Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Are Suburban Moms Agitated

Laura McKenna is a former poli-sci professor, pretty entertaining blogger and suburban mother of a child with special needs. She is, by her own admission, not an expert on curriculum, but she also did PhD work on education policy and vouchery stuff. She claims to have done her reading up on the subject, but that expertise is not on display in her article last week for the Atlantic, "Suburbia and Its Common Core Conspiracy Theories."

McKenna gets a lot wrong. A lot. But she's in a mainstream magazine, and so we need to pay attention because this is part of the narrative that's Out There. Let's look at the story as McKenna tells it.

Who doesn't love the Core?

Common Core standards are, "of course, a set of broad, universal academic goals in math and English-language arts for public school children of all ages." They're connected to tests which are scaring everyone and giving rise to all sorts of pushback. So far, so good.

McKenna uses the old template for characterizing CCSS opponents-- they're mostly Tea Party crazies. She dismisses the idea that the Core initiative represents federal overreach, and she collects a list of the most indefensible foolishness with which the Core has been-- it will turn kids gay, Muslim, communist and anti-American. So you know we can ignore those folks. CCSS is also opposed by politicians who are afraid that kids in their district will stack up unfavorably against others. She suggests they have reason to worry.

But there are also suburban moms. She happens to be one, and she thinks Arne Duncan may have been onto something when he made his infamous White Suburban Moms comment. Those moms are angry. And they're angry because they don't know what the heck they're talking about. So McKenna is here to address their many and varied misconceptions caused by all those other crazed and/or self-serving Core opponents mentioned previously.

She ticks off the many foolish misconceptions that these ladies post, email, and agitate about, in the process revealing that maybe she's a little behind on her recent reading on the subject. It is an unfortunate fact of life in the debate for public education that there are some cray-cray people opposed to CCSS for some reality-impaired reasons. It would be useful not to lump them in with every other argument against the Core.

Common Core is ruining childhood and eliminating recess. Well, yes. Teachers "drill irrelevant facts into kids' heads in order to game the testing results." Well, no. Test prep is more insidious than that-- teachers now teach a kind of reading and writing that is only useful for test-taking, and we spend time teaching students how to outwit the gotcha questions that new tests come loaded with.

"And since the new exams will be taken on computers, hackers might even reveal the test results to colleges." Are you kidding, Ms. McKenna? Hackers will not be required-- the dream here is a cradle to career pipeline in which a mountain of data is collected for each child, to be lovingly curated and made available (for a price) to government agencies and employers. This is not conspiracy-style reading-between-the-spaces-between-the-lines. Just google cradle to career pipelines and meet all the agencies and groups that are already working on it. Go read about Pearson's plans for Big Data, or watch a Knewton exec explain how the dream is to be able to tell a child what to eat for breakfast on test day.

Nothing to worry about! Just calm down!

While maybe there's some truth in the concerns, the protests have become "irrational, hysterical" (oh, that word). McKenna is concerned that all these fears have led to real action (which is an artful construction-- can you fill in this blank? "_______ fears have led to real actions." McKenna does an careful job throughout the article of calling the moms foolish and wrong without saying it directly).

But these folks are getting worked up for nothing:

The reality of the Common Core model is much more boring. America’s schools could be better, no doubt. They could be more equal. They could be more effective in preparing kids for the new, global economy and the ever-growing rigors of higher education. But there is no evidence that one set of standards, that a single standardized test, will alter the basic school experience of children. They will probably still have to do book reports on Abraham Lincoln and To Kill a Mockingbird. They almost certainly will still have time to joke around on the playground with their buddies. They will be evaluated by teachers’ exams and rubrics and probably won’t be penalized by the Common Core tests.      

Worrying about this new batch of tests is silly. Students already take lots of standardized tests, and they still spend more time playing Super Mario. So why are suburban moms and dads so concerned about them? I can't speak for New Jersey (where McKenna is located) but I'm pretty sure that in PA part of the concern is that the Big Standardized Test will soon become a graduation requirement. And it's a lousy test. So I'm thinking that could be a factor.

So why are the suburbs uproarified?

But her answer, ultimately, is that it's a matter of parental protectiveness plus parental misinformation, stoked up by "click-bait" articles, and she provides some examples without discussing whether or not those titles ("Parents Opting Kids Out of Common Core Face Threats From Schools," or "Common Core Test Fail Kids In New York Again. Here’s How," or "5 Reasons the Common Core Is Ruining Childhood.") lead to articles that include facts. (And as click-bait these seem pretty tame to me-- not a single "and what happens next will astound you" or a Kardashian in the bunch). 

McKenna makes a comparison to anti-vaxxer panic, but she skips the critical step in that comparison. Yes, the motivations may be similar-- but what about the facts behind them? That would be the way to make this point, and McKenna doesn't.

McKenna next notes the teacher role in all this, and gets it wrong again. She says teachers unions were initially "very supportive," which is technically correct-- leadership of NEA and AFT threw their support behind the Core (and to date have not yet really unthrown it), and they have taken increasing amounts of grief from actual teachers because of it. She also says that teachers helped shape the goals of Common Core, and that piece of cheese is years old at this point. I am not sure where McKenna found a source that still tries to sell that story.

She indicates that teacher support waned as test results were tied to punishments. Teacher evaluations are now tied to test results per federal mandate. School evaluations have been tied to test results per federal mandate for over a decade, and now those evaluations are being used as justification for closing schools. 

How do we calm these mothers down?

Without political and education leaders providing valid, fact-based justifications for the new testing system and a clear, jargon-free explanation of new teaching strategies, suburban parents are easily influenced by others. 

Here's part of the problem. No such valid fact-based justifications exist. All that exists is a nation of schools cutting programs and losing funding and scrambling to keep test scores up over all else, for tests that have not been proven to indicate anything at all. 

McKenna wants to get simple facts out there, like "the Common Core does not prescribe certain textbooks." But that's not so simple. Depending on your state and district, some text or "program" with Common Core approval will be enforced. It's like Henry Ford's "you can have a Model T in any color you like, as long as it's black." And since there are teaching materials out there available from the exact same company that produced the test, what are the odds that well-off districts will feel compelled to buy them. Your spouse is technically free to sleep with anyone else at all, but it might lead to some serious marital problems. Technically "any textbooks you want" is a choice, just like "any bedmate you want." But practically speaking, it is not a choice at all.

McKenna notes that suburban schools generally do fine on these test thing, and that seems like a point she might have pursued, thereby noting that the best predictor of standardized test results is socio-economic class and thereby questioning whether the test is a valid measure or a biased crapshoot, but no, she seems content with "Bad things like test failures don't happen to us in the suburbs, so let's just simmer down and forget about it." When the test results are published (because, they've all been super secret so far??), suburban moms will see that all is as it has always been, and they'll calm down.  

Petrilli offers perspective and monkeys

Mike Petrilli at the Fordham also took a look at this article, and while he gives the "any books you want" point an uncritically supportive pass, he sees something else.

Suburban moms, he says, may contain some of the expressionist parents. These are what we might call the artsy-fartsy types (the illustration is, I kid you not, a pair of hippie monkeys, playing sitar and flute and wearing a headband and tie-dye). Expressionist parents may just be focused on artsy stuff and not academics and test results and so want their children not to be stamped into conformity. 

That's okay, says Petrilli. "One size fits most." And within broad parameters, I'd be inclined to agree with him. But we aren't looking at a system that's set up for most kids. We're looking at a system that is supposed to cover all students, every last one (well, except for the wealthy kids that go to un-core-ified private schools). We're looking at a system that doesn't see students who are "different." It sees students who are "deficient" or "just plain wrong" or, in some cases "not going to graduate" and "on the path to fail at life." Until we fix that feature, talking about One Size Fits Most is not a sufficient defense.

But that's the response to suburban moms. Calm down, honey. You're getting all hysterical over nothing. You'll see. Everything will just be like it's always been, and this won't be any big deal. And if that's really the defense of Common Core, then why are we bothering? You can't have it both ways. Either Common Core (and the testing that is irreversibly welded to it) are going to shake things up and rock the educational world with systemic changes that will unearth and root out all sort of issues-- in which case parents are correct to be concerned about how their children may get caught in the destruction-- or it's just business as usual, keep moving, nothing to see here, in which case it's the most expensive nothing we've ever launched. It can't be both.

McKenna closes her blog discussion of this article with these words

 I’m not an expert on curriculum, so I can’t tell you whether or not this particular system is way better than other programs. I trust the experts on this one. And, as I also said, the experts came from diverse political groups and from all areas of education.

Well, no. They didn't. The "experts" came from the industry leaders who most stood to profit from a systemic overhaul of education, and they have since been joined by more "experts" who hope to profit from privatizing every aspect of public education.
So perhaps suburban moms are responding to a growing sense that their previous bundle of joy is being viewed and treated as a piece of meat, a commodity to be bought and sold and squeezed for the profit of corporations or the survival of the school. Perhaps suburban moms are sensing that schools no longer devote as much time and attention to protecting the children because too much of the school's energy goes into protecting itself. 

McKenna says she's looked at the issue. I suggest she go back and look some more, and not start with the assumption that her fellow moms are just hysterical.


  1. Not that she'll ever read down so far as to find my own comment among the 300+ already there, but I suggested she do the same (look deeper and ask questions.).

    I for one am sick of being "gaslighted" ("gaslit?"), made to second-guess whether I might be JUUUUST a bit "overwrought" over what I've been seeing happening to schools, to kids (including my own), to teachers. I'm tired of being discounted even though I freely admit to being one of those artsy-fartsy types (although I don't have a sitar, I do have a cello...and a flute....and a lot of instruments and art supplies LOL) and lumped in the same category as the "OMG Common Core will make all our children Muslims!" ranters.

    I know for my own part, I wish more suburban moms would stop following the rest of the sheeple and just THINK for a bit, just wonder why people who don't live on Fox News commentary might be up in arms - and then someone like this comes along and makes it look like that's the only kind of parent who DOES care about this stuff, like no Real Thinking Rational Human could possibly mind.


    Anyway, a long way to say Thanks for your response, and for pointing out that we Artsy Fartsies might have a point too (even if it's Mike Petrilli admitting it, however obliquely). Jersey Jazzman has a response as well that you might enjoy. :-)

  2. Looks like Arne started a great fad with his reference to suburban moms. I doubt anyone would take notice of that Atlantic article without the sensational topics of "suburbia" and "conspiracies" in the title. Perhaps someone should come up with the "standards" for the "ideal" public school mom: how submissive she is to CC, schools and public authorities in general. Since we have tests for the students (by which teachers are ultimately tested) to determine who is best and who is worse, with all ranks in between, perhaps we should have tests for moms (no need for dads--no one ever mentions them) to determine who are the good ones and who are the losers. Apparently suburban dads don't annoy Arne. There will never be a "Suburban Dad" headline. Come to think of it, that says a whole lot.

  3. I don't understand McKenna's reasoning. Schools "could be better", "could be more equal", "could be more effective", but who cares, CCSS and PAARC aren't going to change a thing. So why are we doing this expensive thing again, instead of actually doing something that might actually improve schools? She says her special-needs child will never pass a standardized test anyway so she doesn't care. Rather insular thinking. She shut down comments to her blog because people were saying things she didn't want to hear and didn't know how to respond to.

    Petrilli says the "artsy-fartsy", "expressionist", affluent professional type of parents are deluded romantic progressives who are more likely to "encourage their children to ask questions". OMG, we can't have that! No, they should be like the majority of parents who just want their kids to "get the right answers". And none of that "stimulating curiosity and encouraging discovery" stuff, that's just Summerhill bunk. But these parents are only 15% of all parents, so they can just send their kids to charter schools, I guess the few that aren't plunk-the-kids-down-in-front-of-computers-with-crap-curriculum.

    I love the jargon generator. I bookmarked it. Could come in handy. : )

  4. If her special needs child will never pass the test anyway, why is she okay with her child struggling through it? As a special ed mom and friend of many special ed moms, testing was never something that we wanted for our children. Finally, more are starting to realize what special ed moms have known for years, these tests do not tell us anything that we do not already know.

    Not only is she sadly misinformed, she is not a very good mother, IMHO. But, what do I know, I am just another hysterical WSM.

  5. I had a twitter exchange with the author.

    1. Yeah, more lame responses from her. I don't know who you have to know and in what capacity to get to write such a poorly-researched article for Atlantic.

      Your link to Valerie Strauss' Carol Burris post was interesting because it led me to Michael Fullan, the Canadian researcher and school turnaround specialist who's been saying since 2008 that this way of trying to improve schools using accountability doesn't work because it's backwards (which teaches know but unless there's research to "prove" it...)