points that simply aren’t true and seems to be advancing an approach that will, I fear, however high minded it is in many ways, actually lose ground for the country.

    He starts with a cut on NCLB. So, what’s new? Yet, he offers a rather novel, double-pronged attack: he says on the one hand that NCLB painted all the schools with the same brush yet allowed wildly different standards. Wow – doing both – and at the same time – that’s quite a feat! Aside from the absurdity of it, neither contention is true.

    NCLB said simply that if schools didn’t lift all subgroups increasingly toward their state’s bar of proficiency they were in need of improvement. And, with each passing year, consequences would become more serious, and opportunities for parents would increase. The accountability systems, yes, are varied because all 50 states have different systems; yet, the law tried to be both respectful of those differences and also create pressure to narrow gaps between white and middle class kids and disadvantaged kids and to encourage all children at least to jump over the states’ bars for proficiency.

    Complicated, yes. Diverse, yes. But it was an important goal, and progress has been made toward it both in the years when states began this sort of accountability on their own prior to NCLB and in the years after NCLB.

    This administration’s waivers, frankly, are the far more serious culprit with respect to the crime of “wildly different standards.” As we look back on the scene 5 or 7 years out from now, we’ll really see what “wildly different” really means, and I suspect we won’t like it. We’re already seeing the first effects of these “wildly different” policies in the waivers that have been granted. Whether these differences are beginning to contribute to the recent, virtual freeze in the narrowing of achievement gaps in NAEP, time and history will tell.

    That old canard about states lowering their standards in response to NCLB – my, oh, my. How many studies have to be produced to cause this nonsense to stop? Some performance standards went up; some went down. But they’re about where they were before the law was passed, actually a little higher. There’s abundant research by Peterson and others that proves this quite clearly. (By the way, and on a related note, it will be mighty interesting to see what happens to the performance standards set by the consortia when their assessments are actually put in place in the states. Hmm.)

    Cunningham says the right policy is to set the bar high, let states figure out how to get there, and then hold them accountable. How? What does he mean? I have seen accountability reduced to just a sliver of schools through the operation of the waivers in many states. I must have missed the details of what exactly he’s talking about on, for example, how states will be held accountable to the new high standards. Please refresh me.

    Given all the gnashing of teeth when a majority of schools were at risk of being labeled in need of improvement to the “low standards” in the NCLB world, I’m actually quite interested in the rates of failure that will be spawned when they are “held accountable” to the new, higher standards. I’d love some clarity on this.

    Cunningham is wrong again in asserting that a high performing school with a gap is treated the same under NCLB as a low achieving school. I spent quite a lot of time traveling across the country after NCLB passed showing states how they could create differentiated accountability systems to distinguish such schools. While both types of schools had work to do, both could be given very different ratings and, in many respects, have different consequences. Several states, including Ohio, whose deputy commissioner is now the commissioner in Massachusetts, put such pioneering systems in place. Others followed. That they all didn’t, especially given the flexibility Margaret Spellings enshrined in policy, is due to their own lack of initiative, not limitations imposed on them. In fact, had this administration wanted to make the possibility of differentiation even clearer, it could have built on the flexibility Spellings started, without throwing out the baby (accountability) with the bath water in many of the waivers it granted. OR it could have built a bipartisan coalition as we did in 2001 and pass a reauthorization of the ESEA to fix and improve the law.

    It’s beyond the purpose of this message to go into the possible elements of relief this administration could have offered in lieu of the interests it pursued in its waiver policies, but, suffice to say, the problems cited could have been eased in ways far less destructive of accountability than was the case in many of the waivers.

    One place where I agree with Cunningham is that I believe this administration has been willing to take arrows for the sake of reform. I tip my cap to them for that. They’re taking arrows just as we took arrows. That’s what happens to people who want to change and improve the system.

    But, this false piety of those who persist in thinking they have it all right while their predecessors had it all wrong will only help destroy the base for reform and leave this bunch awfully lonely in the end.

    Accountability is being weakened. Federal policy is being fractured. Commitments are being made that will likely not be kept over the long term. Content standards will be better, yes, but there may be no will to see them through or hold anyone accountable to learning to them.

    People who cut on their predecessors and fail to keep or build a coalition will find themselves in the end, alone, and still despised by the defenders of the status quo. And to what end? Let’s hope it’s not a scatterred landscape across the states of fragmented, fleeting, and “wildly different” remnants of reform.

  16. The only bill that will ever get through the US Congress is a bill that completely rolls back NCLB accountability. Face facts.

  17. I agree with Silas amd the person who wrote that suburban parents oppose reform because the system is meeting their needs. I think Kress is just trying to make people forget what an abject disaster NCLB is widely acknowledged as being. I think Rotherham is trying to trick everyone by saying the 82% number never happened. He knows that without waivers when 100% of kids had to pass (great idea there, Kress) more than 82% of American schools would have failed. You nerds can argue over whose pocket protector is best but out here in the real world, regular people know the ed sky isn’t falling like u political animals want them to believe. White suburban moms know as much. But u guys go ahead and keep telling them their awesome public schools are awful. In the end u reformers will be revealed to be the empty alarmists u are. Non-poor American students ARE bright. Privatizing is a flame for u corporatist stooges but for engaged and involved American parents it’s not a priority. Your ideology is about to be dashed against the rocks of a more positive reality than u can admit exists. Should these moms believe ur relentless (and relentlessly funded and spun) rhetoric, or their lying eyes?

  18. There is no money to be made in the positions taken by Silas and Zeke, but lots in the position taken by Kress. Education “reform” is about making money (charters, tests) and hopefully our educated citizens are catching on and taking action.

  19. “these parents have elected to invest time in their children & communities rather than their entertainment & leisure pursuits”

    Hard to tell Zeke, whether you’re racist or classist. Maybe both.

    Jake, why do you spell you with two missing letters but you spell every other word correctly in your, well, I don’t really know what you’re saying because your deliberate misspelling of you is so distracting. It makes u seem younger than u prolly r.

  20. Hey Jeffrey Miller – I’ll avoid the ad hominems & needless personal attacks you & Arne Duncan seem to prefer, and stick to the central point. For the record, I volunteer personal time educating inner-city students……do you??? If not, try it sometime & then return to this post to present some first-hand & informed viewpoints.

    The facts prove suburban schools annually produce higher-performance students & proportionately more of them than inner-city schools. This is neither class nor race induced, and it’s racist to insinuate such a comment! As a result, parents of students in these schools tend to be less inclined to adopt Common Core or any other education “reform” which is introduced every few years.

    My 3 kids attend a public elementary school & there are many things I want to see different. I’m NOT impressed with Common Core thus far. My 6th grader’s teachers have NO curriculum from the district & are left on their own to form curriculum & assessments, and this is in the top performing school in my county in California. I meet with parents across my county & they say the same things, leading me to conclude this is a borderline disaster in the making, at least for current upper elementary & middle school students.

    It seems public schools are constantly in a new program of reform, but never become reformed, or transformed. Transformation of our public education system from meeting least common denominators to maximization of individual potential is long overdue. Curricula must be developed which permit students of ALL races, classes, aptitudes, and environments to find their niche & develop it. Standards matter, but they must be upward achievement oriented rather than minimum thresholds being cleared. The best way to execute this is NOT national but local in creation & administration.

    Top-down approaches only result in bottom-up focus, which dilutes the potential & achievements of upper skilled students. This in turn forces American employers to recruit from abroad to find sufficient quantities & quality of highly-skilled employees, as America continues its grand social experiments in education.

  21. This in turn forces American employers to recruit from abroad to find sufficient quantities & quality of highly-skilled employees, as America continues its grand social experiments in education.
    Sorry, Zeke.
    employers are not recruiting from abroad because there aren’t enough qualified Americans.
    They seek abroad because they are cheaper.

    The alleged “shortage” of US engineering graduates is inconsistent with reports from Duke University that 30 to 40 percent of students in its master’s of engineering management program accept jobs outside the profession. About one-third of engineering graduates from MIT go into careers outside their field. Job outsourcing and work visas for foreign engineers are reducing career opportunities for American engineering graduates and, also, reducing salary scales.

    When employers allege a shortage of engineers, they mean that there is a shortage of American graduates who will work for the low salaries that foreigners will accept. Americans are simply being forced out of the engineering professions by jobs outsourcing and the importation of foreigners on work visas.

    The Death of US Engineering

  22. Hey Phillip Marlowe – When I was involved in hiring & managing engineers we found a shortage of applicants, especially American-born or trained people. Have you ever been responsible to hire technical employees???

    My employers paid above average wages & gave excellent benefits yet we still had a hard time receiving many resumes from US based applicants. The foreign applicants generally had excellent training & their experience was equal or better than many US based applicants.

    It is very difficult to bring foreign engineers to the US due to visa qualifications & requirements, so there are not hoards of engineers taking jobs from qualified American applicants as you allege.

    Your excerpt of a Duke Univ study & vague reference to MIT lack adequate & proper context – the reason their graduates & those of many other colleges/universities during the past 3-4 years have sought employment outside their field of training is the economy has been in weakened condition. This is not limited to engineering, but many other majors/degrees. Until the economy rebounds & faces less uncertainty regarding increasing & capricious regulations, we will continue to see elevated unemployment & underemployment rates.

  23. Hey Zeke.
    I cite my sources, care to name your company?
    Read more here:

    And yet, alongside such dire projections, you’ll also find reports suggesting just the opposite—that there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs. One study found, for example, that wages for U.S. workers in computer and math fields have largely stagnated since 2000. Even as the Great Recession slowly recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid- and late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment as many companies, including Boeing, IBM, and Symantec, continue to lay off thousands of STEM workers.


  24. Dear Zeke, you do not need to play the holier than thou game. I concede, you are indeed holier than am I as I have chosen to actually work in such a district. Have you chosen a vow of poverty and lack of public and political respect for your life’s work, perchance? Oh, but I forget, you are a volunteer. How noble. How quaint. Once of the reasons districts are in constant turmoil is because of malcontents like you who vote and think you know better than educational professionals how to run schools.

  25. Sorry Jeffrey – I won’t descend to your level, though I don’t consider myself holier either. Just a person who does my best daily to live a life of integrity & service to others.

    I didn’t feel it necessary earlier to state that I am an educational professional since this isn’t a game of holier than thou, so your continued ad hominem attacks also continue to be erroneous in assumptions besides being petty.

    Malcontent – really??? Malcontents typically don’t volunteer or do anything other than write nasty blog retorts since it requires very little effort, little intellect, and little moral character. Unless you can offer something valid, credible, and substantive to this discussion, perhaps you should instead spend your time researching the issues in a balanced & exogetic manner.

  26. Phillip Marlowe – One of the reasons I dropped my IEEE membership years ago was its over-emphasis on socio-political issues at the expense of focus on science & technology. Though quality of life is important to every profession, the group has become too much like a political action committee, dating back to the 1980s when it continuously ran feature stories of how Michael Dukakis was to become our best-ever President. That was time, money, and editorial space squandered & alienated a lot of engineers who looked to the IEEE to provide unbiased, unadulterated progress in technology. The mixed-marriage of politics & technology caused IEEE to become diluted, so many engineers have dropped their memberships through time.

    Since then IEEE has devolved further into annual membership surveys of cry-in-my-milk/beer whining about salaries, promotions, quality of worklife, etc. Who needs an Oprah-like IEEE??

    Much of what you cite deals with MACROeconomic issues rather than individual company HR policies. Guest workers are the new normal in technology, medicine, and many other professions, and this trend will grow in the future. I’ve seen this in California for 3 decades across multiple professions. Though I want US engineers to experience full employment, guest workers as a class are here to stay.

    Ask US citizens formerly in the construction industry & you’ll find illegal immigrants have permanently taken away many of their jobs, quality has declined, and this is despite many unions supposedly representing US construction workers. Same goes for agriculture, and you’re a beneficiary by paying reduced prices for produce at grocery stores, which would be much higher if guest workers / illegal immigrants were sent home & somehow replaced by higher-priced US workers if you could find them.

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