Arne Duncan: Feds Won’t Prescribe Even ‘A Single Semicolon’ of Curricula

By Catherine Gewertz — February 04, 2014 2 min read
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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a ringing endorsement the other day of local control over standards and curriculum, something that could have landed on jittery common-core supporters like a blanket of reassurance.

But the speech made some of the core’s staunchest advocates cringe.

The issue of federal overreach with the standards has gotten so radioactive that Duncan can’t say a word about it without churning hundreds of stomachs in the pro-common-core camp. Even a blessing from the U.S. Secretary of Education—like ‘Hey, guys, you’re doing a great job out there!’—has people running for cover.

Take a look at the speech, which Duncan gave last week at a gathering of ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). It’s a shout-out to those doing in-the-trenches work of putting the Common Core State Standards into practice. It goes out of its way to praise the local, independent work of writing curriculum for the new standards. And it even makes sure to heap praise on the work going on in a state that didn’t adopt the standards: Virginia.

"[S]ince you are curriculum experts, I don’t have to tell you that the federal government has long been barred by law from mandating school curriculum and from selecting instructional materials for any school system,” Duncan said, according to a transcript of the speech. “Curriculum, instructional materials, and instructional practices... are your business, not ours. And I want to recognize how essential your work is at this pivotal moment.

“Now, these new college- and career-ready standards have the potential to be transformative for students, inspiring them, helping them to reach their full potential—but only if state and local leaders, principals, and educators implement them well,” Duncan said. "[T]he federal government is not going to assign any textbook or reading in schools. It’s not going to draft, create, or require a lesson plan in any school. It’s not going to tell teachers or local officials what to study—or what sequence to study in it.

“In fact, not a word, not a single semicolon of curriculum will be created, encouraged, or prescribed by the federal government. We haven’t done so—and we won’t be doing so, and that is how it should be.”

Even with this kind of language, though, some common-core advocates were privately gritting their teeth. A few complained to colleagues that they wished Duncan hadn’t mentioned their organizations by name. Others groused that any expression of support for the common core only fuels the perception in conservative circles that it’s a federal initiative.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn told me a couple of years ago that Duncan risked loving the standards to death if he kept using the bully pulpit to encourage their embrace by educators. The grimaces that went round after the secretary’s recent speech suggest that this has only gotten truer as the months have passed.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.