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Embattled Secretary of State Arne Duncan recently dealt with renewed policy blowback after he made a backhand comment about parents who were opposed to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). He told a gathering of state superintendents that white suburban mothers are complaining suddenly because “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” He has of course walked back this statement and apologized for any offense it might have caused. Meanwhile, a brief eruption on twitter from a small group of self-identified “white suburban moms” retorted with calls for Duncan’s resignation.
The context for Duncan’s comments was the first round of results from state assessments based on the CCSS. As with any introduction of a more rigorous assessment, scores went down. Parents who feel their students are being cheated or punished by these new assessments are up in arms. Some have even begun to pull their students out of school in protest. There has been a clear lack of communication from districts to parents and the community about the natural results of a change to higher rigor. It is common sense that a more rigorous set of standards and assessments will result in lower scores than previous assessments. Preparing parents and the community for a few years of lower scores should have been a high priority in districts’ communications about immediate effects of implementing CCSS.
The CCSS were developed over several years of meetings between state policy makers, educators and other stakeholders with the goal of producing a nationwide set of basic core standards that moved beyond basic testing skills to more authentic knowledge and understanding. As they were rolled out, however, there was tremendous miscommunication about what would be required of teachers and administrators, not to mention the students. Districts who did not understand the big picture assigned rote teaching curriculum to go with the standards, effectively silencing expert teachers’ creativity and ability to build solid, rigorous curriculum around the standards. Other districts did not clarify that the English and Math standards were not just for English and Math courses – broad training across subject areas is still lacking in many districts.
The idea that students in one state will learn the same basic core standards as students in other states is an idea that has been reinvented for decades now. How to effectively manage it in a country so huge and so diverse is the challenge. But underlying these recent complaints of parents about the CCSS is an insidious truth that we continue to avoid: the inequity in education is still about poverty and lack of access.
Many non-educators complaining about CCSS right now are privileged enough to be able to pull their students out of schools. They are educated themselves, and they judge the system their children are in based on their own education experiences. They have tremendous efficacy, meaning they believe their voice matters and they are empowered to speak out. That Arne Duncan responded so immediately to these recent complaints when the plight of poor students, immigrant students, special needs students, and their families have gone unheard for years shows the disconnect that still exists in education policy. Common curriculum standards could be a great tool to bring shared rigor, to help students develop grit and internal motivation, to give teachers new opportunities to create curriculum, to offer ways to cross subject areas in order to reinforce basic understandings and skills. It could also eventually lead the way to eliminating the bulk of the high stakes testing that is at the core of all of our concerns about how American education works in the 21st century. If all states can offer higher, equal standards, and schools can show students progressing through coursework designed to help them show their understanding of those standards, the high stakes testing element will become redundant to what schools can show in terms of academic progress. The CCSS has all of this potential.
Instead of exploring that potential, we have allowed our conversation about implementing the CCSS to get bogged down in state v. federal government arguments, middle class privileged Americans feeling offended, and a general misunderstanding and miscommunication about the CCSS around the country. Our anger over testing also clouds our ability to take CCSS on and turn it into something that can truly change the way we show school accountability. One thing is certain: any initiative is bound to fail if we can’t find the wherewithal to focus our efforts on truly innovating our education process in a way that provides equal access and equity to all students across the country. The Common Core is one more opportunity where the true experts – the teachers – can decide to take the reins and control the direction and the opportunity that can come with CCSS. Communicating with the community, asking for parent partners, working to lead new innovations that use the CCSS in creative ways – these are all areas where educators can change the direction of this current conflict. Parents won’t be so quick to pull their students or criticize an idea, and teachers won’t be so easily discouraged, if everyone can find a way to be part of the plan to help an idea that could help our students and our schools reach its potential.