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The People In Charge Matter

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Over the past few months the debate among correspondents to First Teachers over the federally mandated guidelines known as Common Core has centered on the language and specific provisions of the program: on, for example, whether Common Core takes too much power away from local school boards and whether its guidelines promote a secular humanism hostile to traditional values. These things are important, to be sure. But it is also important to know who will be in charge of implementing Common Core. Programs that sound unobjectionable, even high-minded, on paper can take on a different character if they are under the control of individuals with an animus against traditional values.
Michelle Malkin devoted a recent column to the kind of people likely to be implementing Common Core, certainly for as long as liberal Democrats are in control of the federal government and its bureaucracy. She begins her discussion by quoting the remarks of Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a meeting with state school superintendents in late November. As reported in The Washington Post, Duncan told his audience that he found it “fascinating” that the opposition to Common Core came mainly from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — realize that their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
Malkin took it from there. She noted that she is a “brown-skinned suburban mom opposed to Common Core.” And that there are many more moms like her: “I can tell you I’ve personally met moms and dads of all races, ethnicities, backgrounds, and parts of the country over the past year who have sacrificed to get their kids into the best schools possible. They are outraged that dumbed-down, untested federal ‘standards’ pose an existential threat to their excellent educational arrangements — be they public, private, religious, or home-schooling.” Malkin devotes the rest of her column to quoting these women, who list their advanced degrees and express their outrage over Duncan’s presumption that only “technocratic elites in Washington can determine what quality standards and curricula look like.” One such mom reminded Duncan, “We have the final authority, and we’re saying no to your ‘higher standards’ and your high stakes tests. . . . YOU work for US!” Malkin then threw a few barbs of her own. She calls Duncan “a bigot, a bully, an elitist, and a foot-in-the-mouth fool all rolled into one” who “continues to enjoy the support of the president.”
Malkin and the angry mothers on her side on this question make an important point: Why should we assume that the people appointed by the Obama administration to the Department of Education have an expertise that qualifies them to override local school boards on matters of testing and curriculum?
But there is another point that has been left unaddressed: Why does Duncan think that the students in mainly white suburban school districts will have a difficult time meeting the standards that he and the federal bureaucrats working with him will come up with? It is a curious presumption. We usually hear that these suburban school districts are doing significantly better on standardized tests and college admissions than the urban school districts run by people like Duncan and those working with him at the Department of Education. Why does Duncan think that they are going to come up short under Common Core?
My theory is that there is a story running below the radar. We have heard for decades now from liberal educationists that minority students, mainly black and Hispanic, do poorly on standardized tests because those tests are “culturally biased,” favoring children from stable families that provide parental help to their children with their schoolwork, as well as access to books, travel, and the arts. Perhaps readers of First Teachers will have seen tests devised by the educators who make this point, tests that ask students questions about black and Hispanic artists and heroes and urban slang rather than Shakespeare, Mozart, and John Steinbeck.
The call for the serious study of the American black dialect under the title of Ebonics a few years back was an example of the phenomenon. Those who made the case for Ebonics argued that the black dialect was as valid and as bound by strict grammatical rules as the version of English spoken by the white upper class in the United States. More to the point, they argued that white prep school students would fare poorly on tests where a knowledge of Ebonics was required; that their intelligence would likely be viewed as deficient because of that deficiency, just as — the argument goes — black inner-city kids are seen as lacking in scholarly abilities because they react poorly to topics developed and expressed in the language of the American upper classes.
Would it be unfair to Arne Duncan to suspect that he would like to bring an end to testing that casts minorities in an unfavorable light by creating a new set of standards less linked to the experiences of the “white suburban moms” he derided in his comments to the school superintendents? I say the tone of his comments at that meeting indicates that this is very much a part of the Common Core agenda; that the plan is to solve the problem of underperforming minority children not by helping them meet existing standards, but by devising new standards for them; that that is how Duncan expects white suburban moms to discover “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”
Thomas Sowell, as usual, expressed himself eloquently and insightfully on this topic in a recent column. He wrote of how in the world of the modern educators the “very word ‘achievement’ has been replaced by the word ‘privilege’….Individuals or groups that have achieved more than others are called ‘privileged’ individuals or groups, who are to be resented rather than emulated.”
Of course, not all minorities are treated the same way in this scenario. Sowell notes that the “achievements of Asians in general . . . make those on the left uneasy.” Asians have excelled in our schools. Their minority status has not held them back. Sowell asks, “What would happen if Americans in general, or blacks in particular, started celebrating young people like them . . . instead of trying to make heroes out of hoodlums? Many of us would find that promising and inspiring, but it would be a political disaster for the left — which is why it is not likely to happen.”

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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford CT 06492.

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