Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks at Malcolm X Elementary School...

Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks at Malcolm X Elementary School in Washington. (Nov. 7, 2013) Credit: AP

When we talk about improving public education in America, should we mention race and ethnicity?

Here's a better question: If we're honest about one of the biggest problems -- i.e., the low expectations that many educators have of some students that become a self-fulfilling prophesy -- how can we avoid the topic?

Sure, some people might get uncomfortable. The intersection of race and education has always been a sensitive subject. People know that as recently as 60 years ago, many of the public schools in America were racially segregated as a matter of law. Yet, in a country that is often long on forgiveness and short on memory, many folks like to pretend that this is all in the past and our public schools are now a model of fairness and equality.

Not in the real world. Not where students are still tracked into or away from Advanced Placement courses based on factors that, if we were honest, might include race and ethnicity. Not where parents take for granted that some schools are better than others based on the racial and ethnic composition of the student body. Not where, I've been told by inner-city school superintendents, aging property owners bristle at having to pay taxes to educate a new crop of kids that bear little or no resemblance to the old crop.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan did not avoid talking about race -- and for that matter, the equally touchy subject of class -- in remarks he recently made to a group of state education chiefs. He was taking on critics of the national educational standards program known as Common Core, noting that they include "white suburban moms."

His point was that many critics of Common Core -- and for that matter, other education reform measures that Duncan has been championing to increase accountability -- tend to blame the thermometer for the fever. These efforts have exposed weaknesses in local schools, he said, and people aren't happy about what they see. Moreover, Duncan implied that -- if the illness were limited to another part of town -- it's likely that some of these critics would not have cared enough to raise a fuss.

"It's fascinating to me," Duncan told the state officials, "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."

For his candor, both liberals and conservatives alike are itching to punch Duncan. On the left, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tweeted: "Arne -- if u are reading -- you shld walk this back ... very insensitive -- and not right -- moms care abt their kids!!" On the right, Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, tweeted that Duncan "should be fired for dismissing #CommonCore critics as just white suburban moms with dumb kids."

Don't worry, Arne. It's not personal. Both camps are just pushing their agendas. Liberals are upset because Duncan sounds like he's working for the Bush administration, which was always demanding more from schools and catching flak for it from teachers unions and other special interests. Meanwhile, conservatives equate Common Core, and any national test or agreed-upon curriculum, as part of a power grab by the federal government, and get squeamish whenever race or ethnicity is invoked -- unless, of course, they're doing the invoking.

Yet what fascinates me is that anyone could think what Duncan said was the least bit controversial. It's all about assumptions.

Many parents assume that their kids are brilliant, and that all they have to do is place them in a school where they'll be surrounded by other brilliant kids and they'll be fine. Homeowners assume that buying an expensive home in a pricey neighborhood automatically means that it comes with an exceptional school district. And, finally, whole communities assume that -- when things go wrong, and schools fail -- the damage can be contained to the other side of the tracks or the town next door. All of these assumptions are wrong.

At the risk of being unpopular, someone has to say so. Duncan did. And for it, he deserves high marks.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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