There he goes again.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan went to New York recently and introduced state Education Commissioner John King at a function at New York University, calling him “a remarkable leader” and “as smart and as thoughtful as anyone working in this space.” As for the growing number of critics of King’s education reforms, Duncan dismissed the movement as “lots of drama, lots of noise”  on which the media likes to focus. He could have been referring to the tens of thousands of parents opting their children out of Common Core-aligned standardized tests, or the nearly 3,000-delegate body of the New York State United Teachers, which earlier this month overwhelming approved a resolution calling for King to resign, or anybody else who doesn’t agree with him and King.

Duncan has dismissed critics of his school reform policies before. Last November, he dismissed foes of the Common Core State Standards, saying 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.” Last June he told a group of newspaper editors that the Common Core was a rallying cry for fringe groups (when actually opposition to the Core initiative has come from all parts of the political spectrum).

Why Duncan thinks dismissing critics is better than engaging them is baffling. To award-winning principal Carol Burris, he now has two choices. In this post, Burris puts Duncan’s speech in context and explains the flaws in his arguments.

Burris has been writing about King’s reform program on this blog for some time, exposing its many problems (for example, here, herehere,  here, and here.) She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by thousands of principals teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens (who, to Duncan, are apparently just making a lot of “noise”). You can read the letter here. 

By Carol Burris

Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently delivered a speech at New York University with two missions.   The first was to praise those who agree with his reform agenda.  He referred to Governor Andrew Cuomo and state Board of Regents Chancellor Tisch as “profiles in courage,” and to Commissioner John King as a state superintendent who is in “the top, whatever, 5, 10 percent…I don’t say that easily…he is absolutely the top enchelon [sic].”  In short, Duncan made it clear that he thinks New York reformers are swell.

The second mission was a more important one.  Duncan wanted to show his support for New York reforms, which are under serious fire from parents and educators across the state.  He twice dismissed critics by commenting on “all the noise for all the drama for all the whatever.” He pledged his allegiance to New York reforms by telling the supportive audience that the Empire State should ‘stay the course’.  You can listen to Duncan’s full remarks here or watch the video below.

Even as Duncan was speaking, New Yorkers were waking up to a thoughtful New York Times opinion piece written by Brooklyn principal, Elizabeth Phillips. Phillips described how the recent Common Core English Language Arts tests were “confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards.” At the same time, news was breaking that District 2 parents, principals and teachers would be protesting the tests later that week.  Opt Out groups were reporting record numbers of students not taking the test, with sources estimating more than 33,000 opt outers.  As numbers across the state slowly leak out, it is quite possible that number was an underestimate. A recent report by the New York State School Boards Association estimates Opt Out at 5 percent, which would represent about 60,000 students in grades 3-8. It is believed Opt Out will grow when the math tests begin at the end of the month.

Duncan’s continuing dismissiveness of those who oppose his agenda is disturbing.  When I hear words such as “drama”, “noise” and “hysteria” being used to describe mothers and teachers who oppose the Common Core and/or Common Core testing, my antenna goes up.  Let me put it on the table—I think it smacks of sexism, as did Duncan’s previous ‘white suburban moms’ remark.

At the risk of being just one more “noisy” woman, I would like to make a simple argument as to why New York should disregard Duncan’s advice and not stay the course of flawed reform.  The argument is a simple one:

 There is no empirical evidence that rigorous state or national standards will result in higher student achievement or greater college readiness

 Those who created the Common Core assumed that if we established rigorous standards,  student achievement and economic competitiveness would increase.  Duncan said, in his remarks at New York University, that it is common sense.  Prior to the 15th century, common sense said the world was flat, but that did not make it true.

That is why research is important; it is the way we test assumptions based on common sense, or sometimes, nonsense.  So let’s look at the evidence regarding the effect of standards.

Prior to the implementation of the Common Core standards, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute rated the existing state standards for quality, content and rigor. Grover Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Educational Policy for the Brookings Institution, used those ratings to explore the relationship between the rigor of state standards and NAEP scores. Whitehurst and his colleague, Michelle Croft, found no consistent relationship between standards and student performance on the NAEP exams or TIMMS. These findings reflect those of a previous study by the National Center for Educational Statistics, which found no evidence that higher state standards resulted in higher performance on the NAEP tests.

In his argument regarding why establishing standards is not a sure path to school improvement, Brooking’s Tom Loveless concluded: 

On the basis of past experience with standards, the most reasonable prediction is that the Common Core will have little to no effect on student achievement.

Brookings has continued to explore the effects of standards on achievement even as the Common Core has been phased in. A recently released study of the state standards most like the Common Core by Brookings, re-confirms their position that it is possible that the Common Core will have minimal effect on student learning.

Brookings is not alone. In this excellent 2010 National Education Policy Center (NEPC) brief, William Mathis also makes the case that the evidence does not support the belief that rigorous national standards (and let’s not kid ourselves, that is the purpose of the Common Core) will result in greater international competitiveness or higher student achievement. Michael Fullan, perhaps the world’s leading expert on school change and improvement, has repeatedly said that the Common Core standards are not an effective school improvement strategy and the Common Core reform will collapse of its own weight.

For those who still believe, below is a chart that includes standards ratings, public college completion rates and the percent of students each state sends to college.

I used three sources of data: the Fordham Institute ratings, The Chronicle of Higher Education public college completion rates of 2010, and the percentages of students who attend college by state as reported by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. I used the 2004 high school graduation data since the Chronicle reported 2010 six-year college graduation rates. The percent of high school graduates going to college is important to consider because although a state may have high completion rates, if fewer students attend college, those rates would be inflated for comparison purposes.

What now follows are the states with the best combinations of public college completion and college-going rates, along with their standards ratings.


Standard rigor ELA

Standard Rigor Math

2010 six-year graduation rate for 4 year public college

% of HS graduates going directly to college for that cohort






New Jersey





New York















North Carolina

























New Hampshire





For example, Iowa, whose standards received poor ratings for content and rigor, outshines California and Indiana whose standards were rated the most rigorous in the nation (7 and 7).  Indiana’s public college completion rate is under 50 percent, while only 44 percent of California students that year went from high school to college.

Connecticut, with its poorly rated standards had better six-year outcomes than Massachusetts (56.4 percent), although the Commonwealth’s standards are held up as a model for the nation.  Both states have nearly identical rates of students receiving free or reduced priced lunch (34 percent).

This is not an argument for low standards or no standards—it is an argument that standards reform is not an effective driver of school improvement.  Keep in mind that all state standards had high-stakes state tests associated with them. The more rigorous the standards, the more difficult the tests are.  As high-stakes tests become more difficult, the curriculum becomes narrower and narrower.  The tests soon drive teaching and learning.

When I hear “I am for the Common Core standards, I am just not for the tests”, I cringe.  While thoughtful educators look at the standards through their prism of good practice, test makers look at the standards as the basis for creating “items” that discriminate the learning of one child from another.  In the end, the test maker calls the shots.  It is no coincidence that the Common Core Standards, PARCC and Smarter Balanced were all born at the same time.  In his remarks, Duncan referred to PARCC and Smarter Balanced as the “national tests.”

The destination of school reform—ensuring that all students have the skills, content and habits needed for college and career success—is the right destination. The challenge is choosing the pathway that gets us there. Good intentions are not enough. If we continue to put our tax dollars and our efforts into “standards reform” because Mr. Duncan and his followers believe it is common sense, we will waste time and treasure.

It is time we face the uncomfortable truth—there is no research basis for the Race to the Top reforms. There are, however, excellent international models of school reform that have worked. We must have the humility to look to the north and learn from Canada and to look across the sea and learn from Finland.  Both countries have made steady and impressive progress while maintaining healthy school cultures that do not require the after hour “cram schools” of China or Japan.

It seems to me that Duncan has one of two paths he can follow.  He can stay the course in the face of growing opposition, and continue to dismiss critics as “noise,” “drama,” and “distraction,” or he can acknowledge that there is truth in the dissent.  There are knowledgeable and experienced international reformers such as Michael Fullan and Pasi Sahlberg from whom his department could learn.  The handwriting is on the wall—even as states pulled out of inBloom, they now are delaying commitment or pulling out of the “national tests.”  The secretary can change course before it all falls apart, or he can ride out the rest of his term and blame the noise for the disaster he leaves behind. One of those choices would create a true profile in courage. Let’s see which one he makes.

Here’s a video of Duncan giving his speech: