Common Core and White Privilege: The Claim With a Long Internet Life

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 23, 2015 4 min read
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As recent polling about misperceptions surrounding the Common Core State Standards has revealed, there’s a lot of heated rhetoric on offer in the discussion about the standards, as there is about many public policy issues. An illustrative example of the extent to which debate about the standards has become part of the country’s broader political debate is how remarks by one of the common core’s authors, David Pook, have been interpreted, and spread, and then spread again around the Internet.

Last year, at an event hosted by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Pook, a teacher at the private Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H., discussed his motivations for helping to write the common core’s English/language arts standards. Here is what he said (Pook’s remarks begin at about the 30-second mark):

In case the video doesn’t work for you, here’s the key portion of what Pook said: “The reason why I helped write the standards and the reason why I am here today is that, as a white male in society, I’m given a lot of privilege that I didn’t earn. I think it’s really important that all kids get an equal opportunity to learn how to read. And I think I had decided advantages as a result of who I was.”

After the first sentence, there were several negative exclamations from the audience.

Pook went on to stress the importance of creating equal educational opportunities for all students, and that he was reminded of this idea when he visited Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School in Chicago, an International Baccalaureate school that is 24 percent black and 73 percent Hispanic.

Life Cycle of a Common-Core Headline

The video was posted on YouTube on May 22, 2014 by Campus Reform, an organization that says it exposes “bias and abuse” in U.S. higher education, and often highlights what it perceives as liberal bias at colleges and universities. As of March 20, it had been viewed roughly 278,000 times on YouTube.

The same day the video was posted, Fox News picked up the video and an accompanying blurb by Caleb Bonham of Campus Reform. For a headline, Fox News used “WATCH: Teacher says he helped write Common Core to End White Privilege.” (Campus Reform used a similar title for the YouTube video it posted.) The Blaze, the website run by Glenn Beck (an outspoken common-core opponent), also picked up the story, as did CNS News, the Daily Caller, and the Washington Times; all of them reference in some fashion the claim that Pook said he wrote the standards to “end white privilege.”

The storyline about Pook’s supposed reason for helping to write the common core didn’t fade away after a few days, however.

A post at Top Right News last January about the matter had been shared on social media about 38,000 times, according to the website. And the story has enjoyed a resurgence since the start of March at right-leaning news sites such as the American Thinker, Wizbang, Liberty News, and Conservative Tribune. (Wizbang’s headline goes so far as to say that Pook wrote the standards to “attack white people.”)

‘Certainly Frustating to Him’

I called up the Derryfield School to talk to Pook about how his remarks have become fodder for the conservative news media. He wasn’t in the day I called, but Susan Grodman, the director of enrollment at the school who also handles media relations, said she would refer my call to him and also agreed to speak with me. Not surprisingly, Grodman said Pook was unhappy about the reaction in some quarters to what he said.

“It was certainly frustrating to him that his remarks were taken out of context,” Grodman told me. “The core of his comments were, we are trying to make education accessible and good for everybody.”

Stressing that Pook wasn’t speaking on behalf of Derryfield when he made his remarks about common core, Grodman said she doesn’t believe that Pook has spoken publicly about the common core since the video was publicized. When I spoke to her in mid-March, Grodman added that she had noticed a resurgence of media about the video in recent days.

Context and Content

So what’s important to note in this situation?

• The phrase “white privilege” itself is at least as old as a 1986 paper by Peggy McIntosh at the Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

• The “context” Grodman pointed out was Pook’s argument that the standards will increase educational equity in the U.S. People on both sides of the common-core discussion, including supporters at the Center for American Progress and critics at the Heritage Foundation, have debated whether or not the standards will help accomplish this goal, and the extent to which this is a worthy goal.

• Sandra Stotsky, another critic of the common core who developed Massachusetts’ previous English/language arts standards, has written a column (also posted at CNS News) arguing that blacks and Hispanics (not whites) will “finally begin to tease out the racist assumptions underlying Common Core’s standards and tests” when they see how the tests are scored.

• Perhaps most importantly, the standards themselves do not address white privilege. None of the articles I referenced point to any common-core standard that matches the claim about Pook’s intent.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.