Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Battle for Public Education and "White Suburban Moms"": Unpacking Arne Duncan's Latest Insult

Originally published by emPower Magazine on November 20, 2013

Social media is in frenzy over the insulting remarks made by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. As reported in the Washington Post Answer Sheet by Valarie Strauss.
“U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a group of state schools superintendents Friday that he found it ‘fascinating’ that some of the opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come 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.”
These words have sparked an outrage by many women who classify themselves as “white suburban moms” and feel directly insulted by Duncan’s choice of words. We should all be outraged at the utter lack of respect Duncan has for the people he was hired to serve…public school students, their parents, and their teachers. But a closer examination of those words reveals the nuances between the attacks on public education that Duncan has shaped by labeling the movement as “white suburban moms”. Below are five things to consider when making sense of the latest controversy in the battle to stop the privatization of public education.
1. The fight against the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is part of a movement to stop the privatization of public education.
Since the invention of our public education system there have been attempts to change the purpose and focus of public schools. Ideological movements have shifted the thinking of what should comprise the curriculum and how best to teach young people. Infused in this debate is the notion of what is the purpose of education. From a classical education for all to an education that sorts and prepares students for their probably destinations in the workforce to an education that helps each child learn to think critically and develop their potential; the purpose of education has been debated and influenced by those who have the power to shape the educational experiences of other people’s children. The recent push to “reform” public education is rooted in a set of false beliefs that include: public education is broken; American children are falling behind academically compared to their global peers as evidenced on international test scores; teachers are lazy and protected by a union that does not care if all children succeed; high stakes standardized testing will make children do better in school; evaluating teachers based on the test scores of their students will raise test scores; and allowing for-profit corporations to run schools and train teachers will help poor and minority children do better on standardized tests. When educational historian Diane Ravitch examined the research supporting each of these beliefs she concluded that these claims have no evidence to support them. In her latest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to Public Schools Ravtich breaks down each of the myths used by those who seek to shift public funding of education into the hands of private corporations. The truth is our public schools are not failing. Wealthy children in the U.S. outscore children in many high achieving countries. In the U.S. 24 percent of children live in poverty, the highest of any developing country in the world. Our public schools are plagued by the realities of poverty that make it hard for children to learn and for families to invest in their child’s education. The “reformers” are quick to argue that poverty is not destiny and we should not use poverty as an excuse. Acknowledging poverty is not an excuse but ignoring the effects of poverty does more harm than good. Poverty determines what school children attend, how many resources they have access to, and how well they are prepared to learn and thrive. If poverty did not matter we would not have disparities in school funding, all schools would get the same amount of funding regardless of the property values within each district. If you really wanted to improve public education for all children you would acknowledge that the current levels of poverty in the US is the greatest obstacle to successful public schools for all.
2. The CCSS will impede real teaching and learning for all children.
Standards are not new to education. States have developed standards that identify the knowledge and skills children should gain and be able to do at each grade level in public education. Standards should assist teachers in making sure their lessons are not only developmentally appropriate but cover a wide range of skills and knowledge that children should acquire. The CCSS are the first time in U.S. history that we have attempted to impose national standards on each state. The implementation of public education has always been in the control of each state and school district. Federal government involvement in education has centered on civil rights issues like equitable funding in athletics, protecting children with special needs, and making sure poor children receive additional funding through Title I initiatives. The move to implement the CCSS has altered the separation between state and federal control of public education. The current administration has encouraged states to adopt the CCSS and Duncan continues to be a vocal supporter of this push. He argues against the idea that the CCSS are national standards and insists that they were developed by Governors but he fails to recognize the role the federal government has had in pushing CCSS onto to schools. If the U.S. Department of Education and the Obama Administration were opposed to the CCSS or at least were willing to slow down the implementation of CCSS until teachers had enough time to prepare and evaluate the standards, most of the opposition would be satisfied. But the federal government is not only a supporter of the CCSS but a driving force behind the decision for 45 states and the District of Columbia to implement the standards with no research that supports whether or not the new standards will improve real teaching or learning.
3. Urban parents and parents of color have been fighting many components of the privatization efforts for some time including the CCSS.
When social movements begin to grow one of the early challenges involves welcoming those who are new to the fight to work with those who have been involved for a longer period of time. Newcomers typically were not aware of the challenges others were facing but now have the motivation to fight back and support the movement. Sometimes those newcomers are in a position of power based on their race or wealth to shed light on the movement. As this happens those who have been immersed in the struggle since the beginning continue to be silenced and marginalized as the fight shifts to focus on the newcomers and their influence. This phenomenon was evidenced within the Occupy Wall Street Movement. People who had been disenfranchised by corporate greed for some time were suddenly watching those who have recently lost their job or been employed for more than six months display their outrage at the 1% for hoarding the American Dream. And these newcomers to the cause were able to yield their power and privilege to bring awareness to the movement while those seasoned veterans in the cause were subject to more silencing and became more invisible as the movement gained steam. This issue is complex and must be addressed if social movements are to grow and be successful. The CCSS is the first attack on public education that directly affects most parents. Unlike vouchers, for-profit corporate charter schools, and fast-track teacher preparation programs, CCSS is affecting all children who reside in a state that have agreed to implement the new standards.
Vouchers and charter schools have been unleashed on urban areas which typically comprise of people of color and low income families. Teach for America, and other fast track teacher education programs, specifically recruit recent college graduates or anyone who wants to be a teacher, to work in low-income schools with high minority populations. These programs do not exist in suburban and wealthy public school districts but yet they are justified as being necessary for other people’s children. Since NCLB, many parents have been critical of the privatization movement. They saw how setting impossible goals, evaluating schools on meaningless unreliable data, and blaming teachers for not being able to stop the effects of poverty only widens the achievement gap between their children and children who attend better funded public schools. Parents know that their children no longer enjoy going to school and worry obsessively about passing standardized tests. Parents understand that 3+ hours of homework each night is not only unrealistic but counterproductive in helping their child succeed in school. Parents know that for-profit charter chains that selectively exclude children who are English language learners or have disabilities siphon funds from struggling public schools that educate all children. Typically these parents do not have the power to influence education policy. They know something is wrong but they cannot get anyone to listen to them or take them seriously. Arne Duncan does not listen to them and his comments servers to further silence them from the movement to save public education.
4. The anti-CCSS movement is comprised of a diverse group of people who have different reasons for opposing the push for national standards.
Issues affecting public education have the ability to cross racial boundaries, class lines, religious beliefs, and political affiliations. Only parents who can opt out of public education and buy into private schools or home schooling can escape the day to day work of improving public education. But as taxpayers they are still part of a public system that affects every aspect of our society. Because the CCSS is the first attempt at national standards embraced by most states the effects are far reaching. Within the anti-CCSS movement there is a large group of diverse individuals who believe that we need to abandon the CCSS or at least slow down the implementation. Some proponents are focused on what they see as an over reach of the federal government. Others equate the CCSS with the Affordable Care Act and allow their disdain for President Obama to frame the argument against the standards as being opposed to Obamacore. And some see the CCSS as another tool of the privatization movement that will lead to an increase in testing and data mining of our students. The anti-CCSS movement does not have a single leader and groups who engage in fighting the CCSS do so in different ways. The Badass Teacher’s Association has made fighting the CCSS a focus of their group’s mission but they do not endorse a local action to keep children home from school to protest the standards. Within the anti-CCSS movement you will find a plethora of beliefs and efforts to stop the standards from being forced onto public schools.
Teachers disagree on the merits of the CCSS as well. Some high school teachers tend to like the standards and see many possibilities to improving teaching while many early childhood educators find the standards to be developmentally inappropriate for young learners. The fact is the standards are the same for everyone but will be implemented in 46 different ways but only measured using one of two assessments, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) or the Smarter Balanced Assessments. One aspect in the fight against the CCSS is why national standards are a bad idea…how do we determine what every child needs to know and when they should learn it? The United States of America is made of 50 diverse states. Is there really a common set of knowledge and skills that all children need to learn in the same way and at the same time? If there is who decides what knowledge counts, who’s voices are heard, and what skills are the most important? The very nature of learning disputes the idea that we can all learn in the same way and at the same time. Learning varies by the individual. Environmental factors combined with biological maturation will affect how a child learns and how much they learn. The reason why the opposition to the CCSS is varied is because children are varied. They cannot be standardized and made to learn exactly like everyone else. Children need an education that takes their differences into account and teaches them how to think so they can learn the knowledge and acquire the skills that are useful in helping them reach their full potential. Standards should be a guide not a rigid script.
5. Duncan’s remarks are not only racist and sexist but they are insulting to all parents who care about the education of their children.
I wonder how different the reaction to Duncan’s words would be if he said “suburban moms” instead of “white suburban moms”. This was not a slip of the tongue by the Secretary of Education. He is aware that much of the anti-CCSS push back is coming from women who he classifies as “white suburban moms”. He is also aware that many men are fighting against the CCSS along with people of color, mothers and fathers, who are concerned about the new standards. He knows that some urban parents are concerned about the increased in testing that can lead to more of their neighborhood schools being closed. He knows that the movement is varied but he chose to focus his remarks towards a particular group within the movement, “white suburban moms”. In a sense he is legitimatizing their concerns by addressing them directly and then he insults their intelligence by claiming that they only care because the standards make their child appear not as brilliant and their school not as good as they thought. Not only did Duncan insult all parents and supporters of public education everywhere he did it using racist and sexist comments.
His remarks illustrate two examples of how he utilized a divide and conquer strategy that is often used to undermine collective resistance to the privatization of public education. Education “reformers” like Duncan often frame their support of privatization ventures like the CCSS as a tool for improving the civil rights of children of color and low income children. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teacher unions in the country, confirmed this belief in the following tweet, 
  1. @rweingarten @penasplace @Linda1746 @GetUpStandUp2 @mcpssuper @symphily We aren't hearing that! CCSS hurting poor kids BAT tchrs reporting
@BadassTeachersA @penasplace @Linda1746 @GetUpStandUp2 @mcpssuper @symphily- EVERY Civ Rts grp sees as a tool to help poor kids
So because Civil Rights group believe the CCCS will help poor children then these “white suburban moms” who oppose the CCSS are part of the problem. Do you see how Duncan has pitted these groups against each other with 3 simple words?
By framing his argument to “white suburban moms” he silences the voices of all the nonwhite non-suburban men and women who are opposed to the CCSS. He does not want to listen to the voices of opposition surrounding the CCSS so he attacks the movement by using racist and sexist language that can further divide the group as the “white suburban moms” use their anger and privilege to bring this insult to the public’s attention. As a divide and conquer strategy, his words can cause those fighting to save public education to fight among themselves as one groups response is privileged over others (will the outrage of “white suburban moms” be taken more seriously than the outrage at his equating Hurricane Katrina to be the best thing to happen to education in New Orleans?). Make no mistake, Duncan knew exactly what he was doing when he said “white suburban moms”. What he did not know is that the movement would not be fooled by his efforts to undermine our efforts. We will acknowledge the way privilege and power highlights voices within the movement and silences others. We will continue to work together to make sure the dangers of the privatization movement are known to all. And we will never stop working to make sure every child receives a quality public education regardless of their race or parent’s income level. We cannot be limited to “white suburban moms”. We are supporters of public education and we are outraged at Duncan’s insult on behalf of every child, parent, and teacher who refuses to buy into the myth of privatization.
To learn more about the Badass Teacher’s Association position on the Common Core State Standards click here
To learn how you can opt out of high stakes standardized testing click here

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