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Standards Opinion

Seven Observations on Duncan’s Common Core Address

By Rick Hess — June 26, 2013 3 min read
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Yesterday, our earnest Secretary of Education delivered a big speech on the Common Core to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In a move that will surprise pretty much no one, he disregarded my advice from last week on how to tamp down some of the push-back to the Common Core. Instead, he basically opted to double down on the administration’s rhetorical approach, offering skeptics the back of his hand, and not much else. You can read the whole thing for yourself, but here are seven things that struck me:

1. From the Catch-22 file: When U.S. Secretary of Education is one of the most prominent and vocal champions of Common Core, it makes it harder to argue that this is a state-driven exercise.

2. Duncan was, of course, entirely correct in reminding the editors of the difference between standards and curriculum, and in telling them that agreeing to standards does not mean a state has selected any particular curriculum. Moreover, Duncan sounded a reasonable note when he pointed out the misinformation out there, and blasted critics for “say[ing] that the Common Core calls for federal collection of student data. For the record, it doesn’t, we’re not allowed to, and we won’t. And let’s not even get into the really wacky stuff: mind control, robots, and biometric brain mapping.”

3. If Duncan was going to go after “misinformation,” though, it would have been gracious and constructive if Duncan had conceded that some of this might be due to advocates not doing a very good job of engaging the public or anticipating reasonable concerns, or had acknowledged that such worries are understandable in light of the current IRS and NSA scandals. Indeed, since he was talking to the nation’s editors, he might have posed this as a reporting challenge. Instead, I read the “misinformation” point entirely as an indictment of those goofy yokels who mindlessly fear federal overreach.

4. Duncan offered a slight nod to the role that federal funds, Race to the Top, and ESEA waivers have played in pushing the Common Core forward. He acknowledged that the Obama administration “supported[ed]” and “encouraged” the enterprise. He could have used this as an opportunity to sketch a bright line regarding federal involvement and to convince reasonable skeptics that the feds aren’t on a slippery slope. Once again, he passed, saying of the standards: “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.” Uhh, hold on now, Sparky. This depends on what the meaning of “approve” and “mandate” is. Duncan certainly made adoption of approved standards a key in Race to the Top and mandatory for obtaining ESEA waivers (and there weren’t a lot of options besides Common Core). He’s free to argue the semantics of “approve” or “mandate,” but he’s over the line in asserting that those who disagree are “misinformed or willfully misleading.”

5. On a related note, Duncan again passed on the opportunity to say it might not have been the greatest idea for the 2012 Democratic National Platform to credit Obama for the Common Core, or for the President to take credit for Common Core adoption in this year in this year’s State of the Union.

6. In telling the editors what questions their reporters should be asking, it was interesting to see the questions that Duncan didn’t encourage. He told the editors to challenge skeptics to show federally created curricula or textbooks (knowing they can’t find such examples), but said nothing about looking into federal funding for the testing consortia (which will devise the tests that will drive instruction and curriculum) or whether all the experts agree that the Common Core is as rigorous and generally awesome as he asserted.

7. Duncan said nothing about his “waiver waiver” decision from the other week (which dealt with the challenge of adopting new teacher evaluation systems while changing tests). This pointed to a larger omission, which was the utter absence of any discussion of the implementation challenges posed by the Common Core or how solid reporting might help state and local officials and educators anticipate, understand, and address those.

This all matters because Common Core adoption is not self executing. It depends on the breadth of support and on the intensity of the opposition. The Duncan line of attack doesn’t do anything to help on that front and may very well agitate opponents even more.

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