Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Public education for me but not for thee

Although he has since quasi-apologized, Arne Duncan put his foot in his mouth, saying that,
It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, 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, and that’s pretty scary,” Duncan said. “You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.” 
Overcoming that will require communicating to parents that competition is now global, not local, he said.

This was a wrong (as in incorrect) and stupid (as in politically dense) thing to say. As Sabrina Joy Stevens explains here, the low-poverty, suburban demographic does fairly well on international comparisons. Suburban moms were a key constituency for Obama in 2012 and telling them that some Common Core aligned test being promoted by the feds knows their child better than they do is a huge political mistake (this is why people hate Democrats). Finally, it's unfair to boil down public school parents' objections to the Common Core to, "you think your kids are brilliant, but they're not." Duncan reinforced the hubris so endemic in so many modern school reformers: if you are critical of our policies, you're deluded or lying to your kids and yourselves, you're a status quo defender or you don't like children or you think poor children can't learn.

Certainly, more affluent school districts coast on their reputations and are probably not doing as good a job as they should be, but I would hardly chalk this up to delusional suburban moms. I would chalk it up to the same things everyone else is suffering from: a broken accountability structure, too much emphasis on (too many and poorly designed) standardized tests and not enough rich and meaningful curriculum, plus the same budget cuts everyone else is experiencing. In short, more affluent school districts are suffering from what less affluent ones are: modern education reform.

Unlike Secretary Duncan, I don't agree that the Common Core and its accompanying tests will cure public education's ills. To the contrary, it will be more of the same. I've said over and over again that the substance of the Common Core standards are not worth debating when the way they were made and and the rigid accountability structure they will be filtered through are so problematic and will result in more of the same.

Another important piece in this is what Sherman Dorn brings up here: That maybe more people in whose favor the current system works, including suburban white families, would support more shifts, say in curriculum or assessment, if they didn't have to sacrifice their children's success to them. This goes back to the idea that slow and steady (with plenty of time for reflection and tweaking and input from all stakeholders) wins the race. 

Current hullabaloo aside, it's taken an awfully long while for ed reform fatigue to trickle up to the more affluent. It's upsetting to consider that only now that they have been offended, that suburban white moms might pay attention to what's going on with school reform. I won't repeat what Jose Vilson has written already about this or what Paul Thomas said but I can vouch for it given my current access to white suburbanites. I've heard plenty of parents of students in low-poverty schools say things like, Isn't Michelle Rhee wonderful? I like what she's doing. Um, would you want someone steamrolling through your school district talking about "collaboration and consensus-building are overrated? Oh, that doesn't work for you? I didn't think so. I've also heard, TFA. What a fabulous organization. Um, do you want TFAers teaching in your district? Because I've noticed that when one of your child's teachers goes on maternity leave you demand an actual licensed and vetted teacher just to sub in their long-term absence. Another example: when I tried to alert other Virginians to the dangers of the Opportunity Education Institution in Virginia, I heard so things like, Well, in Petersburg, they need that help or Well, that's because Richmond is a mess. Richmond and Petersburg are majority black cities with high levels of poverty, so yes, such comments are code for those poor black people just can't get it together.

My response is usually some or all of: a) There are historical conditions and policies that have contributed to the poverty of those communities; it's not endemic; b) No, democracy and local control is not just for the affluent; and c) It's a slippery slope, or as Jose Vilson said, "First, they came for the Urban Black and Latina moms." With the SOL tests getting more tricky rigorous, some schools in more affluent districts may find themselves under OEI's control (should OEI be found constitutional) and whatcha gonna do then? Are you going to want to be disenfranchised? I didn't think so.

Some reactions to Duncan's comments haven't been much different. Now that kids who don't usually fail standardized tests are failing, then it matters--it's okay for kids that are supposed to fail but not my kids. While he definitely misspoke, I wince at the Now, I'm mad. Now you've pissed off the wrong people comments. Why were you not mad before? "The wrong people"? What's that supposed to mean? That just reinforces the idea that non-suburban white moms don't care as much about their kids' education and reinforces Duncan's implication that non-suburban-white moms support his policies.

The reformers have decided that they speak for poor people of color, that they should be happy that they're there to fix their dysfunctional systems, that the answer to dysfunction is disempowerment. White suburban folks have seemed largely to accept that. Remember that Michelle Rhee's supporters (and Arne Duncan is certainly among them--he all but endorsed her and Fenty in DC's mayoral election) have claimed that one reason Adrian Fenty lost in DC is because Rhee is Korean-American and that black people in DC were too full of race pride and too busy shielding their incompetence to admit that she was right. And who's been buying copies of the Bee Eater and Radical? My guess is: yes, suburban white people.

As I've learned in the activism work I have been doing locally, the truth of the matter is that, indeed, many parents only start to get worked up when something affects their kids. And while I wish that were different, maybe we should go with the better-late-than-never attitude and hope that suburban white moms' political muscle trickles down. Maybe this will open the eyes of parents of children in more affluent schools to the reformy fiasco their peers in many U.S. cities have already been subjected to. Maybe they'll realize that there's no "I' in public education, that the attitude of democracy and public education for me but not for thee may cost all of us both.


1 comment:

  1. There's...uh... two "I"s in public education.

    But on a more serious note, it's not like human beings are quick to jump up and act on abstract principal alone. You say "first they came for the urban moms of color", but there's a world of difference between seeing your Jewish neighbors taken away in the middle of the night (obviously bad, or at least obviously not good) and hearing about all the wonderful, progressive things the technocrats are doing for those poor, awful schools in the inner city.

    There's just about ZERO incentive -- moral or otherwise -- to find out whether the reforms in those distant districts are having the right sort of effects, or whether it's just a giant C.F. And if you have no incentive to find out otherwise, and the public figures are all telling you that they're doing the right thing, and the stuff they say is at least plausible (Michelle Rhee is very persuasive in person), then it's not like you're standing by and letting people be carted off to gulags.

    You're raising your kids, paying your taxes, worrying about the zoning restrictions and your other NIMBYistic concerns, and just generally being a good citizen. So I don't blame the suburban moms. They didn't have the first clue what was going on until it came up and started biting them.

    But that's often the way government works, right? Start with the poor people who can't really argue, get your programs established, and then use the momentum to carry you over the people who actually have clout in politics. Well, let's see if they can pull it off. I'm betting they can, and that it's too late to stop them. I'm betting that we'll have to live with this reform stuff for the next fifteen years (just long enough for the instigators to retire, and a new breed of busybodies to want to make their mark).

    Of course, it's likely that the richest districts will just hire someone to fill out the necessary forms and pay lip service to the "reforms" while they continue doing whatever the heck they want. That's also the way of things.

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