The Incredible Audacity of Arne Duncan

Amid the turmoil of the Obamacare debacle, a recent story has largely been overlooked by the media. In a recent meeting with a board of public school superintendents, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the push back against implementation of the Common Core State Standards as “white suburban moms who, all of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Besides being a totally arrogant and condescending statement, it is quite illustrative of the federal mindset when it comes to education.

The Common Core is a sad attempt to establish national standards in K-12 education with the stated goal of making all students “college-ready” by the time they graduate from high school. Obama’s Race to the Top program, which rewards states for adopting educational reform programs, is the carrot that used to induce states to adopt the Core standards and testing regime. There have been suggestions that the federal stick- a loss of Title I funds- may occur if states fail to fully implement the standards. The program was sold as being developed in the states by educational experts and that it was “benchmarked” against international standards. Neither of these assertions are true. The main author of the CCSS is David Coleman, a Rhodes scholar in English literature who, upon his return to the US could not get a job teaching in the New York school system. Instead, he turned to academia and working for McGraw-Hill, the largest publisher of textbooks. In short, David Coleman never set foot in a classroom actually teaching children. In math, the CCSS depended on Jason Zimba- a physics professor at Bennington College- someone who again had no experience in a K-12 classroom. Even if we give these “experts” the benefit of the doubt in their expertise in this area, the actual curriculum they developed and the testing regime was never field-tested. As a result, one cannot make a claim that there was any “benchmarking,” let alone one tied to international standards. In the end, the CCSS is nothing more than yet another technocratic one-size-fits-all solution to America’s educational flaws.

It is certainly true that the United States lags behind its international counterparts in many fields, especially math and science. It is also true that our international counterparts do not possess the ethnically diverse population which we have in the United States. The problem is not that the United States is losing ground against other nations; the problem is that a certain segment of the K-12 population has lost ground which is causing a drag on the overall numbers. During the 2013 campaign, Governor Christie of New Jersey, for example, correctly pointed out that New Jersey schools and education in general in the state was fine or better than most states. The problem was certain school districts- mainly urban and minority dominated- were pulling down the overall scores for the state. This is a true statement and it is an indictment of the throwing-money-at-the-problem liberal solution to this state of affairs which is doomed to failure. Likewise, a national attempt at standardization is doomed to failure.

Leaving aside the obvious loss of local control over education that comes with federal intrusion which is bad enough, the entire CCSS is proving very difficult to implement. Some 46 states jumped at the program and adopted it without first seriously studying its effects and its costs. A precious few states had the commonsense to back off and their fears are now being seen in such disparate states as Alabama, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and Colorado. This is clearly a problem that transcends red states, blue states, or purple states. Looking at just the cost, it is estimated that full implementation will cost $16.4 billion over seven years, far more than the federal government is doling out. In a small states like South Dakota, over $10 million is required to re-educate teachers and administrators on the standards, methods and testing regime required for full implementation.

I have personally talked to many a public school teacher in New Jersey. There is an almost universal dislike for the CCSS not because it is something new, but because it tends to actually “dumb down” the curriculum. What they have found is that these standards and this curriculum in no way is helping the student most in need and even more egregiously, it is holding back the advanced students. One is constantly hearing comments like, “this again?” from the higher learners. The whole purpose of the CCSS is to bring up those at the bottom, but it has the unfortunate side effect of bringing down those at the top. Worse yet, it is failing in its intended goal.

The reason for this failure is obvious on two grounds. First, a nationally mandated one-size-fits-all curriculum simply does not work. It fails to account for demographic differences that exist throughout the US and among the different states, not to mention differences within individual states themselves. Here, the federal government has not learned from past failures in this area. Secondly, its stated goal is to make every student “college-ready.” Unfortunately and for whatever reason(s), not every child is college material. There is nothing inherently bad about this. The world will always need car mechanics, hairdressers, plumbers, roofers, electricians and the like. There is no shame in any of these occupations which do not require a college degree. Treating every student as if they ARE college worthy is a losing strategy right from the start.

This is revealed in the language arts curriculum which focuses on non-fiction and technical manual-type reading. While it is true that most college textbooks are of this nature, this type of language arts education is clearly not well-rounded. Gone are classic books that many of us were required to read. Many of the suggested reading books within the CCSS that are fictional emphasize multiculturalism over traditional classics. Thus, the CCSS is perfectly designed to create a student body adept at reading politically-correct technical government manuals and little else. The math curriculum appears to speed up learning of certain concepts at an earlier age, but then seems to stagnate exactly at the point it should not- high school. Again, precalculus and calculus help one to think analytically, but the high school curriculum is pretty devoid of this.

What teachers are seeing is student frustration, especially among the better students and we have not even reached the testing phase yet. That whole process, because of the test and the whole regimen, is almost designed to ensure “failure.” Instead of being asked to, for example, choose the best theme of a story, students are asked to choose the SECOND best theme. In effect, elementary school students will be subjected to testing that exceeds the requirements of the SAT in terms of physical endurance. And by elementary, I mean kids as young as 6 or 7. Also, many of the questions do not even count towards the score and are there for experimental purposes. In effect, the actual test is also a field-testing experiment.

There are so many things wrong with the CCSS from the technical to the fiscal. But the worst is the absolute audacious and condescending comment and attitude of Arne Duncan. Like Eric Holder, he has worn out his welcome. He is revealed for what he is- a shrill talking head for the liberal state Obama envisions for America.

To the white suburban moms, your schools ARE better and as states are finding out,their reforms are better than anything Obama and Duncan shove down their throats. Most importantly, to the minority, urban moms who care about the education of their children, you can continue to send your kids to a failing public school OR you can demand what most affluent whites treat as a birthright- educational choice. And to the Republican Party, school choice is a winning mantra with every demographic group and women/mothers regardless of color or where they live. To Arne Duncan, America would be better served if you stuck a sock in your mouth and slowly faded away.