Education Secretary Arne Duncan continued to face criticism Monday over reported remarks that seemed to dismiss “white suburban moms” for opposing higher academic standards. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried Monday to quell the outrage sparked by his comments that injected race and class into the debate about the Common Core academic standards taking root in classrooms across the country.

Duncan said Friday that he was fascinated by the fact that some opposition to the standards was coming from “white suburban moms” who fear that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”

The remark lit up social-media sites, prompting pointed responses from bloggers, an open letter from a school superintendent, digital images of Duncan’s official federal portrait with the word “bigot” emblazoned across it, and one congressman’s call for Duncan’s firing.

Duncan, whose office declined interview requests Monday, posted a statement late in the day on his agency’s Web site.

“I used some clumsy phrasing that I regret — particularly because it distracted from an important conversation about how to better prepare all of America’s students for success,” he wrote. “I want to encourage a difficult conversation and challenge the underlying assumption that when we talk about the need to improve our nation’s schools, we are talking only about poor minority students in inner cities. This is simply not true. Research demonstrates that as a country, every demographic group has room for improvement.”

At a gathering of state school superintendents Friday, Duncan spoke about the opposition to the Common Core standards, which are being implemented in 45 states and the District of Columbia with the aim of creating a national baseline for education.

“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, according to media reports. “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.”

Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, was interviewing Duncan at Friday’s event and said that Duncan’s larger point vanished amid the outcry.

“He was actually saying that these standards are harder than what many states had in the past and fewer kids are going to be passing,” Minnich said.

Written by a group of governors and state education officials, with endorsements from the federal government and funding from the Gates Foundation, the Common Core standards are designed to prepare students for an eventual career or college.

Increasingly, high school graduates have not been ready for college; recent studies have found that up to 40 percent of first-time undergraduates need at least one remedial course in English or math.

In a country with a long history of local control over education, the Common Core standards mark the first time that nearly every state has agreed to a common set of skills and knowledge. The idea is that all students should possess certain skills by the end of each grade, so that a first-grader in Maryland will learn the same skills as a first-
grader in Maine or Montana.

The standards are not curriculum, as it is up to each state to decide what and how to teach.

Opponents range from tea party activists who say the standards amount to a federal takeover of local education to progressives who bristle at the emphasis on testing and the role of the Gates Foundation. Some academics say the standards are too weak; others say they are too demanding, particularly for the youngest students.

Across the country, teachers are struggling to revamp their lessons, and parents are concerned about the wholesale changes taking place in the classroom.

At last week’s event, Duncan said that the standards are tougher than those that existed in most states and that students probably will score lower on new tests aligned with the standards, something that will disturb parents.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said Duncan’s remarks were valid, if impolitic.

“A ‘gut punch’ is part of what American education needs, especially to shake up complacent, white, middle-class suburbanites,” Finn said.

Duncan’s remarks in Richmond, combined with a recent talk he gave at the National Press Club in which he dismissed the “political silliness” of Common Core opponents, make it seem as if the nation’s top education official is trying to play down all criticism of the Common Core.

“You can’t keep dismissing with a wave of your hand everybody who raises questions about the Common Core,” said Andy Smarick, former federal education official who is now a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, an education consulting firm. “This is a massive shift in state policy, in the relationship between the states and the federal government, and it would be wrong if we didn’t have a robust debate.” Duncan “should be inviting a thoughtful debate,” he said.

Duncan’s comments about the Common Core were not the first time he inadvertently set off a furor. In 2010, he called Hurricane Katrina the “best thing” to happen to public schools in New Orleans. “That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better,’ ” Duncan said. He apologized several days later.