Arne Duncan’s latest gaffe highlights the critical inequities of federal education “reforms.” Reversing these trends will require policymakers to acknowledge that education alone cannot create perfect equity of opportunity.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hastily walked back his comments recently after dismissing Common Core opponents as “white suburban moms” who had suddenly realized that their kids aren't as bright as they thought. This sparked a furor amongst parents and educators and thrust the Common Core back into the spotlight. Although the controversy over standards-based education is nothing new, it speaks volumes that the outrage doesn’t make the evening news until white suburban moms are singled out. If there is something positive to be gleaned from Duncan’s tactless comments, it is the public recognition that these federal policies have stratified education along race and class divisions—policies that Duncan presides over and advocates for as Obama’s education secretary.
Perhaps the uproar prompted by Duncan’s comments has less to do with white suburban outrage and instead signals a tipping point: a mainstream rejection of policies that are finally being exposed for their disproportionately detrimental impact on poor and minority communities. Duncan’s remarks provided a glimpse at the man behind the curtain. Race and class matter in education and Duncan simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed this.
It’s hard to sympathize with Duncan’s dismissiveness.
Common Core is just one of several examples of corporate influence in education. The foundations and consortiums behind these policies, like the Gates Foundation, Pearson, and others, all stand to profit from adoption of their methods, resources, and technology. But that’s neoliberalism in a nutshell. What is truly surprising has been the full-fledged support of high-stakes testing by the US Department of Education (DoE) under a Democratic president, continuing the infamous legacy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The mission of the DoE has been to fire “bad” teachers, as determined by their students’ test scores, and close schools which don’t meet these arbitrary and subjective goals.
Few would dispute that we should hold our educators and the children they are entrusted with to a high bar of excellence, but evaluating performance on test scores has never been a viable strategy. As Common Core test results have started trickling in, the results aren’t pretty. In New York, they show a widening of the achievement gap between black and white students. This leaves young teachers at a disadvantage since they are often placed in high poverty schools and are still learning on the job. They often have to also play the role of counselor, psychiatrist, and day care provider. So while the White Suburban Mom is disappointed because she’s tried her best to ensure the highest quality of life for her daughter, the Single Black Urban Mom who works two jobs simply can’t be as engaged with her son’s education: a child afflicted with toxic stress who then takes the same exam on an empty stomach. Ignoring these elements and relying solely on improving testing scores demeans the teaching profession and puts the students who need the most attention and wraparound services at a disadvantage.
Of course, this forms the ideological basis of corporate reform: firing “bad” teachers will fix education which will lead to middle class prosperity which will alleviate poverty. “College and career readiness” are the choice buzzwords found in the text of the Common Core. Speaking to Politico, Duncan said, “the path to the middle class runs right through the classroom.” Such a perspective, keen in the 1960s, sounds positively outmoded in 2013. As Millennials are quickly realizing, that rose-tinted vision of education as the great social equalizer simply cannot reconcile the effects of the Great Recession and decades of bad policy.
This is the crux of the issue. It really is all about money. Merit pay, standardization, union-busting, school closures, austerity budgets, unregulated charters, all coupled with persuasive messaging and the endorsement of both major political parties means corporate reform will make a few people very rich at the expense of equity and inclusiveness. Education is just another avenue where the profit motive has been pecking away at the remains of public institutions that we spent decades building.
It seems like grassroots uproar is finally coming to a head. The start of National Education Week this year saw anti-Common Core protests in New York, South Carolina, Maryland, and several other states. Much like the solidarity seen in recent fast food employee strikes and Black Friday protests from workers demanding fair wages and labor practices, teachers, parents, administrators, and legislators from all political stripes are uniting in opposition to unproven policies and their slapdash implementation across the country. Parents and educators should not be pitted against one another but realize their interests are very much aligned.
We have to acknowledge that non-school factors play a major role in learning outcomes and policymakers must know that enough is enough. Vast income inequality can lead to inequality in education, so we must ensure adequate funding formulas can meet the needs of diverse demographics. We must ensure access to affordable, quality healthcare for all families. We must further integrate schools to reduce achievement gaps. We must support the collective bargaining rights of teachers, who are often overburdened by factors outside the scope of their profession. As progressive populism is reignited, we must recognize that these issues are not about ideology but about pragmatism. Reinventing our social infrastructure for the 21st century means we simply cannot afford to treat our schools as a market ripe for competition any longer.
Raul Gardea is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Senior Fellow for Education.
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