President Obama is praising his longtime friend from Chicago — outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan — for working toward making education in America more “equal,” and delivering “some incredible results,” including that “nearly every state in America has raised standards for teaching and learning and expectations.”
Obama’s comments appear to be a reference to the Common Core standards – though he does not call the reform by name, likely because the unpopular initiative is now often described as “toxic” and “poisonous.” The president nevertheless adopts the usual pro-Common Core position that the nationalized standards are higher or more rigorous than other standards – although there is no independent research that validates that claim.
It was under Duncan’s tenure as department chief that Obama instituted the Race to the Top (RttT) competitive grant program that was included in the president’s stimulus bill in 2009. States could compete for federal grant money if they agreed to adopt a uniform set of standards and aligned standardized tests as well as design massive student data collection systems and teacher evaluations based on student progress. The states were also enticed into the reform with waivers from the onerous restrictions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
In a recent remarkable admission, the former director of the RttT program and Duncan’s chief of staff revealed the federal government “forced” full support for adoption of the Common Core standards from each state by requiring its governor, chief state school officer, and head of the state board of education to sign off on the grant application.
Joanne Weiss explained the federal government took advantage of the fact that states were strapped for cash due to the recession.
“[S]o the large pot of funding that we had to offer was a significant inducement for states to compete,” she wrote, adding the surprise number of 46 states willing to sign onto the Common Core standards initiative was due to “our decision to leverage the spirit of competition.”
Despite the relative ease with which Duncan had states sign up for Common Core, his tenure was not without its gaffes, perhaps the most memorable being his comment in November of 2013 – when criticism of Common Core was taking off exponentially – that the complaints were coming from “white suburban moms” who were upset that their children were not as “brilliant as they thought they were.”
In his remarks about Duncan, Obama further reveals that his own ultimate goal regarding education in the United States has yet to be realized:
Now keep in mind, none of this change has been easy. And we still have a long way to go. One of the things about education is that it doesn’t deliver results tomorrow or the next day. This is a decade-long or longer proposition. We plant seeds now; we make changes now, and we watch each successive class benefit from these reforms. And it goes in fits and starts, and we have a decentralized system. That’s how our education tradition evolved. So, it’s not easy. And it’s not quick. Um, but, we are making progress. And, we’re not going to stop in these last, uh, 15 months.
Like many aspects of America that Obama has attempted to “fundamentally transform,” his remarks suggest that a “decentralized” education system is a negative in his political view, one that he has had to endure because “that’s how our education tradition evolved.” The president sees as “making progress” the opportunity to centralize education so that the federal government is making education decisions even though the Constitution clearly provides that education matters are to be decided in the states and local governments.
Though both Duncan and Obama discuss the former’s resignation in order to be reunited with his family in Chicago, the fact that the Common Core initiative is so unpopular – and has been challenged in most states that adopted the reform initially – could likely be the reason Obama wants a new education chief to jumpstart it so that his goals can be more firmly established prior to ending his tenure as president.
Common Core champion John King will replace Duncan for the remainder of Obama’s second term. Last December, King resigned his post as New York State education commissioner to move over to the U.S. Education Department as deputy secretary.
Upon his departure from New York, a Journal News editorial described King’s demeanor during his tenure as New York State commissioner as “tone-deaf,” and his legacy as characterized by “rapid change.”
The editorial notes that King urged the fast implementation of the Common Core standards but gave little, if any, response to parents and teachers who packed forums which focused on the controversial standards:
Speaker after speaker stood up to decry the rapid rollout of the Common Core standards and new state tests. King appeared to listen, but said little and gave no ground. Most importantly, he didn’t show a pinch of interest in connecting with parents, acknowledging their concerns or even making them feel as if they had been heard.
Any criticism of the Common Core standards at these forums, says The Journal News editorial board, was met with King’s claim that they were not committed to children’s education. King even canceled a series of statewide forums after experiencing the strong emotions of frustrated parents and teachers, claiming the meetings had been taken over by “special interests.”
“Parents and educators who find flaws in sweeping curriculum and teacher evaluation changes are portrayed as lazy, excuse-making haters,” the editorial board wrote. “This attitude should serve him well in Washington, where Education Secretary Duncan is also impervious to critics of reform (like those ‘white suburban moms’ he went after last year).”
The “attitude” of indifference and elitism was underscored further last year when King revealed his own daughters attend private schools that do not use the Common Core standards.
Breitbart News also previously reported that King used the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision to defend the Common Core standards against critics whom he said were supporting continued segregation and inequality in schools.
Like Obama and many proponents of the Common Core, King refers to the reform initiative as “higher standards,” and makes their close connection to social and economic justice issues and the elusive goal of eliminating the achievement gap.
“What those who resist higher standards are really saying is that some kids just aren’t going to make it and that’s acceptable. It’s not, it’s not acceptable,” King said. “It’s an assault on the values of America. It’s also in the end shortsighted because society bears the cost of a permanent underclass, under-prepared for the 21st century economy.”
In 2013, student test scores in New York State on the assessments aligned with the Common Core standards plummeted to only 31 percent passing the math and English Language Arts (ELA) tests, compared with 55 percent passing in ELA and 65 percent passing in math in 2012. One year later, only slight improvement in test scores was observed, with most students still scoring below the proficiency level in both math and ELA. The percentage of students scoring at the proficiency level in math rose only to 35.8, and that of ELA only one-tenth of a percent to 31.4 percent.