Monday, November 18, 2013

Arne Duncan starts a war he can't win

In what might very well be the stupidest comment to come from any member of the current Administration since Obama first took office (Joe Biden and Ray LaHood are excluded, for obvious reasons), Secretary of State Arne Duncan (of Sequester-stupidity fame) said the following while addressing a meeting of the Council of Chief State Schools Officers Organization:
It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary. You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.
The "pushback" he is referencing is the widespread opposition to various elements to and consequences of the Common Core Standards initiative. I've addressed Common Core in some depth previously. First to note how specific nation-wide standards for things like literature are just a bad idea (for several reasons):
I'm not prepared to suggest there is some sort of nefarious plot here, that this [Common Core approved reading] list amounts to an indoctrination of sorts into a particular category of group think, but here's the problem: once the standards are in place and informing education nation-wide, what's to prevent those in charge of setting them from arbitrarily removing a given text so as to replace it with a "better" one? Plus--again--there is the issue of what has been sacrificed in order to expand the "informational" reading lists. Why is it better for students to read Executive Order 13423 than for them to read Henry Miller's play "The Crucible" or J.D. Salinger's novel Catcher in the Rye?  
Student A, who shows a particular aptitude for environmental engineering, might very well benefit from a deeper exploration of EPA standards. But Student B, who excels at creative endeavors, might benefit more from reading and studying Miller's play. Moreover, students in Arizona might have strong reasons to delve more into Spanish and Mexican literature, while Students in Maine might benefit more from nautical-themed readings, fictional or non-fictional...  
The point is, there's nothing wrong with designing these kind of standards as general guidelines to help States manage their education systems. But once they become mandatory in fact or in practice via the Federal Government, they create a whole host of problems. Big problems. Critical problems. Because it's simply not the purview of the feds to establish such standards. Maybe the Constitution--and not just the Bill of Rights--needs to be on the list... 
And second, to demonstrate--with actual evidence--why such initiatives are unlikely to be successful and how the people supporting this initiative are largely clueless in this regard (and would, themselves, fail to meet Common Core Standards when it comes to critical thinking):
[Charles Blow, in his column] liberally cites the widespread support for the program and concludes that it is therefore likely a "sure thing." But why is it a sure thing? Because it sounds like a good idea, that's why. No other real reason, no actual empirical evidence to make the case. Amazingly, Blow notes the need to teach critical thinking, then proceeds to make an argument devoid of any critical thinking whatsoever! He goes on to idealize the role of teachers, ostensibly suggesting that great teachers are the real solution to the problem, though he fails to explain why adopting the Common Core Standards will create great teachers.

Worse still, he notes in passing what is likely one of the real keys to the problem: parental involvement. That and the fact that a certain percentage of schools--mostly inner city--are simply failing their students and their communities actually go a long way towards explaining things. There are an ample number of studies demonstrating the latter. As to the former, the lack of parental involvement is most evident in those same failing schools, along with those schools on the edge. This is, in my opinion, due to a host of factors revolving around socio-economic issues, the breakdown of the family unit, and a failure to prioritize learning. Thomas Sowell has provided ample evidence to back this up, as has--more recently--Charles Murray in Coming Apart (which I've mentioned a number of times in past pieces).

But setting all of that aside, the fact remains that evidence clearly shows more Federal programs and spending are not the answer. They never have been. Yet, those who think they know better keep pushing for more of both. When, I wonder, will they finally educate themselves?
The Common Core initiative was used as a carrot by the Administration, wherein States needed to adopt the standards in order to easily access Federal dollars for education. Needless to say, most States signed off on the initiative rather quickly. But since then, some of the realities of Common Core have come to light. And it's implementation in schools throughout the land is generating a great deal of criticism, both because that implementation is uneven--to say the least--and because the Common Core-based materials appearing in the classroom are just not all that good and sometimes downright bad.

Duncan, in his remarks, is attempting to reframe all of the opposition to Common Core by claiming that the initiative is just raising the bar in education, to the extent that many people--well, white suburaban moms, at any rate--are discovering that their children are not all quite so smart as they (their parents) had assumed.

One thing Duncan's comments demonstrate with absolute certainty: Arne Duncan is not a suburban mom (of any color or shade), has never been a suburban mom. Supposedly, Duncan has two children attending public elementary school right now. But his comments suggest--to me at any rate--that he's never had any children, or if he has, he's been totally uninvolved in their educational careers.

Why do I say these things? Because as anyone who has or who has ever had young children attending a suburban school knows, the moms Duncan is singling out are the backbones of these schools. They represent--in most cases--why such schools consistently out-perform non-suburban schools with far fewer numbers of involved moms or parents in general (white or otherwise). These moms run the PTA, manage all kinds of activities, serve as room moms, volunteer as teachers' aides, and frankly improve education for all the children at the schools they serve.

At my youngest one's school--she's in 1st grade--I've engaged in some of these activities, as well. And my mother, a white suburban grandmother, has done the same. In fact, she actually helps to teach the kids who are struggling with reading, much to the great happiness of the school's teacher's and administrators.

The advantage of parental involvement cannot be understated, when it comes to education, especially at the primary level. Duncan--who used to run the Chicago school system--should know this. So why in the world is he starting a war with the suburban moms of America, a war he can't possibly hope to win? The backlash to his stupidity began almost immediately, as various people and groups noted just how nonsensical Duncan's words were. Michelle Malkin has rightly labeled the remarks as "poisonous race-baiting and class warfare." Meanwhile, the Daily Caller has noted that the new batch of standardized tests required by Common Core is netting someone $350 million in Federal funds. That's nice.

What we have here is a self-important technocrat who has climbed so far up his own backside, he's started to spew nonsense that he cannot possibly hope to defend. But I await the attempt eagerly...

Oh, wait. Duncan has apologized for his statement. Sort of.

Cheers, all.

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