Sec. Duncan needs to give a speech in which he pleads "mea culpa" and acknowledges that federal involvement and money played a nontrivial (and perhaps, in hindsight, an unfortunate) role in the early stages of the Common Core. Doing so will allow the conversation to move off that sticking point, and reassure the skeptics that the proponents are finally speaking to their fears of slippery slopes. Duncan can then pivot to what comes next. He should signal support for proposals by Congressional Republicans that would prohibit further federal involvement with the Common Core and issue bright-line guidance to make clear that ED will not be sticking its 800-lb. thumb on the scale in the future when dealing with waivers or anything else.
Did Arne Duncan take Hess's advice?
Of course not.
Duncan instead went on the attack against Common Core opponents and skeptics, calling them liars and/or ignoramuses, and exhorting the press to to expose all Common Core criticism as ill-informed or plain wrong.
Here is what Hess thought about Duncan's speech:
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.
I'm glad Duncan doubled down on his defense of Common Core, ratcheted up the attacks against Common Core opponents and skeptics by saying they're either misinformed or lying about the Core, and failed to address any of the legitimate concerns people might have about the NCLB waivers he gave out that almost certainly forced states to agree to Common Core implementation and the data tracking that comes with it, the government's role in funding the Common Core testing consortia, or any of the other worries people have about the CCFS.
It means Duncan will, as Hess suggests, agitate Common Core opponents and skeptics even more and make the implementation of the Core more difficult and the eventual demise of the Core more likely.
This is a pattern with education reform zealots and Common Core proponents - rather than address the very real and legitimate concerns of Common Core or education reform skeptics or opponents, they go on the attack and dismiss anybody who hasn't consumed the Core/Reformy KOOL AID as a moron or a unionized hack desperate to hold on to the status quo.
Most recently we saw this when ELA Common Core standards developer David Coleman went on the attack against skeptics and critics of the APPR teacher evaluation system in NY State at David Steiner's CUNY education reform forum. NYSED Commissioner/rookie teacher John King also went on the attack at that forum, whining that the press was not fully explaining the complexities of the APPR teacher evaluation system or the Common Core tests to the public and therefore was helping opponents to bring the reform movement down.
It took reformer Paul Vallas to speak truth to the reformy KOOL AIDers:
“We’re losing the communications game because we don’t have a good message to communicate,” he said. In separate comments, Vallas criticized evaluations as a “testing industrial complex” and “a system where you literally have binders on individual teachers with rubrics that are so complicated … that they’ll just make you suicidal.”
The Bridgeport, Conn. superintendent — who has served stints in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans and earned a reputation as a turnaround consultant for struggling districts with big budget gaps — said reforms he backed were at risk of collapsing “under the weight of how complicated we’re making it.”
“We’re working on the evaluation system right now,” Vallas said of Bridgeport. “And I’ll tell you, it is a nightmare.”
You can tell who is winning the Common Core publicity wars by which side is whining the most about the unfairness of the press.
Arne Duncan telling reporters to carry the water of the Common Core, coming one month after David Coleman and John King whined to their fellow ed deformers about the lack of media support for the Common Core (an absurd charge, btw - all the editorial boards in NYC support the Core unequivocally), shows us that Common Core proponents and their political functionaries know the public is turning against them.
As Hess noted in his post, had Duncan been smart, he would have distanced himself from the Common Core and let other figures take the lead in defending it (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or Cory Booker, for example.)
But Duncan was not smart and instead he went to the mattresses with Core opponents and got headlines like SECRETARY DUNCAN DEFENDS COMMON CORE - the kind that will just make the people fighting the movement to fight even harder against it.
Heckuva job, Arne.