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Arne Duncan Decries 'Imaginary' Attacks on Common Core

Sec. Arne Duncan defended the Common Core State Standards from what he called "imaginary" attacks based on falsehoods, according to prepared remarks he was slated to give at the American Society of News Editors' annual convention today here in Washington. (UPDATE: Here is a link to the speech as delivered by Duncan.)

In the address, Duncan tells the editors that it is their responsibility to aggressively seek answers from common-core opponents who (incorrectly, Duncan says) claim that the federal government created the standards and has forced them on states.

If journalists ask opponents, for example, to name one element of the standards created, endorsed or required by the federal government, he argued, they would find that common-core opponents have no facts to back up their claims about a supposed federal intrusion into, or takeover of, public schools. The federal government has encouraged the common-core movement, the speech says, but the states have been the ones in charge of the development and use of the standards.

"I believe the common core state standards may prove to be the among the most important things to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education—and the federal government had nothing to do with creating them," according to Duncan's prepared remarks. "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."

Over the last several months, the intensity of the anti-common-core movement has increased in several states, driven in part by fears that states and districts will lose control over their content standards to an increasingly (and inappropriately) powerful federal government. Although no state has moved to drop the common core after previously adopting it, two states, Indiana and Michigan, have slowed or "paused" their implementation of the common core, due in large part to conservative activists and politicians. Several other states have also mulled dropping or putting the brakes on their common-core implementation.

Other sources of opposition to the common core, in some quarters, include an over-reliance on standardized tests, and fear of inappropriate collection of student data.

The fact that Duncan directly addressed these strains of opposition could indicate that the U.S. Department of Education considers them threatening enough to warrant a response, even though in the address Duncan says he doesn't think the standards will get derailed by these attacks. Also implicit in his message is the idea that journalists haven't been posing the questions that would debunk, once and for all, the "misinformation" about common core.

"Imaginary is the right word," Duncan says of the basis for these attacks.

Some critics, Duncan noted, falsely conflate the standards with curriculum, which he emphasized that the federal government cannot mandate or create. He also makes a point of spelling out the difference between curriculum and standards in one part of the speech.

He highlights the range of political support behind the standards, from National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel to former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, now chairman of the K-12 advocacy group Foundation for Excellence in Education.

While Duncan embraces the federal government's role in supporting the standards, he does not mention the $360 million in federal funding provided to two groups of states working on assessments based on the common core.

Previously, he said, states deliberately lowered their standards in order to make more students seem proficient. In fact, he put a number on it—19 states, he said, dummied down standards in response to the No Child Left Behind Act's requirements. That kind of thinking must change, Duncan's speech said, and is changing, thanks to the common core. Tennessee in particular gets Duncan's praise for dedicating itself to higher standards and getting results.

"Not only do they set the bar high, they give teachers the room to go deep, emphasizing problem-solving, analysis, and critical thinking, as well as creativity and teamwork. They give teachers room to innovate," Duncan said of the standards.

It's unclear that Duncan's remarks will change any minds about the issue. At this juncture, common core foes (as well as its friends) have a great deal invested in their common-core narratives and arguments, and it's hard to imagine those being dropped en masse. But it's notable that Duncan took the time to address the political problems surrounding common core in a pretty direct fashion.

For additional valuable perspective on Duncan's remarks, check out the blog post from my colleague Michele McNeil over at Politics K-12.

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