Arne Duncan: ‘White suburban moms’ upset that Common Core shows their kids aren’t ‘brilliant’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan (By Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)
Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

(Update: Adding more on opposition to Core, where Duncan spoke)

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a group of state schools superintendents Friday that he found it “fascinating” that some of the opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “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.”

Yes, he really said that. But he has said similar things before. What, exactly, is he talking about?

In his cheerleading for the controversial Common Core State Standards — which were approved by 45 states and the District of Columbia and are now being implemented across the country (though some states are reconsidering) — Duncan has repeatedly noted that the standards and the standardized testing that goes along with them are more difficult than students in most states have confronted.

The Common Core was designed to elevate teaching and learning. Supporters say it does that; critics say it doesn’t and that some of the standards, especially for young children, are not developmentally appropriate. Whichever side you fall on regarding the Core’s academic value, there is no question that their implementation in many areas has been miserable — so miserable that American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, a Core supporter, recently compared it to another particularly troubled rollout:

You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.

New York was the first large state to implement the standards and give students new standardized tests supposedly aligned with the Core. Test scores plummeted earlier this year. State officials had predicted the scores would drop 30 percent — and that’s exactly what happened. (How they could predict that with such accuracy was addressed in a previous Answer Sheet post.) Opposition to the standards, both their content and their implementation, has been growing in New York (and other states) among teachers, principals, superintendents and parents, some of whom have refused to allow their children to take the exams.

On Friday, Duncan spoke in Richmond, Va., about the growing opposition to Common Core and their implementation in states around the country before a meeting of the Council of Chief State Schools Officers Organization. Education Department communications chief Massie Ritsch said in an e-mail that he does not believe that there is a full transcript of Duncan’s remarks, but he referred to the following write-up from Politico’s Libby Nelson, who was at the event:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told an audience of state superintendents this afternoon that the Education Department and other Common Core supporters didn’t fully anticipate the effect the standards would have once implemented.

“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,” Duncan said. “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.”

Overcoming that will require communicating to parents that competition is now global, not local, he said.

Ritsch said in an e-mail that Duncan  was observing that the higher standards that states have adopted to better prepare their students for college and careers are revealing that some “good” schools aren’t as strong as parents in those areas have long assumed.

When confronted with the truth through lower test scores and other indicators, the unhelpful response, in Arne’s view, is to say, “Let’s lower standards and go back to lying to ourselves and our children, so that our community can feel better.”  The more productive response for a community or a state is to ask, “What can we do to get better, so our students can graduate from high school, succeed in college and be competitive for good jobs?”  Because other communities and states are asking themselves that question and making smart improvements to their schools and education systems.

Duncan has slammed Core opponents before. At a Sept. 30 appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, he said that opposition to the Core standards had been fueled by “political silliness.” In June, he told a convention of newspaper editors that Core critics were misinformed at best and laboring under paranoid delusions at worst. Duncan said:

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.

There are people on the political fringe, right and left, who oppose the Core initiative  for different reasons, but that’s not where most of the substantive opposition is coming from. Educators and researchers questioned the way the standards were written (whether, for example, there was any or enough input from K-12 classroom 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 have accused the administration of a federal takeover of public education, extreme right-wing rhetoric that clouds 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.  That’s why Duncan announced in June 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.

Duncan has repeatedly said the new Core-aligned standardized tests — being designed by two multistate consortia with some $350 million in federal money — would be light years ahead of the current tests. As it turns out, neither the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium nor the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers have had enough time or money to develop truly “game-changing” exams in terms of how they can really measure the broad range of student abilities, according to a report by Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a panel of educational leaders, which said:

The progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.

Here is the way that Politico reporters tweeted out Duncan’s remarks to the state superintendents meeting on Friday. Nelson, who covers higher education for Politico, was there, and she tweeted, along with Stephanie Simon, a K-12 reporter. Here are the relevant tweets:

Correction: An earlier version mistakenly swapped the first and last name of Massie Ritsch.

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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | November 16, 2013