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.