No, Arne Duncan, "White Suburban Moms" Aren't the Problem; You Are

Duncan's recent comments were part of a pattern that undermines innovation and allows the achievement gap to get worse.


Common Core, the initiative that claims to more accurately measure K-12 student knowledge in English and math, also encourages children to step up their "critical thinking."

That didn't stop Education Secretary Arne Duncan, one of Common Core's salesmen, from telling a group of school superintendents last week that it is "fascinating" to see opposition to the initiative coming from "white suburban moms who—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."

Now, it's possible that little Caleb and Riley are not the prodigies their parents suspect, but antagonism toward Common Core is more likely propelled by a belief that centralizing education allows Washington to, over time, destroy local autonomy. Even if these fears are exaggerated, they are far from outlandish—and hardly "fascinating" to anyone who's paying attention.

What is fascinating, though, is hearing Duncan contending that certain suburbanite "white" parents have little interest in any genuine assessment of kids and their schools. Evidence seems to suggest the opposite, actually. White suburban moms (shorthand, of course, for moms who live in middle-class communities that feature all kinds of races) seem to have a propensity to spend a lot of time, energy and money creating better schools. What's more, whether the children of "white suburban moms" are as accomplished as we think or not, comparably speaking, the data find that these kids attend reasonably good schools, that they tend to graduate a lot and that many of them go to college. And because many of these parents can afford it, if the public school is failing them they ship the kids to parochial or private schools—an option many of their poorer neighbors do not have the luxury of doing.

It is true that once schools shift to Common Core, standardized test scores will generally fall. Duncan argues that these new, lower scores are a more precise reflection of the experience in these schools. (It could also mean that schools haven't yet learned how to teach to the test.) Either way, if these "white" kids are as average as Duncan thinks, what does that say about minority kids, who are regularly scoring 20 points lower on standardized tests?

It means we have a national tragedy on our hands. A few years back, the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard found that 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys were proficient in reading—compared with 38 percent of white boys. It found that only 12 percent of black eighth-grade boys were proficient in math—compared with 44 percent of white boys. As The New York Times reported, African-American males dropped out at almost twice the rate of white males. Their SAT critical reasoning scores were 104 points lower than average.

One of the first actions of the Obama administration was to back shutting down the D.C. voucher program, which provided $7,500 Opportunity Scholarship vouchers to disadvantaged kids. At the time, The Wall Street Journal's editorial board reported that the Department of Education had buried a study that illustrated persuasive data-driven improvement among kids who won vouchers compared with the kids who didn't—the kind of evidence Duncan says he wants.

In 1999, Florida enacted far-reaching reform in K-12 education that included school choice, charter schools and virtual education, among other improvements. Consequently, over the next decade and a half, the state outperformed the national average by a wide margin in closing the achievement gap. When Louisiana passed bipartisan legislation, only families that fell below 250 percent of the poverty line were eligible for vouchers, and 90 percent of these voucher recipients are black. About 8,000 children signed up. The administration didn't review any evidence about achievement; it sued to stop it. (With almost no hope of winning, it finally dropped the lawsuit against the voucher program this week.)

The administration isn't interested in "suburban white moms" getting in its way, and it sure doesn't want minority moms having too many choices. Duncan's recent comments weren't "clumsy"; they were part of a pattern—a pattern that undermines innovation and allows the achievement gap to get worse.