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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Another Open Letter to Arne Duncan

Dear Mr. Duncan,

By now, you’ve no doubt been inundated by a wide range of irate responses to your comment that opposition to the Common Core standards is all about "white suburban moms who -- all of a sudden -- (discovered that) their child isn't as bright as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were."

You’ve probably heard from non-white suburban moms, and non-white urban moms, and white urban moms, and maybe even a few dads and grandparents and aunts and uncles. The one thing they all have in common is resentment toward your dismissive, insulting characterization of opponents to the Common Core.

I’m just one more voice in the chorus. I don’t mean to imply that my story is typical, but I sure as hell do mean that you should consider it before making stupid generalizations -- just as you should consider all those other stories you’ve been hearing. You’re the secretary of education. The least you could do is refrain from simplistic, insulting, reductive, sweeping statements about the families you’re meant to serve.

I am a white suburban mom. I have three kids. They all attended public school from kindergarten through 8th grade. They’re all in high school now -- but not in public school.

My husband and I wanted our kids in public school because we believe that it is one of the most important institutions in creating a cohesive society and a functional democracy. We were lucky: The schools in our town were both diverse and high quality. We wanted our kids to understand and appreciate the different cultures and experiences of others in their community. We wanted them to view education as a shared value so they would come to see the social contract as a benefit, not a burden. We wanted them to make friends with their neighbors so that their town would be not just the place where they live, but the community where they belong. And of course, we wanted them to get a great education.

For a long while, that’s more or less what they got. We found in our local public schools many wonderful, dedicated teachers who helped our kids thrive and become top students. We found a program that offered them a reasonably wide curriculum. When they were old enough, all three became involved in the instrumental music program, which quickly became an important part of their lives, as did the gifted education program. Some of the teachers in those programs were the ones who had the greatest impact on them, motivating them to strive for excellence.

But even early on, there were signs of trouble. This was already the era of No Child Left Behind. My kids’ elementary school was designated a school “in need of improvement,” for the most part because the many LEP (limited English proficient) and special education students didn’t score as well on standardized tests as their native English-speaking and non-special ed counterparts -- despite the fact that they were making good progress. (Under NCLB, every individual subgroup must score well, not just the school as a whole. LEP and special ed students are subgroups.) Having volunteered as a “parent reader” in the special ed classroom, I had firsthand experience with those students and their teachers, and I knew that it was an excellent program where kids received a huge amount of personal attention. But as far as NCLB was concerned, nothing mattered but the test scores. We parents knew that the “in need of improvement” designation would have the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of helping those kids, it stigmatized and punished the whole school, while other neighborhood schools in the area that served more uniformly affluent, native-born populations essentially got a free pass. The tension level at the school about testing quickly ratcheted up, and the kids all sensed it. The amount of time dedicated to test prep went up and up.

Middle school was a mixed bag. We found more great teachers; a high-quality accelerated math program; more music opportunities. But at the same time, test prep was increasingly eating up time. More and more resources seemed to be devoted to teaching to the middle -- the effort to nudge as many borderline-proficient kids as possible above that arbitrary “proficient” mark on the NJASK, New Jersey’s standardized state test. When I volunteered to tutor kids at the school who needed extra help, I was saddened to learn that only students who were considered borderline proficient were eligible for the tutoring; they didn’t even bother with the lowest performers.

There were other problems, too. Writing was being taught in a mechanistic way, clearly aimed at producing acceptable NJASK essays. Literature was more often than not treated as an exercise in reading comprehension rather than as a window into great ideas. And despite all the lip service paid to the importance of STEM subjects, the science program was downright anemic. (Up until 2008, NCLB did not require any science testing, so schools deemphasized science. It’s called teaching to the test.) One of the last straws came when we learned that the middle school would be firing one of its three instrumental music teachers, despite the fact that more than half of all students participated in the program. (He was later rehired part-time in response to parental outcry.)

My husband and I were torn. We did not want to abandon public education. But each kid only gets one shot at being a kid. As much as we wanted our children to be part of the grand project of public education, our number one priority was to make education a rich and engaging experience for them.

By this time, I’d been following Common Core for a while. Like a lot of parents, the idea had appealed to me at first. All the talk of analytical skills and high academic standards sounded good, and I figured it might be a way to defang the efforts of the right-wing extremists on school boards around the country who periodically tried to put creationism in the biology classroom and American exceptionalism in the history textbooks.

But when it became apparent that Common Core was being commandeered by those who would profit from selling tests and aligned materials, my tune quickly changed. It was clear that Common Core would be more of the same: ever-increasing high-stakes testing, with the added disastrous component of state-mandated test-based teacher evaluation. Teaching to the test and narrowed curriculum were bound to be the results. This was not what we wanted for our kids. So my husband and I did what so many of the so-called education reformers themselves do: We found an excellent private school that gives no standardized tests, but offers small classes and a rich, varied curriculum, and we transferred our kids there. Not without some guilt, mind you. We knew that we were lucky to have the option, and that if top students leave public schools, the problem only gets worse. But we also knew it would be the best thing for our kids.

To be absolutely clear: Never once did we have the slightest concern that our kids would do badly on Common Core-aligned standardized tests. Never once did we worry that our kids wouldn’t do well in an academically rigorous environment. They are all high achievers, even in the most competitive of environments. And yet Common Core made us run for the hills -- not in fear of failure, but to escape the oncoming tsunami of standardized testing and all the deadly dullness it would bring. We were not afraid that Common Core would show us that our public school was bad. We knew that Common Core would make our good public schools worse.

Well, that’s my story, Mr. Duncan. My kids may not be in public school any more, but I am still a taxpayer, and I want my tax dollars to support robust public education that’s all about learning and not testing. The Common Core Standards you’re promoting, despite what you say, are all about testing. You want to convince us otherwise? Do away with the tests. Until you kick the for-profit testing companies to the curb, your credibility on this matter is severely lacking.


A White Suburban Mom

(Here's more information on what Arne Duncan said about white suburban moms' fear of Common Core.)

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