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Arne Duncan isn’t just mean. He’s wrong.

People of all colors and parental statuses are right to be offended by Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent comments about “white suburban moms”. But beyond the sexist and racial (note that I didn’t say racist) implications of what he said, there’s another important point to be made that isn’t getting nearly enough airtime: Duncan’s words weren’t just offensive, they were wrong.

To recap: last Friday during a meeting of state superintendents, Duncan claimed that some of the resistance to the Common Core Standards was coming from “white suburban moms” discovering that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t as good as they thought they were.” His proposal to quell that resistance was to mansplain remind those moms that their children are now “competing globally and need higher standards.”

Yet the very international comparisons he says illustrate the need for Common Core, actually show that American students in our low-poverty schools—namely, many of the children of those “suburban moms”—are already performing at or near the top of the rankings on international exams*. Texas superintendent John Kuhn tweeted as much, as did Rutgers professor Dr. Bruce Baker, and reporter Stephanie Simon mentioned it in passing in her POLITICO story on the controversy.

But so far, neither Duncan nor anyone else giving him cover has had anything to say in response to that, likely because people have been so focused on their (justified) offense over the language he chose that he hasn’t been required to do much more than apologize for being mean.

That worries me, as does the impulse to simply point out that Duncan and his ilk have been treating public school families of color, and folks in low-income communities like this forever, without using this as a moment to build solidarity and understanding between these two communities.

Beneath the clumsiness of Duncan’s remark lies a much bigger problem: certain officials’ well-established practice of using standardized tests not as a diagnostic tool to improve teaching and learning, but as a political tool to justify a predetermined policy decision.

As Rick Hess pointed out almost a year ago, many (though not all) Common Core supporters are hoping that as suburban parents see scores plummet on these new tests, the shock will be enough to scare them into supporting the rest of those advocates’ education policy agenda.

Think about that. Rather than listening to what parents want for their children, or considering what the evidence says kids do or don’t need, they’ve decided that they want to pursue a certain course no matter what. And rather than ask themselves whether the backlash they’ve encountered is an indication that they should rethink their position, they have decided to artificially raise the bar for proficiency and hope the score drop changes people’s minds. (That this will require people to doubt the evidence of their own eyes, as well as other tests and indicators they’ve been told to believe in for years, doesn’t seem to trouble them at all.)

Though slightly different in style, substantively this isn’t very different from what corporate ed policy advocates have been doing to communities of color all along: using flawed tests, inappropriately, to justify destructive policy changes they have already decided to pursue no matter what, including school closures, state and/or private takeovers, mass firings and so forth.

Most outside observers, in the suburbs and elsewhere, have unwittingly been complicit in that destruction because they assumed that low test scores were revealing something true and meaningful about these students, their teachers and their schools. After all, they know their communities have good schools, and they tend to have good test scores, so it seemed reasonable to assume that if the scores rang true for them, they were true for others.

In reality, tests scores have never exclusively reflected a child’s knowledge or skills. They reflect what a given set of test-makers and a given set of public officials decide should count as having knowledge and skills. They can’t possibly capture all of the different ways different people display their skills and knowledge, and that’s to say nothing of the many ways in which test-makers unintentionally create test items that reflect cultural and other forms of bias (hence the tight correlation with family background and income). Likewise, public officials can and do raise and lower passing scores as needed to satisfy different goals, including political ones.

The difference now is that, while the old tests used to align fairly closely with what middle- and upper-class students and schools do, the new tests subject these students and schools to a kind of mismatch similar to what low-income students and schools have always dealt with.

This should be an important “aha!” moment for parents who used to take these test scores at face value, and who never before questioned officials’ claims for why certain policies are needed. If Duncan and his allies can use flawed tests to make unfair claims about your child and your school, they can do that to other children and other schools, too. And they have been, for years.

As the initial furor over Duncan’s language dies down, I hope people continue to talk about this bigger issue. Instead of saying, “Meh, he’s been dissing brown urban moms for years,” I hope more of us start reaching out across communities and making common cause. It’s clear that the current powers-that-be are not interested in letting the rest of us participate in an honest, meaningful conversation about the direction of our public school system. It’s also clear that this won’t change until folks of all colors and classes come together and demand otherwise.

*As should be obvious, I personally do not believe that test scores are the best measure of student, teacher or school success. But I do think that if someone is going to make a claim, it should at least be internally consistent.


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