Duncan apologizes for ‘white suburban moms’ Common Core controversy

Liz Goodwin
Yahoo News
This photo taken Nov. 7, 2013 shows Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking Malcolm X Elementary School in Washington. Duncan continued to face criticism Monday over reported remarks that seemed to dismiss “white suburban moms” for opposing higher academic standards. Duncan has consistently shown little patience for critics of the Common Core State Standards, being implemented in 45 states and the District of Columbia. But his remarks, as reported by Politico, went a step further and add elements of race and class. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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Education Secretary Arne Duncan was forced to apologize on Monday for an impolitic comment he made over the Common Core, a sweeping effort to standardize national education that’s angered a diverse coalition of parents nationwide.

The bipartisan effort to create national learning goals for all schools has sparked a growing backlash among parents, some of whom kept their children from attending school on Monday in protest of what they see as federal interference in their kids’ curricula.

On Friday, Duncan stoked outrage by suggesting “white suburban moms” don’t like the new standards because they force them to realize their kids aren’t as smart as they thought. He made the comment while speaking to a group of state superintendents, acknowledging the backlash to Common Core.

“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 on Friday in comments first reported by Politico.

Common Core supporters argue that American schools aren’t rigorous enough and the national standards will help every student learn what they need to succeed.

Duncan walked back his bumbling remark on Monday, saying in a statement that his comments had been “clumsy.” But he insisted that he wants to have honest conversations about the challenges of the new Common Core standards. “I want to encourage a difficult conversation and challenge the underlying assumption that when we talk about the need to improve our nation’s schools, we are talking only about poor minority students in inner cities,” he said.

But anger over Duncan’s “white suburban moms” diss helped spark Monday’s protest, spurring parents to boycott school as a way to express their displeasure with the standards that were embraced by the Obama administration after being endorsed by both Republican and Democratic governors.

The national guidelines, adopted by all but four states so far, have attracted a politically diverse group of opponents — from smaller-government conservatives who want more local control over standards to urban liberals who criticize the focus on standardized testing.

In New York, pass rates on standardized tests dropped by more than a quarter last year, after the state overhauled them to be in line with the new Common Core standards. That means nearly 70 percent of New York students failed the reading and math standardized tests.

Duncan has suggested in the past that opponents of Common Core are unreasonable, saying in June that “fringe” conspiracy theorists believe the standards are a way for the federal government to assert control over the populace.

Though there’s no national tally for how many parents participated in the protest, thousands of people joined online groups saying they would keep their children home on Monday. Some parents used the day to explain to their children why they don’t like the education changes, others gave their kids the entire day off, while some kids did their schoolwork at home.

Marissa Bernowitz, a stay-at-home mom in the Rockaway region of New York City, kept her third-grade son home on Monday in protest of the Common Core. Bernowitz told Yahoo News that 8-year-old Pedro had had to repeat the third grade in part because of his performance on the new writing section of the state standardized test last year.

Bernowitz said Pedro’s teacher told her he would have passed the grade if the older standards had been in place.

“I don’t believe that they should judge a child’s entire grade performance on one day on one test,” Bernowitz said.

A seventh-grade relative also stayed at Bernowitz’s house in protest, along with three of his friends whose parents wanted to protest but weren’t able to take the day off from work.

“I don’t live in the suburbs,” Bernowitz said, responding to Duncan’s comments. “And the three extra teenage boys here, they don’t come from white suburbs, if that’s even a proper phrase to use. ... It’s not just white suburban mothers.”

In New York City, attendance was at 91.5 percent on Monday, according to a spokeswoman, who characterized the figure as normal.

Meanwhile Rachel Kinsey, a stay-at-home mother of five in Berne, Ind., said she kept all her kids home to protest what she sees as “government-run education.”

“It has nothing to do with race,” she said. “The federal government has no business in the kids’ education.” She said she knows of at least 10 other families in her town who protested on Monday as well.

Lou Deckard of Dayton, Ohio, said her 17-year-old grandson boycotted school in protest of the new guidelines, which she says is changing his math homework. “I just don’t believe in the Common Core,” Deckard said.

Meanwhile, the heads of the two largest teachers unions in the country — both of whom have endorsed the standards — admitted there were problems with their implementation on Monday.

“Recent events highlight the need to do a better job communicating with parents and collaborating to ensure the common core standards are implemented properly,” said National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel in a statement.

He added that half the NEA’s members said in a recent poll that their school had no plan to communicate with parents about the Common Core.

The American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, meanwhile, called Duncan’s comments “insensitive” in a statement.

“Regardless of whether the secretary agreed or disagreed with these moms, they care about their kids hugely, and their views should be respected — not ignored or, worse, dismissed,” she said.

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