Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Soccer Mom Revolt Against Common Core

The opt-out movement against taking the tests is growing, and so is the Obama administration’s ire

The term “soccer mom”—political shorthand for the upscale suburban women President Clinton courted so successfully in the 1990s—may have fallen out of use with the Beltway set in more recent years, but this swing voting bloc is still around. Just ask Arne Duncan.
As President Obama’s education secretary and the administration’s head cheerleader for the new Common Core academic standards, Mr. Duncan has spent four years trying to convince the country that the biggest problem with K-12 schooling is insufficient federal intervention.

His problem is that the more parents learn about this federal effort to impose uniform math and reading standards across state lines, the less they like the idea. And women, who are more likely than men to rank education as “very important” in political surveys, seem to harbor a special disdain for Common Core.

A national poll released by Fairleigh Dickinson University earlier this year put approval for the new standards at 17%, against 40% who disapproved and another 42% who were undecided. A breakdown by gender had Common Core support at 22% for men and only 12% for women.

Wealthier parents tend to be the most skeptical, and they are not satisfied with merely sounding off to pollsters. This year hundreds of thousands of students across the country are boycotting Common Core-aligned state exams, and this so-called opt-out movement has been growing. Preliminary estimates are that between 150,000 and 200,000 students skipped New York state’s mandatory English exams last month, up from the 49,000 in 2014.

The Obama administration is aware of these developments, though you might question how it has chosen to respond to critics. “It’s fascinating to me,” said Mr. Duncan in 2013, “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.”

More recently, the administration has pivoted from insulting parents to threatening them. Mr. Duncan told an education conference in April that if the boycott numbers continue to rise, “then we have an obligation to step in.”

His spokesman later informed reporters that the administration is considering whether to withhold federal funding for districts with test-participation rates below 95%. Given that there is no political will or effective mechanism for punishing test opponents without turning them into martyrs, this is an idle threat. The districts doing most of the boycotting are affluent and not dependent on federal money, which in any case parents could easily replace out of pocket.

Nor is this backlash as “fascinating” as Mr. Duncan claims. For the purposes of opposing accountability measures in No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal education law signed by George W. Bush, the Obama administration told these white suburban moms that their schools were just fine. For the purposes of imposing Common Core, Mr. Duncan is telling them the opposite.

No Child Left Behind had its shortcomings, but Congress went to great lengths to preserve local control. The law’s objective was to produce information—disaggregated data on the racial, ethnic and income groups that were struggling academically. Unlike the Common Core standards and tests, No Child Left Behind didn’t tell schools what to do and what not to do. States were still in charge of determining what to teach and how to teach it.

“The one thing upper-middle-class parents want and have grown accustomed to having is the ability to control their kids’ education,” Jay Greene, an education reform scholar who teaches at the University of Arkansas, told me by phone this week. “They will purchase private school if they have to. They will move to another neighborhood if they must. And they will boycott testing if they feel their control is being interfered with.”

Forty-five states initially signed on to Common Core in return for more federal education funding, but the tide is turning and opponents—including teachers unions who don’t want student test scores, or any other objective measures, used to evaluate instructors—have the momentum. California and Utah already allow parents to opt out of assessments, and CBS News reported in March that 19 other states “have introduced legislation to either halt or replace Common Core.”

This issue won’t go away when students head home for summer vacation next month. The presidential candidates will have to declare themselves. Labor will pressure Hillary Clinton to at least hedge any support for testing, and it is increasingly difficult to imagine a Republican nominee who hasn’t distanced himself from Common Core.

Prof. Greene thinks the administration’s education agenda has crossed the wrong voters. “They’re going to lose,” he said, citing White House hubris and overreach. “You can’t beat organized upper-middle-class people. They will fight back and you will lose.”


Obama Takes Credit for 'Reforming Our Schools,' Then Thanks Private Sector for Teaching Poor Kids to Read

 At an event in New York City on Monday, President Obama said "reforming our schools for all of our kids" was one of his accomplishments. He also described "public-education institutions" as "pathways for success."

But in the same speech, the president hailed a new private sector effort to teach black and Latino kids to read at grade level by third grade; increase their high school graduation rates; and get more young black and Latino men into higher education or career training, all of them things that a "reformed" education system might be expected to do.

Obama's remarks came a few days after House Speaker John Boehner said it's time to look at all the taxpayer money -- and the liberal policies -- that have been thrown at the nation's public education system over the years because they're not working.

Boehner and many Republicans support school choice, or giving vouchers to students trapped in failing public school systems so they can attend private or parochial schools.

As has reported, President Obama tried to kill the District of Columbia's voucher program when he took office in 2009. Congress intervened, extending the program through 2016, but Obama's fiscal 2016 budget request would once again let the program lapse.

In his opening remarks on Monday, Obama thanked Lehman College for hosting the launch of the My Brother's Keeper Alliance, a nonprofit, private-sector effort to help "all our young people, long after I leave office."

"You know, everything that we've done since I've been president the past six and a half years, from rescuing the economy to giving more Americans access to affordable health care to reforming our schools for all of our kids, it's...been in pursuit of that one goal, creating opportunity for everybody," Obama said.

He thanked the Alliance for its determination to get results:

"They've set clear goals to hold themselves accountable for getting those results -- doubling the percentage of boys and young men of color who read at grade level by the third grade; increasing their high school graduation rates by 20 percent; getting...50,000 more of those young men into post-secondary education or training."

Obama said the Alliance already has $80 million in commitments to "make this happen," and he also said it's not happening out of charity:

"[T]hey're not doing it just to assuage society's guilt. They're doing this because they know that making sure all of our young people have the opportunity to succeed is an economic imperative," so they can fill the "jobs of the future."

Although the public school curriculum is controlled at the state and local level, the federal government uses taxpayer dollars as an incentive for schools to conform to its vision of how education should work.

President Obama's Education Department, for example, has used "Race to the Top" taxpayer grants -- more than $4 billion -- to encourage states to adopt Common Core, a set of uniform, national -- and controversial -- education standards and tests now used by many of the states.

The executive branch also influences education policy with "guidance" to the nation's schools -- on bullying, suspensions and expulsions, and equal access for illegal immigrants, in Obama's case.

In January 2014, for example, the Obama administration directed schools to reform their school discipline practices. Schools should remove students from the classroom only as a last resort, and only for "appropriately serious infractions, such as endangering the safety of other students, teachers, or themselves," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. The goal was to minimize the "school to prison pipeline."

A few months later, in May 2014, the Education and Justice Departments directed public schools to provide all children with equal access to an education, regardless of their or their parents' immigration status. This guidance came amid the massive influx of illiterate, non-English-speaking children crossing illegally into the United States from Central America, placing additional strain on some school systems.

'Liberal policies have not worked'

"How about we find a way to educate more of America's kids?" Speaker Boehner asked in an interview with NBC's Chuck Todd that aired this past Sunday.

"Half our kids given an education, more than half get a diploma, but they get a diploma, they can't read. And when you look at the schools in these inner cities, these families are trapped in bad schools that don't provide a real education, and look what you get.

"Chuck, what we have here is 50 years of liberal policies that have not worked to help the very people that we want to help. It's time to look at all these programs and determine what's working and what isn't, because until we start to find programs that actually work and we provide opportunities, more opportunities and a better education, we are going to have more of the same."

"If money was going to solve the education problem, we would have solved it decades ago," he added.
A year ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked about giving parents the ability to choose where their children go to school:

"We have to make sure every single public school in this nation is a school of choice," he told MSNBC's "Morning Joe."  Teachers' unions, a key Democrat constituency, oppose voucher programs, saying they divert resources from public schools to private and religious schools.


Ohio Budget Defunds Common Core Testing

The Ohio House takes on Common Core testing again

The Buckeye state is fighting back against the intrusive federal testing mandates that come with Common Core education standards. A House version of the state’s budget contains provisions defunding and blocking the use of PARCC, the set of Common Core aligned assessments that have students in tears all over the country.

The Ohio legislature unsuccessfully tried to repeal Common Core standards out right last year, and Governor Kasich’s support of the standards remains a major obstacle to reforms, but it’s commendable that these lawmakers are willing to stand on principle and fight to return local control to the classroom.

Students, parents, teachers, and even some unions are now opposing Common Core and the accompanying tests, complaining that the amount of classroom time devoted to test preparation is detracting from genuine education, and inhibiting teacher flexibility. In a striking illustration of this, last year’s teacher of the year, from Lorain County, Ohio, resigned, saying, “I don’t think anyone understands that in this environment if your child cannot quickly grasp material, study like a robot and pass all of these tests, they will not survive.”

The U.S. Department of Education warns that Ohio could lose up to $750 million in federal funding if it follows through on ditching PARCC tests. When defenders of Common Core insist that it is a state-led program, not mandated by the federal government, they invariably neglect to mention these kinds of financial threats that make it all but impossible for states to escape from under the federal government’s thumb.

Until Congress acts to prevent the Department of Education from bullying states into adopting its standards, state legislatures are facing an uphill battle, since governors don’t want to risk education funding. But as more Americans become frustrated with increased standards and testing requirements, or opt out en masse from the testing, something will eventually have to give.

Opting out of tests, which is legal in most states, can also cost schools their funding, which is why some schools have tried to intimidate parents and students into complying with the assessments. If enough parents start refusing, the issue of federal funding may become a moot point, and free up states to be more proactive in their efforts to reform education.

For now, we should encourage state legislatures to follow Ohio’s lead and tell governors that we are no longer willing to accept a system that puts test scores and uniformity ahead of our children’s well-being.


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