Arne Duncan tells newspaper editors how to report on Common Core

Arne Duncan (Jacquelyn Martin-Associated Press)
Arne Duncan (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

It seems that a big part of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s job now is giving impassioned defenses of the Common Core State Standards, which he did Tuesday to a convention of American news editors (some of whom may not have even known it needed defending).

A few months ago, Duncan told Chamber of Commerce leaders that they had to be more supportive of the Common Core because it was coming under withering attack from the left and right, and some states were reconsidering implementing the standards. On Tuesday, he gave another defense to the editors as well as some tips on how to report the story:

So do the reporting. Ask the Common Core critics: Please identify a single lesson plan that the federal government created, or requires of any school, teacher or district.

Ask if they can identify any textbook that the federal government created, endorsed, or required for any school, teacher, or district in their state.

Ask them to identify any element, phrase, or a single word of the Common Core standards that was developed or required by the federal government.

If they tell you that any of these things are happening –– challenge them to name names. Challenge them to produce evidence – because they won’t find it. It doesn’t exist.

 

And he went after Core critics, saying that they were at best misinformed and at worst laboring under paranoid delusions.

The Common Core has become a rallying cry for fringe groups that claim it is a scheme for the federal government to usurp state and local control of what students learn. An op-ed in the New York Times called the Common Core “a radical curriculum.” It is neither radical nor a curriculum. … When the critics can’t persuade you that the Common Core is a curriculum, they make even more outlandish claims. They say that the Common Core calls for federal collection of student data. For the record, it doesn’t, we’re not allowed to, and we won’t. And let’s not even get into the really wacky stuff: mind control, robots, and biometric brain mapping.

If the news editors take Duncan up on his call for them to look deeply into the Common Core, they will find that Duncan didn’t tell the full story.

There is some irony in the fact that Arne Duncan keeps saying that the Core is not the work of the federal government while he, the federal secretary of education, goes around attacking its critics. In fact, he just bowed to those critics, agreeing to give states an extra year to comply with federal mandates on using Core-aligned standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

He is certainly right to say that there are outlandish claims being made about the Common Core, which is a set of common standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia designed to raise student achievement. Glen Beck, shouting that the Core is essentially an effort by the federal government to rip children out of the control of their parents, said recently:

You as a parent are going to be completely pushed out of the loop. The state is completely pushed out of the loop. They now have control of your children.

That’s ridiculous stuff, for sure, but not all of the criticism is.

The Core initiative was started in 2007, Duncan said, by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, a bipartisan effort to come up with a common set of K-12 standards in English language arts and math across states that would better prepare students for colleges and careers than in the past.

The English standards were written by school reformer and entrepreneur David Coleman, who now heads the College Board, and Susan Pimental of Achieve Inc., an organization that supports “standards-based” education. Mathematicians and math educators wrote the math standards. Starting in 2009, the Obama administration, in its main education initiative, required states that wanted to compete for Race to the Top reform dollars to adopt a common set of standards. It also gave some $360 million to two consortia of states developing standardized tests aligned to the Core, exams whose results would be used to evaluate teachers, another controversial part of the Obama reform agenda.

For some time there has been concern about the Core. Educators and researchers questioned the way the standards were written (whether, for example, there was any or enough input from working teachers) and some criticized the content of the standards (while others praised it). Some critics don’t believe in standards-based education, and others felt it usurped local authority. More recently, tea party members and even the Republican National Committee jumped onto the anti-Core bandwagon, accusing the administration of a federal takeover of public education, extreme right-wing rhetoric that clouded a real discussion about the Core.

This year some states led by Republican governors began to pull away from the standards. Protests by educators, parents, students and others began to grow as it became clear that the Core implementation was being rushed, and some students were being given tests said to be Core-aligned even though teachers hadn’t had enough time to create material around the standards. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a speech that a survey of the members of the country’s second-largest teachers union found that 75 percent supported the Core but “a similarly overwhelming majority said they haven’t had enough time to understand the standards, put them into practice or share strategies with colleagues.” And she called for a moratorium on the high-stakes use of the test scores to evaluate teachers.

Last week, Duncan bowed to that reality, announcing that he was giving the 37 states plus the District of Columbia, which had won federal waivers from the most egregious mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, an extra year to implement teacher evaluations linked to new assessments that are supposed to be aligned to the new Common Core State Standards. This means the states have until 2016.

Duncan, in his speech to the newspaper editors, said the federal government didn’t start or write the standards, and that is true. He said that it wasn’t mandated either, though critics argue that it was coerced. He was also right when he said the Core is not a curriculum (even though the Core authors released a book of criteria to education publishers about what should be in Core curriculum).

But he didn’t mention the rushed implementation, nor the hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government has plowed into the testing creation effort. He has said for years that the Core-aligned tests would be “game changers” and be able to assess students much more broadly,  but he didn’t say Tuesday that that isn’t true. It turns out there wasn’t enough time or money to create those kinds of tests.

On Tuesday, Duncan said he doesn’t think the Common Core State Standards initiative is “going to be derailed.” But the thrust of his speech shows that he is plenty worried.

(Clarification: Explaining who wrote the English standards and who wrote the math standards)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 25, 2013