Suburbia and Its Common Core Conspiracy Theories

Why middle-class white parents are up in arms about the new standards


This March, millions of school kids will take new standardized tests that are designed to accompany the Common Core standards. As that deadline looms, anxiety grows in suburban communities. Conspiracy theories, too, have grown out of parents’ natural instinct to protect their children from bureaucracies and self-styled experts. A teacher backlash against the school-reform efforts and the lack of leadership on this issue have made it more difficult for parents to get facts.

The Common Core standards are, of course, a set of broad, universal academic goals in math and English-language arts for public-school students of all ages. With the standards come national standardized tests that, in theory, will allow policymakers to compare performance across states and different demographics. Forty-three states, as well as the District of Columbia, have signed onto the Common Core program, and most of them have joined one of two testing "consortiums" known by their (rather unfortunate) acronyms: the PARCC or the SBAC. But the process has been far from smooth. More than half of the 26 states that initially signed onto the PARCC exam in 2010 have dropped out; only a dozen states will use the test this spring. Seventeen other states will take the SBAC, which has also sparked controversy, while the remaining ones will use their own tests.

Among the most vocal opponents to the new standards are conservative, Tea Party Republicans, who are ideologically opposed to any expansion of the federal government—something they inaccurately equate to the Common Core initiative. And these politically motivated critics, who have rallied against a national system of learning standards for decades, have their own conspiracy theories about the Common Core, too. These include claims that the the standards will turn students gay, that it preaches an anti-American agenda, and that Muslim Brotherhood and communists shaped the content.

Complicating matters, other state-level politicians have fought against a uniform system of standards and tests because they’re wary of seeing how the kids in their turf stack up against children elsewhere. No Child Left Behind did little to unify learning systems across the states, and what remains are essentially 50 different sets of standards and 50 different systems for measuring achievement. That makes it all but impossible to compare test results in, say, Connecticut and Texas. And with the huge variations in how much states spend on education, it seems illogical to assume that kids across the nation, regardless of where they reside, will perform equally well on a test such as the PARCC.

Now, amid all the backlash, an unlikely subculture appears to be emerging in the anti-Common Core world: suburban parents. Even U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has taken note of the trend, who last November told a group of superintendents that "white suburban moms" were resisting the implementation of the Common Core. His theory? "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."

I happen to live in a middle-class suburb outside of New York City—one that could easily be considered the capital of "white suburban moms." And I’m realizing Duncan was on to something: Their wrath is real, and it’s based largely on misperception and widespread fearmongering perpetuated by the Tea Party skeptics and anxious state policymakers.

My friends and neighbors post links almost daily on Facebook to articles claiming the Common Core "curriculum," as they perceive it, is destroying American youth. It has single-handedly taken recess away from kids, they argue. The upcoming tests demoralize kids and teachers. The new curricula and tests are an assault on an otherwise idyllic world where kids used to learn naturally—like those lucky children in Finland. Instead of actually instilling knowledge in students, teachers drill irrelevant facts into kids’ heads in order to game the testing results. And since the new exams will be taken on computers, hackers might even reveal the test results to colleges.

While there may be elements of truth in some of those parents’ fears, these protests have developed an irrational, hysterical bent. And they often have very real implications when it comes to public policy; these theories and fears have already led to political action at the local level. Parents have formed groups that claim to disseminate "the facts" about the Common Core. They share tips for opting out of the tests. They read prepared speeches at school board meetings. One local debate on the Common Core hosted by the League of Women Voters was standing room only.

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.

One common fear I’ve heard among parents is that the Common Core represents a new emphasis on standardized testing that takes away from learning time. But, in America, kids of all ages already take standardized tests; schools have long administered state assessments. And that’s on top of the alphabet soup of nationally accepted proficiency exams: the SATs, ACTs, GREs, GMATs, LSATs, you name it. The new Common Core tests do not threaten to significantly alter the American school experience.

The PARCC test for its part doesn’t require much more time than previous assessments. In the past, all public-school students in New Jersey, for example, took a state-designed standardized math and reading test. Fifth-grade students had 316 minutes to fill in the bubbles on an answer sheet. The PARCC’s fifth-grade test, meanwhile, will take 405 minutes. That might seem like a big difference for a 10-year-old, but the 89-minute difference doesn’t have much impact on the 180-day school year. That’s about a quarter of the time that my teenage boys like to spend playing Super Mario Brothers on any given Saturday.

So, why are suburban parents suddenly taken with test anxiety? Duncan reasoned that "white suburban moms"—and, presumably, dads as well—fear their children will perform poorly on the Common Core tests. But based on my conversations with parents and school administrators, as well as my observations of local school-board meetings, I believe parental fears are broader and more complex than Duncan made them out to be.

A typical suburban parent, like all parents, has an intense, natural instinct to protect his or her kids. We parents are hard-wired to protect our babies from the unknown—and for the most part, this is a good thing. After all, protection of offspring and suspicion of outsiders have kept the human species alive for millions of years. But this instinct sometimes takes parents in the wrong direction. Just look at the anti-vaccination movement: Though the instincts of anti-vaccination parent activists are pure, their actions have resulted in what’s arguably a public-health crisis in the country.

Many parents view the Common Core and the accompanying tests as a threat to their ability to keep their kids safe in a hostile world. Suburban parents, who are known for being particularly involved in their kids’ education and traditionally enjoy a good deal of influence on district policymaking, are frustrated by not being able to convince their local school boards to alter the standards or testing requirements. They worry that they won’t be able to help kids with homework, because the new learning materials rely on teaching methods foreign to them. They worry that, ultimately, their kids will be unemployed and living in the basement in their 20s.

Then social media steps in. There are those Facebook posts promoting articles with click-bait titles like "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."  I can picture it in my head: articles with stock photos of children sitting miserably at a desk or ominous images of broken pencils. These articles go viral in certain communities—not least in suburbia, where parents like (and have the time) to stay on top of things and are often used to getting their way. Virtual networking makes it all too easy to be outraged these days.

Tea Party conservatives and suburban parents might not have a lot in common, but they seem to increasingly share a distrust of bureaucracy, so-called experts, and federal rules. The sources of their opposition, of course, are entirely different: For Tea Party conservatives, it’s about ideology; for parents, it’s about protection. Politics makes for strange bedfellows, indeed.

Teachers have fostered parental protests, too. Teachers’ unions were initially very supportive of the Common Core, and educators helped shape its goals. However, support from educators began to wane in the past year, when state legislatures started to create policies tying test scores to their pay, largely through new teacher-evaluation systems. The new stipulations have caused unrest among teachers across the country, including those in my suburban New Jersey school district, adding a new layer of politics to the Common Core.

A recent nationwide poll conducted by researchers at Education Next found that teachers’ approval rate of the Common Core dropped from 76 percent in 2013 to only 46 percent in 2014. Paul Peterson, one of the Education Next researchers and the Director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance in the Graduate School of Education, confirmed that teachers are dissatisfied with the evaluation component. But, Peterson added, they’re also more informed than the general public is about the standards and accompanying tests.

Parents take their cues about education from their children’s teachers, and unfortunately that often means important facts are lost in translation once they exit the classroom. The bottom line is that if the teachers aren’t happy, the parents aren’t happy either.

Ultimately, the blurring between Common Core fact and fiction reveals a major flaw in the implementation of the program. No one group or individual took the lead in informing parents what the standards actually look like in the classroom and how it would affect their kids. 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.

Parents need to understand why a new universal set of standards is important, particularly parents in good school districts where schools are working well. They need to know how their kids will benefit from this program—and if their kids won’t benefit, parents need to know why these test results serve the larger public good, that they can help shape policies that will help others. Parents need to know that their kids will continue to be graded based on their teachers’ assessments and that the tests really serve to provide data for administrators and political leaders who can set policies based on students’ overall performance. Parents need to know how the Common Core differs from previous state curricula and how it will affect their kids on a daily basis. Simple facts—that the Common Core does not prescribe certain textbooks, for example—would go a long way in dispelling confusion.

Perhaps the "white suburban mom" protests will dissipate after the test results are publicized. Suburban schools tend to be relatively high-achieving and  have historically done very well on state-level standardized tests, so there is no reason to believe that the new tests will produce drastically different results. Parents in these areas, moreover, often supplement their children’s education with tutors and other resources. These schools will do fine on any national comparison.

But without guidance and information, parents are unable to sort through fact and fiction, rumors and politics. Sadly, this confusion might unravel a potentially good program.