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Arne Duncan Mounts Strongest Defense Yet of Common Core Standards

By Michele McNeil — June 25, 2013 4 min read
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In a speech today to the American Society of News Editors in Washington, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan mounted his strongest defense yet of the common-standards movement and sought to beat back claims that the federal government has gone too far to encourage the standards’ adoption.

In his remarks, he tried to draw bright lines in the controversy: That the federal government encouraged the standards’ adoption, but didn’t mandate them and that the standards are just that—standards—and not a set of lesson plans or curricula, which the federal government is barred under law from getting involved in.

Duncan told the audience, “The federal government didn’t write them, didn’t approve them, and doesn’t mandate them, and we never will. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or willfully misleading.”

He called some of the claims opponents are making—that the standards and tests will lead to mind control, robots, and biometric brain mapping—just “wacky.” (My colleague over at State EdWatch has more about Duncan’s speech from the state perspective.)

Duncan called on his audience of journalists to use their jobs, their power, and their reach to investigate claims rather than just report the back-and-forth.

“As you know, good journalism is more than just claim and counterclaim. It’s investigating what’s true and false, what’s a responsible statement, and what’s not,” he said. My colleague Catherine Gewertz details more of Duncan’s challenge to his audience of journalists over at Curriculum Matters.

Then, Duncan sought to lay out exactly what the federal government’s role has been. (And that role isn’t so cut and dry.)

In his speech, Duncan says that when Obama took office in 2009, the standards were already in development. But that’s iffy. In April 2009, chiefs and governors met in Chicago to take the first concrete step towards launching the common standards drive. At this point, the groups were still seeking commitments from states, not developing the standards. By June 2009, 46 states had signed on to the idea of common standards.

Then Race to the Top came along, with the rules first announced in late 2009.

On a grading scale of 500 points, Duncan said adopting common standards and assessments was worth relatively little. “Did the points, and the dollars, matter to the states? Absolutely. But it’s not the only reason or even the most important reason why states adopted the Common Core,” he said.

In fact, adopting and implementing common standards and assessments was worth 50 points, or 10 percent. That’s the same amount of points allotted to a state’s plan for turning around low-performing schools. In a contest in which only a few points separated winners from losers, those points mattered—a lot. And it likely spurred states to actually adopt the standards; the first state adopted them in February 2010.

(Let’s not forget about the role of Congress in Race to the Top, which established the four “assurances” that would govern the 2009 stimulus money that funded the $4 billion state contest. Standards and assessments was one of those assurances states had to commit to improve. Of course, the stimulus law said nothing about a “common” set of standards, but the law was crafted against the backdrop of the state-led common-standards effort. Duncan then took the broad language of that law and really ran with it.)

Back to Duncan’s speech, there were some things he left out.

He didn’t mention Race to the Top Round 3, the bridesmaid round as we call it, when common standards adoption and implementation mattered even more. Implementing common standards and participating in a testing consortia were required in order for any of the nine finalist states to get their consolation prize. (UPDATE: I should point out that the department did this to make sure states didn’t backtrack from the promises they made in the original rounds of competition.)

Also going unmentioned was the $360 million in Race to the Top funds Duncan used to help states develop common tests linked to the common standards. His speech was almost entirely focused on the standards themselves.

Duncan used the speech to take on his critics, basically accusing them of taking the easy way out as they sought to derail other education-improvement efforts.

“Some of the hostility to Common Core also comes from critics who conflate standards with curriculum, assessments and accountability. They oppose mandated testing and they oppose using student achievement growth and gain as one of multiple measures to evaluate principals and teachers. They also oppose intervention in chronically low-performing schools. Some seem to feel that poverty is destiny,” he said.

“It’s convenient for opponents to simply write it all off as federal overreach—but these are separate and distinct issues--and they should be publicly debated openly and honestly with a common understanding about the facts.”

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