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Who are the ‘enemies’ of Common Core?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan made news when he 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 have discovered, as a result of new standardized test results, that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.” Here’s one reaction to his statements, from Carol Burris, the award-winning principal of  South Side High School in New York.

Burris has been chronicling on this blog problems with the test-driven reform initiative in New York, which was the first big state to implement Common Core and give students Core-aligned standardized tests (here, here, here, here, and here). She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010, was tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by more than 1,535 New York principals and more than 6,500 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

By Carol Burris

As resistance to the Common Core State Standards and Race to the Top grows, reform leaders are looking for “the other” to whom they can assign blame. In the narrative they have created, the Common Core is a civil rights issue — and only those who do not care about students of poverty or color could be opposed. And so last Friday, in front of school superintendents from around the nation, Education Secretary Arne Duncan identified a new enemy of his noble cause — white, suburban moms.

Duncan said that opposition to the Core is now coming from a new quarter,  “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.” The comment drips with paternalistic derision for the thousands of New York moms of all races who care deeply about their children and who are growing increasingly disgusted with testing, Common Core-aligned curriculum and the data-driven culture of  the Obama administration’s Race to the Top reform.  Duncan reduced all of their sincere concerns to vanity and ego — while throwing race into the mix.

In the past, Duncan has identified other enemies — he has, for example, called them crazy “tea party” types.  As the epicenter of resistance moves to liberal New York, however, that stereotype can no longer work. The parents, educators, superintendents and school board members who are packing the State Education Department’s local forums are neither crazy nor tea party members. They are Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, who are united in a fight for New York’s kids.

Duncan is not alone in stereotyping the opposition. When the New York forums began, New York Education Commissioner John King chalked the resistance up to “special interests” who, he claimed, had co-opted the reforms. In his recent speech to teachers, (which he begins by talking about a film about turkeys, or “compelling cartoon cinema”), he praises teachers for not being distracted by the politics, his characterization of the pushback against his reforms. He ends by linking their work on the Common Core to the bus boycott of the South. Is he, by using that analogy, implying that those who disagree with his reforms are like segregationists?

I can imagine Martin Luther King Jr. marching to protest the alarming rates of childhood poverty in New York State, or marching to insist that New York’s racially isolated schools be desegregated. A bus boycott for more informational texts, grueling tests for 9 year olds or higher cut scores? I find that difficult to imagine.

Like Duncan, John King either does not understand (or won’t admit) that the resistance to his reforms is authentic. Even though the forums he has been attending to “hear” from parents and other about Common Core now include procedures to limit and pre-screen speakers and their questions, the same concerns regarding the Core, testing and teacher evaluations bubble up.

The commissioner continues to get an earful from parents and teachers. On Long Island, Beth Dimino called for John King’s resignation and supported parents across the state who are choosing to Opt Out. Parents, often holding back tears, begged the commissioner to slow down, providing examples of the negative effects of the rapid implementation of the Common Core curriculum on their children. Over 500 New York principals have signed a letter of concern about Common Core testing, and still the stoic King remains unmoved. He says, “now is not the moment for a delay”, thus echoing his boss, Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, as well as Arne Duncan, who claim that we are not moving too fast, but rather too slow.

To make his case, the commissioner has resorted to using questionable evidence. For example, King recently claimed that it took New York state seven years to roll out the Common Core. Let’s examine that claim. The Common Core Standards were not even released until June 2, 2010. That is less than three and a half years ago. New York State adopted the standards in July, and finalized them in 2011.  The Board of Regents did not mandate their implementation until September of 2012.  The facts do not back up the claim.

In the face of parental concerns regarding increased testing, the commissioner states that the number and frequency of New York State tests has not change, which is true,  but he ignores the fact that the time spent on state testing has ballooned.

  • In 2010, third graders spent 160 minutes in state testing. In 2013, third graders spent  420 minutes in testing
  • The increase for fifth graders was from 170 minutes to 540 minutes.
  • The increase for seventh graders was from 200 minutes to 540 minutes.
  • For students with disabilities, the amount of time in testing may be double the times above.

This does not include all of the additional testing that resulted from the implementation of APPR, the state’s flawed new teacher and principal evaluation system, as well as the field tests that schools are required to give.

Many express concerns regarding the rollout of curriculum, especially the incomplete and problematic modules that are appearing on Engage NY, the school reform Web site developed and maintained by the New York State Education Department. The commissioner retorts that curriculum is a local responsibility, and the modules are merely a guide.  He claims they are not a script.

Here is an excerpt from a document on the state’s Web site entitled NYS Common Core Mathematics Curriculum:

Show the first 1:08 minutes of video below, telling the class that our goal will simply be to describe the motion of the man in words. (Note: Be sure to stop the video at 1:08 because after that the answers to the graphing questions are given.)

Are New York teachers to believe that the above directions that specifically tell the teacher what to do and say is not a script, and what is labeled NYS curriculum is only a suggestion?

It is little wonder that parents and educators are confused and angered by the spin that greets their questions.  It is as though they are being asked, “Do you believe me, or your lying eyes?”

Neither stereotypes nor disingenuous answers will reduce the building opposition to Race to the Top reform. The concerns of parents are neither small nor small-minded.  Parents do not much care what the Business Roundtable wants their future workers to be.  They love their children who only get to be third graders once. They care about their kids’ emotional, as well as academic, well being.  They do not define their kids by test scores, nor are test scores their only measure of school quality.  They are refusing to buy the big lie that their neighborhood schools and teachers are defective.  This comes as a surprise to reformers who believed that suburban parents would rise up and turn against their schools.

Perhaps, in part, the problem is one of vanity.  But it is not the vanity of suburban moms who think too highly of their children.  Instead, the problem may be the vanity of those who refuse to admit that they may not be the civil rights heroes they believe themselves to be.