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Somewhere, David Labaree is smiling.

Actually, I have a pretty good idea where this is: Palo Alto, Calif., where Labaree teaches the history and sociology of education at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Over the past two decades, Labaree has been one of the nation’s leading analysts of the failures of American school reform.

Central to Labaree’s analysis is the recognition that there are several important goals for American education, which he labels democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. Democratic equality refers to the role that education plays in creating politically equal and engaged citizens of our democracy; social efficiency to how education rationally sorts individuals into the positions in the economy that enable the United States to grow economically and compete on the international playing field; and social mobility to the historic role that education has played as a vehicle for individuals to move up in society, and for those born into privilege to maintain their social and economic advantages.

Labaree describes democratic equality and social efficiency as public goods, because they contribute to the well-being of society overall. In contrast, because social mobility is about a competition among individuals to get ahead, it’s a private good, providing advantages to some members of society at the expense of others. In his books How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (1997) and Someone’s Got to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (2010), Labaree shows how a market in which individuals pursue academic credentials to get ahead has crowded out genuine learning as the central purpose of American education. Most local, state and national education reforms can be understood as reflecting the relative importance of the goals of democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility, and the irreducible tensions among these goals.

Which brings us to the Common Core State Standards and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The Common Core standards are not federal standards, Duncan would have us believe; but the U.S. Department of Education has championed them, and has used its extensive arsenal of carrots and sticks to push states to adopt them. Want a waiver from the ridiculous and unattainable provisions of No Child Left Behind? Play ball with the Department of Education. Chasing after Race to the Top dollars? Best to embrace the standards.

But there is resistance to the Common Core, and Duncan spoke of the tepid response in various pockets of the country in an address to the Council of Chief State School Officers in Richmond, Va. on Friday, November 15th. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reports that Duncan said, “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 subtext here is clear: Duncan is asserting that “white suburban moms,” driven by the goal of providing advantages for their own children, are resisting the implementation of the Common Core because it exposes fears that their children really aren’t doing very well in school. Instead of worrying about their own kids, they should embrace the role that the Common Core will play in benefiting society overall, especially the poor, urban brown and black children who lack the family and community advantages they enjoy.

How much of this is true? Well, just about everyone wants the best for his or her children, and families do choose where to live and where to send their children to school, and often make sacrifices to do so. And the resources available to families to support their children’s education are not distributed evenly.

But the notion that resistance to the Common Core is an expression solely of private interests is wrong-headed and insulting. Keep in mind that there is no evidence that implementing the Common Core on a national scale will improve the learning outcomes of anyone’s children. The effects might be positive, but we won’t know for some time. And in the meantime, the rollout of the Common Core, and ways of assessing mastery of the standards, has been uneven and unsteady—sort of like another federally supported initiative we’ve been reading a lot about lately.

Now, perhaps it’s not fair for me to try to put words in Secretary Duncan’s mouth. But it hasn’t been so easy for me, either—there’s so little room for words when so much space is taken up by his size-14 foot.

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