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In a recent speech that addressed the complaints pouring in regarding the Common Core Standards now being rolled out in our nation’s public schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the point that “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—[discover] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought” are some of the biggest opponents of the more rigorous academic standards.  Although he subsequently repudiated his own remark due to the backlash, Secretary Duncan’s inadvertent candor opens a window that we are typically careful to keep tightly shut—and in so doing touches upon one of the basic truths that we often choose to ignore when we debate about how to improve our public schools.

Those who wish to improve public education pretty much fall into two camps.  On one side are those who want to ramp up the level of academic expectations and—through the use of standardized tests to measure learning outcomes—hold schools accountable for failures to teach students to be literate, thoughtful, and able young adults.  On the other side are those who believe that the academic failures of our public schools mirror ingrained economic and social inequalities that must be solved—or least ameliorated—before our students can achieve to a higher level.  Therefore, our choices boil down the following: Fix our schools to improve society or fix society to improve our schools.

Those who argue that a hungry student cannot learn are entirely correct, and it is certainly proper to address the needs of that particular child; however, this fails to explain the vast army of well-fed dunderheads roaming the halls of our public schools.  Those who want to build the self-esteem of children from deprived circumstances by rewarding them for each little accomplishment are correct that encouragement is important to every student, but they neglect to explain how we are to encourage excellence when minimal competency is so lavishly praised and rewarded.

These and many others too numerous to list are the difficult—and necessary—questions that must be answered if we are ever to sort out just how the many contradictory and confused missions now thrashing about during the school day contribute to improved academic outcomes.  We should not be afraid to closely examine cherished precepts that harm an institution as critically important as our public schools.

All of which leads us back to Secretary Duncan’s unfortunate lapse into honesty.

A stark chasm runs through our nation’s public education system that is born of the economic divide that so many rightly decry: Poor communities, as a rule, have worse schools because our nation tends to depend on local property tax revenues for the bulk of school funding.

The communities packed with pricey homes and upscale businesses obviously are going to be able to afford far more well-appointed schools that have their pick of staff compared to the school districts full of deteriorating homes and shuttered businesses.  It’s a gross disparity that is baked into the system, and we tend to do nothing but noodle around the edges when we “reform” our school funding formulas because parents in affluent—and politically powerful—communities are implacably opposed to any change that either transfers money out of their school districts or, even worse, allows students from economically distressed communities to transfer in.

Our public schools, therefore, act as one of our primary mechanisms for promoting “social immobility”, a problem that has only become more obvious as well-paying jobs have largely evaporated for all but the best educated.  It is not that poverty means you cannot be educated—it simply means you likely will not be.  We don’t like to talk about this when we are busy castigating the poor for the “pathologies” that we allow ourselves to believe are responsible for perpetuating the cycle of poverty in our nation, but it is perhaps only basic human nature to blame others for their problems so we need not examine our own role in causing them—a failing which infects many educators and the general public alike.

There may, however, be a somewhat perverse glimmer of hope on the horizon—which once again brings us back to Secretary Duncan and his unfortunate experience with honesty.

One of the most deeply embedded truisms by which many upwardly mobile Americans lead their lives is this: If I work very hard and buy a home in a really nice neighborhood, my family and I will be safe—and my children will go to a great school and have successful futures.  Therefore, the oppressive mortgage and property taxes I am paying are well worth every sacrifice I need to make, and I am a certifiably good parent for having done this for my children.

Setting aside the question of whether it might be better to simply work fewer hours and spend more time with one’s children, the crux of this Faustian bargain is the underlying belief that shiny schools full of shiny students automatically produce better academic outcomes.  How, the reasoning goes, could my child not turn into a genius in a school that has lots of computers, lush green grass on the soccer fields, and abundant extra-curricular activities to both expand their minds and burnish their college applications?

But what of this turns out to be not necessarily true?

The early—and deeply distressing—feedback from the rollout of standardized tests aligned to the higher academic standards embodied in the Common Core curriculum is not good, and it confirms an ever growing body of evidence that highlights the continuing failure of our nation’s public schools.  Moreover, much to the shock of those “white suburban moms” whom Secretary Duncan was tactless enough to mention, the test score declines struck the “good” and “bad” schools with nearly equal vigor.  The exposure of systemic weakness that crosses boundaries of income and race tends, therefore, to crash headlong into a prime motivation for pursuing the American Dream of a detached home in an overpriced area of town—the schools in those neighborhoods are a guaranteed ticket to success for my children.

Judging by the data from states now beginning to use tests aligned with the Common Core Standards, educational outcomes for children in more affluent areas are still, as rule, better than many others—but the difference may not be quite as solid, nor as I immutable, as all the gleaming marble countertops in the homes of those upscale neighborhoods might suggest.  This unwelcome information will inevitably lead to one of two reactions.

Secretary Duncan’s white suburban moms could push for quality education that requires we teach a broad range of material in sufficient depth to equip students to succeed in a world where the abilities to read challenging material, write concisely and clearly, logically evaluate complex information to make reasoned judgments based on evidence, and do advanced math are becoming more important every day.

Or not.

The flip side is that those white suburban moms, who now see hard evidence that their children are not being well prepared to succeed in those lovely neighborhood schools that cost an arm and a leg, will become angry and fearful, deny there is a problem, and insist that the test scores are not reflective of how brilliant their children are because of the following:

(a) My child doesn’t test well

(b) The test wasn’t fair

(c) The full range of my child’s brilliance cannot be measured with       a test

(d) All of the above

I wonder which of the two possible reactions it will be.  The answer will do much to determine whether, after decade upon decade of effort, we can finally point our nation’s public schools toward the front—rather than the rear—of educational systems worldwide.