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Arne Duncan got it right in comments about ‘white suburban moms’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan sure did step in it recently.

What was he thinking (was he thinking?) when he said that part of the reason the new educational approach of using a Common Core State Standards curriculum has been greeted with mixed reaction is because of backlash 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.”?

It’s racist; it’s sexist; it’s stereotypical.

It also contains some kernels of the truth.

What Duncan was lamenting wasn’t much different from what I said in a column last month. Of course, I’m not the education secretary so I got off with answering a few angry e-mails from readers. The idea behind Common Core is hard to object to: create a set of standards for what every child should know at the end of every grade. The problem, in some cases, has been in the implementation. The way students are assessed (or graded) has changed and those changes haven’t always been clearly communicated to parents. The distress over those changes is what sparked Duncan’s somewhat intemperate remarks.

The problem wasn’t really with what Duncan said, but in the way he said it. He admitted as much when his office released a clarification several days after the firestorm erupted. Duncan said what he thought; he didn’t couch the discussion in niceties and he got nailed for it.

He should have known better. He should know that discussing children’s education is like the third rail for parents and teachers, and that neither group is without blame.

Educators want parents involved, but they want us involved in the way they want us to be involved: handing out milk in the lunchroom, shelving books in the library. They don’t want to be questioned about whether a detention was appropriate, an essay graded too harshly, a math assignment too hard.

Parents pay lip service to how hard it is to teach a class of 24 first-graders how to read. But we mutter under our breath that phonics is more important than context clues. We think Meghan didn’t do well on her test because she’s bored and not being sufficiently challenged. We know that Mrs. Smith spends far too much time with other people’s kids and not enough with ours.

Parents need to advocate for their children, but parents don’t need to always advocate for their children.

The holidays are upon us and many parents have on their shopping list presents for their children’s teachers. I hope not to incur the wrath of too many educators here, but I’m going to advise parents to skip the Starbucks gift card or the scented candles and instead give a holiday gift that doubles as a New Year’s resolution.

Give the gift of restraint. When you want to fire off an e-mail to a teacher or schedule a meeting after school, realize that you are not alone, there may be 23 other parents who want to do the same thing. Would you rather the teacher spend time haggling with you over a misspelled word on your son’s spelling test or use that time to come up with next week’s lesson plans? Dealing with parents is part of every teacher’s job. And in some school districts, teachers yearn to have parents who are involved enough to know how their child did on a spelling test.

But being over-involved is as bad as being under-involved. Both sets of parents get in the way of teachers doing their jobs — to help educate our children.

That’s really the point Arne Duncan was trying to make.



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