Lessons We Can Learn From White Suburban Moms and the Common Core

Secretary Duncan's glib dismissal of opposition to the Common Core among "suburban white moms" has provided fodder for people on both sides of the education reform debate. Opponents of the standards see this incident as further proof that the secretary is unwilling to listen to anyone who disagrees with him. Those who view the Common Core as a way to close achievement gaps assert that low scores in higher-income schools serve as a much-needed wake-up call that not only urban, but many suburban schools, are failing. Unfortunately, both arguments obscure the more complex realities that should guide education policy.

Secretary Duncan may be right that are fewer "brilliant" students in suburban white schools than some parents like to believe, but his suggestion that lower scores reveal their schools to be not "quite as good as they thought" doesn't hold water. Judging by their test scores, suburban white students are doing quite well.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), aka "The Nation's Report Card," 34 percent of all US fourth graders were "proficient" at reading and 8 percent were "advanced," in 2011. "Proficiency" on NAEP is often conflated with "at grade level," but it actually connotes something much higher. The NAEP governing board defines proficiency as:

"a very high level of academic achievement. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter."

Most parents would consider this an A or an A-. "Advanced," then, equates to an A+, the level at which 11 percent of all white and 17 percent of all Asian students were reading.

With respect to children's ability to compete by "global standards," scores on the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show suburban white students to be, if not geniuses, then at least damn smart. In schools in which 10 percent of students or fewer are poor, students read at levels that surpass the Finns and Swedes (the world's best readers). And as Diane Ravitch notes, with respect to eighth-grade science scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), "Massachusetts, had it been an independent nation, would have been ranked second in the world, behind Singapore."

Unless new, Common Core-aligned assessments render NAEP, PISA, and TIMSS irrelevant, there's no reason to believe that that these lower scores reveal school failure. Rather, they may reflect a different designation of "proficiency" -- one not necessarily aligned with expert opinion or international standards. Moreover, neither high scores (for suburban white students) nor low scores (for urban minority students) tell us much about those students' schools.

This is because the majority of differences in test scores are driven not by school characteristics, but by other aspects of children's lives. As James Coleman found in 1966, and as decades of subsequent studies confirm, differences in birth health, early childhood experiences, access to nutritious food and medical care, after-school enrichment, travel, and many other factors that are correlated with race and income account for most of our stubborn achievement gaps. Some suburban schools serving white children are compounding those students' existing advantages, while others add relatively little. The same is true of schools serving disadvantaged students. Test scores alone, however, don't help us distinguish between them. This week's drama also calls attention to other voices missing from education policy conversations. Many of the policies Secretary Duncan is advancing have had disproportionate, negative impacts on poor, black, and brown students. Those students' parents did not suddenly materialize in Chicago when then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Duncan began to shutter their neighborhood schools. They had protested for decades about the shrinking resources and narrowing curriculum in their children's schools, but the Chicago Department of Education ignored them, until the situation deteriorated to the point that it decided to close the schools altogether. Teachers tired of being shut out and blamed have formed their own new group -- the BadAss Teacher Association. More than one-third of New York's principals, fed up with a test-based evaluation system that misplaces blame, demand that their state Department of Education shift course. Nearly half of Tennessee's superintendents publicly protested Commissioner Kevin Huffman's failure to listen to teachers. Students in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and other large urban districts have helped lead rallies to reduce testing, support teachers, and save schools. White suburban moms are only the latest of many stakeholders ignored by those who make policy.

This incident has offered an important opportunity to assess the nuanced realities of what test scores can, and cannot, tell us about schools, and whose voices are, and are not, being heard. If Secretary Duncan takes it as such, future efforts to improve education will likely be more successful.