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Arne Duncan’s ‘White, Suburban Mom’ Remark: New Words, Same Argument

By Michele McNeil — November 18, 2013 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s common-core comments to a group of state chiefs on Friday created a firestorm of backlash after he said some of the opposition is coming from “white, suburban moms” who all of a sudden discover their kids aren’t as “brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Listen to the audio here:

Today, it reached the White House when President Barack Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, was asked about it during the daily media briefing.

Carney said he hadn’t talked with Obama, nor had he heard Duncan’s full statement, “But if his point was that we need to be honest with kids and parents about whether we are providing the skills they need to succeed, then I think we can all agree on that.”

But the reaction has been furious. A sampling just from Twitter:

That led Duncan to say publicly that he regrets his “clumsy phrasing.” More here.

Still, it’s important to note that Duncan has used this argument before—that the patchwork of current academic standards, ushered in during the No Child Left Behind era, were dummied down and led to inflated test scores and an inflated sense of just how good schools are. And he has said repeatedly that it’s not just a problem for minority or other at-risk students, but also for better-performing and “white” students as well.

In this September 2011 speech in Indiana, he talked about the challenges facing the state’s northwest region: “The higher-performing schools in the region are not doing as well as some might think. At the same time, the performance of low-performing schools is not as intractable as many residents believe.” He then talks about an Erik Hanushek study from 2010 that compared U.S. student results, by race and state, to other countries.

"[T]he results for Indiana’s white students alone are even more telling. In 30 other U.S. states, white students are more likely to be advanced in math than white students in Indiana. And all students—all students—in 31 nations and provinces are more likely to be advanced math students than just the white students in Indiana. Hanushek’s study suggests that countries like Slovenia, Iceland, and Estonia produce a higher proportion of advanced math students across the entire student population than the Indiana school system does among its white students alone.”

And in an October 2012 speech to the Oregon Business Association, he said: “Now, when I talk about the mediocre performance of U.S. students, too many people respond that ‘my kid, my school is fine. Other people’s kids are the problem—it’s the disadvantaged students, minority children, and the immigrants learning English that are struggling.’ But the unexpected truth is that Oregon’s higher-achieving schools are not doing as well as some might think. And on the other hand, the performance of low-performing schools is not as intractable as many people believe.”

To be sure, this seems to be the first time he’s invoked the “suburban mom” constituency—one he likely won’t anger again. But his broader point is, indeed, not new.

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