Duncan Pushes Back on Attacks on Common Core Standards

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Duncan Pushes Back on Attacks on Common Core Standards

Arne Duncan Remarks at the American Society of News Editors Annual Convention, Capital Hilton, Washington, D.C.

June 25, 2013

Thank you, Clark. The work you are doing to help the next generation become more sophisticated in understanding the news is absolutely vital. To have full power over their lives, young people must understand the world they live in. They have to read, they have to follow the news, and they have to vote. All that is such an important part of what it means to be educated. So, thank you.

Traditionally, this event has been an opportunity for federal leaders to talk about touchy subjects. For example, you asked President Kennedy to talk about the Bay of Pigs. So, thanks for having me here to talk about the Common Core State Standards.

Academic standards used to be just a subject for after-school department meetings and late-night state board sessions. But now, they're a topic for dueling newspaper editorials. Why? That's because a new set of standards—rigorous, high-quality learning standards, developed and led by a group of governors and state education chiefs—are under attack as a federal takeover of the schools. And your role in sorting out truth from nonsense is really important.

So I'd like to explain how we arrived at this place. I'll talk about information and misinformation, and ask you to help Americans draw a bright line between the two.

I'd like to make the case that these standards have the capacity to change education in the best of ways—setting loose the creativity and innovation of educators at the local level, raising the bar for students, strengthening our economy and building a clearer path to the middle class. But for these new standards to succeed, Americans will need to be clear on what's true and what's false.

News Literacy and our Common Worry: Ensuring a Generation Critical Thinkers

You and I wake up every day to similar worries and similar hopes. We just attach different labels to them.

You wonder whether there's a market for serious news. You wonder whether a generation that grew up on text messages and Twitter will read about interest rates and Iran.

I worry about the one in four young Americans who don't graduate from high school—and the three out of four young people who are ineligible to serve in the military. I worry about the 90 million American adults with below-basic or basic reading skills.

If you don't worry about these things yet—you will. Because they put your future at risk—and ours.

For America to prosper—and for journalism to survive—we need a generation that reads, writes and thinks.

Where the Common Core Came From: A Crisis of Low Standards

You may have heard President Obama say that America used to be number one in the world in college completion just one generation ago. Sadly, today, we have dropped to number 12 among young adults. That's reality and that's unacceptable.

We're not going to pave a path to the middle class with the cheapest labor. We're not going to reverse the polarization of wealth in this country through unskilled jobs. The only way that we can promise all of our young people a genuine opportunity is through a world-class education.

What our young people need, and deserve, is an education that leaves them not just college-ready but innovation-ready. As Tom Friedman has written, they need an education that prepares them for the reality of today's flat world—a world where you invent your own job, change careers, and constantly acquire new skills. The real world demands readers, writers, and critical thinkers—people who can work with others and communicate skillfully. It's the same thing you demand.

The problem is a lot of children, in a lot of places in America, have not been getting a world-class education. But rather than recognize that, for far too long, our school systems lied to kids, to families, and to communities. They said the kids were all right—that they were on track to being successful—when in reality they were not even close.

What made those soothing lies possible were low standards for learning. Low standards are the equivalent of setting up for a track-and-field event with hurdles only one foot tall. That's what happened in education in a lot of places, and everyone came out looking good—educators, administrators and especially politicians.

The truth—the brutal truth—was that we had thousands of schools where as few as 10 percent of students were reading or doing math at grade level, and where less than half were graduating.

The truth was that in a school with 100 low-income kindergartners, only 29 could expect to enroll in college, and nine—only nine—could expect to graduate.

For those few who made it to college, remediation rates were high. Our competitiveness was in danger.

The Power of the Common Core

Fortunately, in 2007, a group of governors and state education chiefs decided they were unwilling to perpetuate this cycle of deception, dysfunction, and low expectations. They set out to develop a new set of learning standards aligned to the demands of the real world—to the kind of deep learning that your children and my children will need to thrive in a globally competitive economy.

What happened was far beyond anyone's expectations: 45 states and D.C. voluntarily adopted these new standards. Nobody foresaw that development in 2009. It's a testament to the courage of these state leaders and the power of a good idea whose time had come.

It was powerful for two reasons: because these standards were rigorous enough to prepare students for the real world, and because they would be shared among a number of states. Here's what that means:

Today, I believe, literally for the first time in American history, a child in Mississippi will face the same expectations as a child in Massachusetts.

Today a fourth grade teacher in New Mexico can develop a lesson plan at night and, the very next day, a fourth grade teacher in New York can use it and share it with others if she wants to.

Today, the child of a Marine officer, who is transferred from Camp Pendleton in California to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, will be able to make that academic transition without a hitch, instead of having to start over in a widely different place academically.

When these standards are fully implemented, a student who graduates from a high school in any one of these states—who is performing at standard—will be ready to attend and succeed in his or her state university without remedial education. Historically, in far too many communities, more than half of those who actually graduated from high school needed remedial help in college.

We are no longer lying to kids about whether they are ready. Finally, we are telling them the truth, telling their parents the truth, and telling their future employers the truth. Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable to giving our children a true college and career-ready education.

The New York Times has called the Common Core "a once-in-a-generation opportunity" to bring our public schools up to levels of our high-performing international competitors.

I believe the Common Core State Standards may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education—and the federal government had nothing to do with creating them.

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.

Let me say that one more time—the federal government didn't write them, didn't approve them, and doesn't mandate them. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or willfully misleading.

Now, I will tell you what we did do, and then you can do your job by confirming it and by questioning anyone who says otherwise—because all kinds of people are saying all kinds of things that are simply not true.

The Common Core: Not a Federal Project

When the Obama administration came into office in 2009, the Common Core standards were in development, and gaining momentum. We set out to support states and districts in changing the conditions that were limiting educational opportunity, and raising standards was a vital part of that.

With governors and state leaders making major progress on standards, we gave them all the support we could, within the bounds of what's appropriate for the limited federal role in education.

Our big competitive reform fund, Race to the Top, awarded points—40 points out of 500—to states that were collaborating to create common college- and career-ready standards.

It was voluntary—we didn't mandate it—but we absolutely encouraged this state-led work because it is good for kids and good for the country.

And at the time, no one knew how many groups of states would come together to create their own set of common standards. It turned out to be one big group of 46—but it could have been several, or even many, groups of states uniting around different sets of standards. So this notion of our pushing for one set of standards was never correct. In fact, we were totally agnostic on the number of state consortia. We just didn't want 50 states to continue to work in complete isolation from each other.

Moreover, there's a huge difference between creating an incentive—which was absolutely the right thing to do—and mandating particular standards—which is never the right thing to do, and we never will do. The states choose their standards; they have been free, and always will be free, to opt for different ones.

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. To be clear, total Race to the Top dollars were less than one percent of what we spent on K-12 education every single year.

States signed on to the Common Core because it was the right thing to do. They knew that their children were being cheated and they refused to continue to be a part of it—and for that they deserve our deepest praise and gratitude. In fact, dozens of states that didn't get a nickel of Race to the Top money are committed to those higher standards—and American education will be better because of it.

These standards are under attack now.

Why Strong Standards Change Everything

Where Standards Used to Be

It's important to remember where this all started. Before 2009, No Child Left Behind created pressure for schools and districts to meet standards and hit cut scores—and in response, 19 states actually dummied down their standards to make more of their students appear more proficient.

Here's how low the bar was. You've heard about the NAEP test—the one we refer to as the nation's report card. Fourth-grade reading standards in 35 states—75 percent of the country—were set below what NAEP considers the bare minimum or "basic."

In 2007, Tennessee was one of only two states to receive an "F" for its academic standards, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Ninety percent of students there scored "proficient" on state reading and math tests, yet only 26 percent were proficient according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—90 percent versus 26 percent. Same students, different tests, and wildly different results—all because Tennessee had pathetically low standards.

Like we saw in too many states, the proficiency cut scores on Tennessee's assessments were intellectually dishonest. They actually corresponded to a student GPA of a D-minus, and concealed huge achievement gaps, especially for disadvantaged students.

Then, two Tennessee governors—one Democrat and one Republican—Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam—decided to challenge the status quo and change everything. They started telling the truth about student learning by raising standards. Measured against these higher standards, test scores looked much lower and achievement gaps looked much wider. Proficiency rates dropped by more than half. Achievement gaps that were already large, more than doubled.

Yet Tennessee showed real courage and stuck by the higher standards—and, last year, Tennessee's students made the biggest single-year jump in achievement ever recorded in the state. High standards and high expectations are the first step toward higher performance.

What These Standards Do

In that effort, the Common Core standards mark a sea-change in education. Not only do they set the bar high, they give teachers the space and opportunity to go deep, emphasizing problem-solving, analysis, and critical thinking, as well as creativity and teamwork. They give teachers room to innovate.

And, all across the country, teachers have responded. Three out of four say the Common Core standards will help them teach better.

A few weeks ago, I had a group of local teachers to dinner, and I asked them about the Common Core:

  • One fourth-grade teacher from Maryland said: "I think most teachers love and embrace the idea ... that we're not just teaching them to spit back formulas to us ..."

  • A middle-school teacher said: "It's giving us a lot more time to get kids into really engaged discussions and deeper thought. ... These standards open up all kinds of new directions."

One teacher—a county teacher of the year—even brought in a quote from one of her fifth-graders. Here's what the student said:

"Sometimes in the past, we knew what the steps were to solve a problem but we could not process it in a way to make sense of the big mathematical idea. Now we start with the big idea and we discover the math within it."

That's what an 11-year-old fifth-grader said!

The Controversy over the Core

The Common Core is Under Attack through Misinformation

Unfortunately, not everyone shares that 11-year-old's enthusiasm. The Common Core has become a rallying cry for fringe groups that claim it is a scheme for the federal government to usurp state and local control of what students learn. An op-ed in the New York Times called the Common Core "a radical curriculum." It is neither radical nor a curriculum.

We need to be very clear about definitions here.

  • Standards—learning standards, academic standards—are the goals, typically set by states, for what students should know by a certain age.

  • Curriculum—on the other hand—is what teachers teach to help students meet those standards. Curriculum is generally chosen at the district or even the school level—and in many cases individual teachers actually decide on the curriculum and classroom content.

When the critics can't persuade you that the Common Core is a curriculum, they make even more outlandish claims. They say that the Common Core calls for federal collection of student data. For the record, we are 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. This work is interesting, but frankly, not that interesting.

The Washington Post laid out the facts in an editorial I will quote:

"Lost in the hysteria being whipped up about Common Core standards is that the movement to infuse new rigor in schools started at the state level... This sensible and badly needed reform should not be derailed by misguided and misinformed opposition."

Now, I don't think the Common Core is going to get derailed. But this misguided, misinformed opposition is making life more difficult in several states, where various forms of anti-Common Core legislation have been introduced. A lot of that legislation is based on false information.

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.

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

That's where you come in.

The Role of Journalists: Telling Truth from Fiction

As you know, good journalism is more than just claim and counter-claim. It's investigating what's true and false, what's a responsible statement and what's not. Many of you have done fine work on that front.

You understand the truth about the role of the federal government with respect to common core standards: We didn't write them, we don't mandate them and we don't regulate them.

That's why leaders on the left and the right—Randi Weingarten and Mitch Daniels; Dennis van Roekel; and Jeb Bush—and so many others—support the Common Core standards, even if they disagree on many other issues.

You also understand that the federal government has nothing to do with curriculum. In fact, we're prohibited by law from creating or mandating curricula.

So do the reporting. Ask the Common Core critics: Please identify a single lesson plan that the federal government created, or requires of any school, teacher, or district.

Ask if they can identify any textbook that the federal government created, endorsed, or required for any school, teacher, or district in their state.

Ask them to identify any element, phrase, or a single word of the Common Core standards that was developed or required by the federal government.

If they tell you that any of these things are happening—challenge them to name names. Challenge them to produce evidence—because they won't find it. It simply doesn't exist.

Responsible Conservative Voices

Many thoughtful, strong conservatives are already speaking the truth and showing real courage. Governor Mike Huckabee recently wrote: "I've heard the argument these standards 'threaten local control' of what's being taught in Oklahoma classrooms. Speaking from one conservative to another, let me assure you this simply is not true... They're not something to be afraid of; indeed they are something to embrace."

Columnist Michael Gerson—President Bush's former speechwriter—wrote recently that if the Common Core "is a conspiracy against limited government, it has somehow managed to recruit governors Mitch Daniels and Jeb Bush, current governors Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce." Gerson concluded, "A plot this vast is either diabolical or imaginary."

Imaginary is the right word.

In this change, the state chiefs are in the driver's seat. I have talked with virtually every governor in America—and visited almost every state. I've spent time with every state chief—because I know that when it comes to improving public education—the buck does not stop here in Washington. It stops in Albany, in Lansing, in Tallahassee and in Sacramento. In public education, the buck stops with the states.


That's why you have seen this administration devote so much energy to helping our states succeed—at the same time that we continue to try to work with a dysfunctional Congress. I have great, great respect for the men and women serving in Congress today, but the institution is fundamentally broken.

Congress has let six years go by without fixing No Child Left Behind—and the unintended consequences have been devastating for children and for public education.

Fortunately, through the waiver process, we found a way to minimize the damage, while supporting bold and courageous work in states all across America.

We've set a high bar for states on issues like closing achievement gaps, evaluating principals and teachers, and turning around low-performing schools—but we've given them lots of flexibility in how they get there.

Tight on goals, but loose on means—that's our theory of change. It's the exact opposite of how No Child Left Behind was structured.

But I look forward to a day when we don't have to rely on our waivers to support states in their efforts to improve education. I'm pleased to see that Congress has finally begun the reauthorization process—though I worry that the current effort is plagued by the traditional partisan politics that stymies both innovation and creative solutions.

I would urge and beg members of Congress who care about this issue to spend more time talking with governors and state chiefs on both sides of the aisle about the kind of support they want from Washington—and then work together to develop a bipartisan bill to fix NCLB. That's how we will get to the reality of better educational opportunities at every stage of the education journey—from cradle to career.

We're seeing terrific ideas originating from the states as we work with them on flexibility. To name just a couple of examples:

  • Kentucky is making moves to focus accountability for high schools on a basket of indicators of college and career readiness, ranging from the ACT to preparedness for military service to industry certificates. No longer are they forced to focus on a single test score.

  • Similarly, Nevada is looking to multiple measures in a rating system that includes not just achievement and graduation rates, but measures like college remediation rates, advanced diploma rates, and participation and performance in college entrance exams.

Let's not pretend that we have all the answers here in Washington when the blueprint for improving schools is already being implemented all across America by hard-working, committed educators and leaders from across the political spectrum.


That's why I am still hopeful. Because as I travel outside of Washington, I see every day what happens when educators get to do their best work—when they are free to create and innovate.

There's still so much more work to do. Raising standards is only one part of the job. We need to support great teaching. We need to make college affordable. And we need to make high-quality preschool available to every child.

And as this works moves forward, we need guardians of the truth to separate fact from fiction.

Whatever your views about public education, it is indefensible to lower learning standards. It hurts everyone, and children from disadvantaged communities most of all. There is simply too much at stake—for the country—for our future—and for your industry.

If your state lowers standards, you lose a high bar for reading, for critical thinking, for writing, and for taking ideas seriously. You lose one of the cornerstones of democracy. Because the power of democracy depends upon an informed electorate—and a free press.

America's children will live in a very different world from their parents. Our obligation is to prepare them for it. We all share that responsibility.

Thank you.