Education Opinion

Did Duncan Corrupt Common Core?

By Peter Greene — December 04, 2014 4 min read
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One of the recurring narratives among conservative supporters of the Common Core is the Tale of How Duncan and Obama Corrupted the Good and Virtuous Common Core. And no matter how often the tale is debunked, it keeps popping up again.

You can see the tale on display once again at the November gathering of GOP governors. The story always goes something like this:

Once upon a time, the governors (and some of their finest minions) got together and created a set of wonderful, magical standards. But just as they were starting to send these magical standards throughout the land, the Evil Presiden Obama and the wicked Secretary Duncan cast a terrible spell on the beautiful, healthful standards and overnight, the standards grew toxic tests that had to be taught to because of top-down federal intrusion.

I do not know if reformsters don’t understand the implications of their own program or if they are purposefully deceptive (I’d guess there are some of each in play). But that fairy tales is not true, and never was.

First of all, there is no version of reality in which the states adopted CCSS on their own. Certainly there’s no version of reality in which states would have adoptred the Core sight unseen without the federal leverage escape from the penalties of No Child Left Behind. CCSS fans can complain about feds, but it’s the equivalent of complaining about the French-- we may not like them now, but nothing would have gotten off the ground without them.

But let’s go back and look at Benchmarking for Success, the position paper for the National Governor’s Association and their friends at Achieve. The document is no secret, and is often used to make the same point I’m about to make, but it’s worth trotting out again every few months. And it’s important remember that this report is from 2008. 2008.

In their roadmap for education reform, Common Core is just one feature of the five recommended actions

1) Upgrade state standards to a common core

2) Use state influence to get textbooks, curricula, and assessments aligned to standards

3) Revise state policies on teacher prep, development and support

4) Accountability for schools and systems

5) Measure state-level achievement

One might look at this list and conclude that to accomplish this sort of large-scale overhaul would require a central planning body with a national reach and the power to back it up. So, you know, something like a federal government. But the authors of the “report” have anticipated that concern, and devote an entire page (well, two, but one is a full page picture of a brown frightened child).

If benchmarking were only about measuring and comparing outcomes, the federal government might be able to play a leading role. However, because benchmarking is also-- and most critically-- about improving policy, states must take the lead.

The authors assert that the states have the “primary authority” over the policy areas that are targetted by the reform. This is not an argument that we need to respect state autonomy; it’s an argument that the state’s authority stand in the way of the goals. When they write “the states must take the lead,” that’s not a philosophical imperative-- it’s a recognition of a political reality.

They also note that the federal government can help by “playing an enabling role grounded in a new vision for the historic state-federal partnership in education.” But the relationship is historic precisely because the feds are in it. The true historic relationship between the feds and the states when it comes to education is no relationship at all.

Nobody connected with this report is arguing, “We must initiate this great reform and keep the feds out of it.”

Their specific to-do list for the feds is also not-very-hands-off. The feds should offer funding. They should do research and development. They should help identify the best benchmarks for states to use. They should collect and disseminate assessment materials. In other words, the feds should figure out the right thing to do, the right way to measure it, and decide who should and shouldn’t get money.

Furthermore, the feds should “offer a ranged of tiered incentives” and those should include “flexibility in meeting requirements of existing federal educatiuon laws.” In other words, the federal government should offer deserving states a way around No Child Left Behind.

In short, the federal government should hold the purse string of reform, oversee the definition of “deserving” for reform, and use the penalties of NCLB as leverage. They want the feds to send “support” for reform much like we once sent “advisers” to Vietnam.

Remember-- this report is from 2008. Do you remember who was not President in 2008? The same man who hadn’t yet named Arne Duncan Secretary of Education.

Conservatives (and others) can argue that Common Core-related reform is tied to a large and unprecendented extension of federal authority. What they can’t argue is that such overreach was the invention or creation of Obama and Duncan. Supporters of the Core got exactly what they asked for, hoped for, and planned for.

The most sobering part of these looks back is not the selective amnesia and political maneuvering among current conservative. It’s the realization that the current reformster road map was in place before we even had Presidential candidates, which in turn makes me realize that the 2008 election was probably not going to have any effect on the future of US public education. The big question? Will the election in 2016 make any difference?

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.