Why This “Suburban Mom” Thinks Arne Duncan’s All Wrong
Cynthia Liu is the founder of K12NN.
Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said “white suburban moms” oppose Common Core State Standards because they’ll find out “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they [sic] were.”
SO. MUCH. FAIL. Where to begin?
First of all, I’m not white, I’m Asian Pacific American and the daughter of Chinese immigrants — and up to the age of five, I spoke mostly Mandarin Chinese despite being born in Madison, Wisconsin. I currently live in a small town outside Los Angeles and I resemble much of suburbia these days. Suburban America is increasingly more Latino, Asian, and African American, according to numerous demographic studies. Children at my son’s elementary school speak Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Thai, and several other languages as well as English. The state of California recognizes bi- or multi-lingualism as a strength by awarding a State Seal of Biliteracy to graduating high school seniors — a sign that our majority-minority state has all the elements necessary to face a diverse future with confidence and cultural competency. We’re from all socio-economic backgrounds and range from multiple post-graduate degree holders to graduates of high school or less in our community. The key thing we have in common is that we value education for the opportunities it gives our kids.
I’m the product of this country’s public schools (K-12, BS from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, UC Berkeley MA and PhD) and I happen to agree with many “suburban moms” Secretary Duncan so sneeringly derided. Yes, many of us have a problem with spending *more* time and money on test prep or test administration instead of instructional time. You know why? Testing is not teaching. Test scores do not equal achievement, no matter how flattering it is to score highly. As one of my favorite education bloggers, Teacher Sabrina, points out,
In reality, tests scores have never exclusively reflected a child’s knowledge or skills. They reflect what a given set of test-makers and a given set of public officials decide should count as having knowledge and skills. They can’t possibly capture all of the different ways different people display their skills and knowledge, and that’s to say nothing of the many ways in which test-makers unintentionally create test items that reflect cultural and other forms of bias (hence the tight correlation with family background and income). Likewise, public officials can and do raise and lower passing scores as needed to satisfy different goals, including political ones.
The difference now is that, while the old tests used to align fairly closely with what middle- and upper-class students and schools do, the new tests subject these students and schools to a kind of mismatch similar to what low-income students and schools have always dealt with.
Parents oppose Common Core State Standards not because we mistakenly believe our children are perfect, but because we look at the growth and progress of the WHOLE CHILD. We know our children aren’t the sum of the tests they take. No standardized test ever measured this, this, or this. We know long before the end of the school year how our children are doing.
Some of us grew up in the golden era of public education, before NCLB data-driven testing madness and during a time when funding for public schools was a given. We expected when our own children went to school they would be taught at minimum music, art, industrial arts, home economics, biological/earth/physical sciences, history, foreign languages, physical education, and the 3R’s we learned about in America’s schools. Yet so many of those crucial classes and extracurriculars have been whittled back due to budget cuts and politics. Schools are doing the best they can, and in many cases are doing amazing work against big odds.
Why should our nation’s kids get less than what we did in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s? That’s not progress. I’m here to shout that fact from the rooftops, especially to newly-arrived immigrant parents like those in my parents shoes a generation ago (and those who never experienced a sound public education): you are being cheated by what passes for public education “innovation” today — charter schools/”school choice,” vouchers, “no excuses” scripted teaching, incessant testing — that in reality undermines and weakens the public school system.
I know parents like me weren’t that happy with Obama administration education policies to begin with, but some of the worst trends in education policy today are ones Secretary Duncan is personally responsible for.
Let’s go back to this idea of an increasingly diverse suburbia. How is it that segregation is on the rise despite greater demographic diversity? Well, it turns out that when the Obama administration dangled Race to the Top bribes to states undergoing extreme financial distress during the Great Recession, lifting caps on charter schools was one of the conditions. This unfunded federal mandate created chaos and divisiveness on the state level, because opportunistic charter school operators saw profits to be made and opened new schools whether needed or not, yet no state provided revenue to fund additional facilities that these new schools eventually demanded. Co-locations that make charter and existing public schools compete for space in a crowded building and pit families against each other are absolutely the fault of Arne Duncan.
The rise of charter schools that turn away special needs kids, English language learners, or other kids who test poorly can be laid at Arne Duncan’s door. Charter schools promote a two-tier system (today’s marketing-friendly name for yesterday’s “separate but equal”) and contribute to increasingly racially segregated schools in all parts of America — this, too is a signature Arne Duncan achievement.
That national Common Core standards left out career educators and mostly seem to create a national market for “edupreneurs” and textbook/testing company/test prep/teacher credentialing mega-corporations at the expense of children’s needs is what Arne Duncan is proud of. He dismisses justifiable concerns over weakened family privacy protections in the eagerness to greenlight CCSS tests and enable companies to profit from students’ data.
Worst of all, Secretary Duncan tries to lump these concerns about the uses of student data in with “FEMA camp” conspiracy nuts. The Family Education Records Privacy Act exists to safeguard students’ sensitive personal and academic records from the eyes of anyone but the family, and there are excellent reasons why. Senator Markey of Massachussetts has demanded a response from the Department of Education to his inquiry on this same matter.
Secretary Duncan, you weren’t adding much value to my child’s education to begin with, and now you’ve made a disastrous mistake no newbie teacher would ever make — you’ve diminished the importance of moms, dads, grandparents and other guardians as important partners WITH teachers and schools to bring out the best in children’s growth.
I’m waiting for you to address what matters to me and many parents like me: when are you going to sideline harmful trends like endless testing and experimental schools that siphon funds from embattled school districts and diminish diversity, and instead get back to making sure every child has a great, well-rounded education and time enough in the day to teach them those things that really matter?
Instead of condescending to moms — or parents — of any color, why don’t you listen to us? You’ll find we’re way out in front of you. Catch up to us.
It’s simple: the more tests you mandate throughout the year, the less time for things kids really need to learn from school.