Secretary Duncan and “White Suburban Moms”: Friends or Enemies?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stirred up controversy a few weeks ago with his remark that opposition to the Common Core comes primarily from “white suburban moms” upset over their kids’ poor performance on the new, more rigorous exams. “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,” he said.  

While Duncan’s choice of words was poor, he struck a chord with me. The evidence is all around us that many middle class children are not acquiring the skills they need to succeed in higher education and later obtain a living-wage job. So while the results of the new tests might be disconcerting, they do tell the truth to parents, students and teachers so they know whether children are really on track.

And yet I also understand how Common Core raises concerns for many parents, not just white suburban moms. Leaving aside the conspiracy theories, I think the fundamental concern for parents is that they do not want their children’s education to be standardized.

Moms and dads see education not in terms of the future of the nation, but the future of their child. They know that children vary widely. Some have an easy time mastering high-level academics, while others struggle mightily. Some are bored in school because they’re ready for 8th grade math in 6th grade and their teacher is not challenging them; others are about to drop out of school because they’re in 10th grade and haven’t mastered the skills to pass English class. And kids naturally gravitate toward a diverse range of interests: art, sports, entrepreneurship, activism, and academics.

More than anything, parents want teachers who see the child in front of them and who they can collaborate with to reach, inspire and support their child to be the best they can be.

Common Core standards are not incompatible with this vision. In fact, we know that when parents understand Common Core, they support it. An online survey done by GreatSchools in October showed that the majority of parents who reported familiarity with the standards felt positively about their adoption. But for CCSS to get off the ground, more parents need to see and believe that this is the case. Were I in Secretary Duncan’s shoes, I’d be pursuing three strategies to reach parents.

First, I’d emphasize that we need Common Core because our kids deserve an education that expects and supports them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. The sample test items provided by the testing consortia are encouraging in this regard. Soon, new Common Core Visualizer videos from GreatSchools will also help make this point by showing parents what it looks like for their children to meet Common Core standards, grade by grade.

Second, I’d reiterate that the Common Core is just that, a Core. It doesn’t prescribe a specific curriculum. It just emphasizes the core things we want our children to know and be able to do, while still having opportunities for exploration in art, music, and many other areas. What’s more, the common core only points to the destination; there are many ways to get there. Duncan might highlight schools like Denver School of Science and Technology that are helping students reach high academic standards through engaging project-based curricula.

Finally, I would never miss an opportunity to affirm that the heart of education is teachers and parents working together to serve the children in front of them. Nothing about Common Core changes that. In fact, when we all commit to helping students reach high standards – the kinds of standards implicit in the Common Core – that formula becomes more important than ever. Secretary Duncan knows this, of course. But by repeating it over and over, he can assuage the concerns of parents that Common Core is about standardizing education.

Ultimately, more and more American parents, including white suburban moms, are likely to see that Common Core State Standards benefit their children. Secretary Duncan can help smooth out the process by speaking directly to these genuine and heartfelt concerns of parents.

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1 Comment

  1. Anne

     /  December 2, 2013

    Thank you Bill, for elaborating on Sec’y Duncan’s concerns without the inflammatory language. I appreciate your emphasis on the word” core” and think that we should avoid the word standards which seems to imply requirements and controls by government.


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