Rotten to the Common Core?: On the Subject of Education Standards, Arne Duncan, “White Suburban Moms”…and Bad*ss Teachers

ArneDuncanSubmitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

My attention turned toward public schools once again this week when I read reports about Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s apologizing for using “clumsy phrasing” when he made comments about some critics of the Common Core Standards—which he has championed. (Note: Common Core—a set of educational standards developed for public school students in kindergarten through twelfth grade—has been adopted by most of our states.) Duncan was speaking to a group of superintendents recently and just couldn’t help himself—it appears—when he said the following:

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, 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, and that’s pretty scary. You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.”

A punch in the gut, you say? Here’s one right back at ya, Arne. Lots of people aren’t ecstatic about the “common core” effort to standardize curricula across this country and to institutionalize a “one-size-fits-all” cookie cutter approach to educating our children. It isn’t just “white suburban moms” who aren’t happy with the Common Core standards.  There are myriad others who are also concerned about the them—including other parents who don’t belong to the cohort of “white suburban moms,” school administrators, teachers, other education experts, child development experts—as well as a number of liberals AND conservatives.

As DSWright (Firedoglake) wrote, Duncan exhibited “the kind of condescending attitude one expects from education privatizers. But when confronted with such an amazingly arrogant statement Secretary Duncan only apologized for the ‘clumsy’ phrasing, not the sentiment.”

In August, Mitoko Rich wrote an article for the New York Times about the Common Core standards, which have “been ardently supported by the Obama administration”—as well as by “many business leaders and state legislatures.” Rich said that there has been “growing opposition from both the right and the left” to the standards.

Philip Elliott (Associated Press) provided some of the reasons why people have been critical of the Common Core standards:

Some opponents of the standards say they are a one-size-fits-all approach that isn’t appropriate. Other critics say the standards put too much emphasis on high-stakes testing and punish teachers for students’ stumbles. Some oppose the standards because the Obama administration used them as a requirement for states to receive money from the economic stimulus bill.

Common Core Critics

Steven Elbow of The Capital Times wrote earlier this fall about the Tea Party’s organized attack on Common Core being well-funded, while the attack from the left had “been kicked to the sidelines.” Still, Elbow contends that “there’s a strong progressive push-back to the standards as well.” Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University, told the Miami Herald why some liberals were critical of the new educational standards. Naison said they see Common Core as “a huge, profit-making enterprise that costs school districts a tremendous amount of money, and pushes out the things kids love about school, like art and music.”

Elbow reported that Naison is a co-founder of the Badass Teachers Association—an organization that was “formed to combat…a trend toward corporate-driven standardized testing.” Naison has said that creation of the association was “a reaction to high-stakes testing, backed by Democrats and Republicans alike, used to evaluate schools and teachers.”

According to Kathleen McGrory of the Herald/Times (Tallahassee Bureau), the Badass Teachers—or BATs—“are pushing back against the national standards with Twitter strikes, town hall meetings and snarky Internet memes. They have no qualms with the theory behind the new benchmarks, but they fear the larger movement places too much emphasis on testing and will stifle creativity in the classroom.”

Bonnie Cunard, a Fort Myers teacher who manages the Facebook page for the 1,200 Florida BATs, said, “It’s not just the Tea Party that’s skeptical of the Common Core. We on the left, like the folks on the right, are saying we want local control.”

McGrory wrote that the “BATs represent a new wave of liberal opposition to the Common Core standards, which includes some union leaders, progressive activists and Democratic lawmakers.” She said that they “are joining forces with Tea Party groups and libertarians, who want states like Florida to slow down efforts to adopt the new benchmarks and corresponding tests.”

Last December, I read a Huffington Post article titled Common Core Nonfiction Reading Standards Mark The End Of Literature, English Teachers Say. According to the article, there was growing concern among teachers and parents that literary classics would “go the way of the dinosaurs…” Evidently, there was good reason for their concern because the Common Core benchmarks “call for 12th grade reading to be 70 percent nonfiction, or ‘informational texts’ — gradually stepping up from the 50 percent nonfiction reading required of elementary school students.” “English-lovers and English teachers” were worried that excellent literary works such as The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye could be replaced “with Common Core-suggested “exemplars,” like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Recommended Levels of Insulation and the California Invasive Plant Council’s Invasive Plant Inventory.” I have also read criticism of the Common Core math standards, which don’t introduce algebra to students until ninth grade.

Recently, opponents of Common Core spoke out about their concerns regarding the new standards at the Statehouse in Ohio. Bill Evers, former US Assistant Secretary of Education for policy from 2007-09 and a member of California State Academic Standards Commission in the late 1990s and in 2010 as the Common Core was under consideration, “called the math standards ‘sloppy and inadequate.’ His biggest concern was that the Common Core does not start algebra until ninth grade, when most high-performing countries start it in eighth grade.”

Last February, education expert Diane Ravitch explained why she could not support the Common Core standards on her blog:

I have come to the conclusion that the Common Core standards effort is fundamentally flawed by the process with which they have been foisted upon the nation.

The Common Core standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field test. They are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.

Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster. Maybe they will improve achievement. Maybe they will widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots. Maybe they will cause the children who now struggle to give up altogether. Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences?

President Obama and Secretary Duncan often say that the Common Core standards were developed by the states and voluntarily adopted by them. This is not true.

They were developed by an organization called Achieve and the National Governors Association, both of which were generously funded by the Gates Foundation. There was minimal public engagement in the development of the Common Core. Their creation was neither grassroots nor did it emanate from the states.

​In fact, it was well understood by states that they would not be eligible for Race to the Top funding ($4.35 billion) unless they adopted the Common Core standards. Federal law prohibits the U.S. Department of Education from prescribing any curriculum, but in this case the Department figured out a clever way to evade the letter of the law. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia signed on, not because the Common Core standards were better than their own, but because they wanted a share of the federal cash. In some cases, the Common Core standards really were better than the state standards, but in Massachusetts, for example, the state standards were superior and well tested but were ditched anyway and replaced with the Common Core. The former Texas State Commissioner of Education, Robert Scott, has stated for the record that he was urged to adopt the Common Core standards before they were written.

In 2012, Anthony Cody interviewed scholar and author Alfie Kohn about Common Core for Education Week. Here is an excerpt from that interview titled Will the Common Core Benefit Children?:

Question 1. Where do you think the drive for Common Core standards is coming from?

Alfie Kohn: I don’t think we have to speculate; the answer is pretty clear: While some educational theorists have long favored national standards — and got nowhere with the idea in the ’90s — the current successful push has come principally from corporate executives, politicians, and testing companies. This time they managed to foster the illusion that because the federal government, per se, isn’t mandating it, they’re not really “national” but just “core” standards, even though all but four states have signed on. It’s rather like the effort to reframe vouchers as “choice.” They’ve also been very shrewd this time about co-opting the education organizations by soliciting their counsel. These groups are so desperate for a “seat at the table” of power that they’ve agreed to confine the discussion to the content of the standards rather than asking whether the whole idea makes sense for children.

If your question is read more broadly — not just “Who are the players?” but “What’s the ideological underpinning?” — then all you have to do is look at the rhetoric on the Core Standards website, read the defenses published elsewhere, listen to the speeches: This move toward even greater top-down control and uniformity is almost always justified in terms of “competing in the global economy.” It’s not about doing well, but about beating others. And it’s not about intellectual depth and passion for learning, but about dollars and cents.

Question 2: Supporters believe these new standards will move us away from the narrow focus on reading and math tests that has been the downfall of NCLB. What do you think?

Alfie Kohn: Clearly it will encompass more than reading and math, but the question is whether that leads to the narrowing of other disciplines as well, particularly since these new standards will be yoked to some sort of one-size-fits-all test. That’s been the dilemma of the whole corporate-styled, test-driven approach to “accountability” and school “reform” for some time now: If you teach English-language learners or kids with special needs, or if you’re concerned about social studies, science, or the arts, you’re tempted to say, “Test us, too, so we won’t be neglected!” But it’s like a dysfunctional family, where the main alternative to neglect is abuse. To impose overly specific, prescriptive standards — enforced with standardized tests — is to lower the quality of any field or the education of any population of students.

Question 3. What’s wrong with making our curriculum more rigorous?

Alfie Kohn: My dictionary defines “rigorous” as harsh, burdensome, rigid. How is that beneficial? In most educational contexts, the word is basically equated with difficulty: A more rigorous school, classroom, text, or test, is merely one that’s harder — that is, one in which more students will not succeed. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s not just that something can be too hard as surely as it can be too easy, although that’s surely true (and not always acknowledged). The more important point is that difficulty level shouldn’t be our primary basis for evaluating something. I’ve visited classrooms where the assignments weren’t particularly hard but were incredibly rich, engaging, and valuable. And I’ve been to classrooms that were rigorous-with-a-capital-R that I wouldn’t send my dog to.

Common Core and Early Childhood Education

John T. Spencer, a book author and sixth-grade ELL teacher in an urban, Title One School, listed what he believed were some of the pros and cons of the Common Core Reading standards. One con that jumped out at me was the following:

The adoption process bothers me. They were forced through politically as a bailout of the unrealistic No Child Left Behind. And, while the standards tend to be good, they relied more on “experts” and wealthy business people rather than asking for input from educators.

Edward Miller, a writer and teacher who lives in Wellfleet (MA), and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor emerita of early childhood education at Lesley University in Cambridge, wrote an article for the Washington Post earlier this year titled A tough critique of Common Core on early childhood education. They said that much of the criticism of the “process for creating the new K-12 standards involved too little research, public dialogue, or input from educators.” They continued, “Nowhere was this more startlingly true than in the case of the early childhood standards—those imposed on kindergarten through grade 3. We reviewed the makeup of the committees that wrote and reviewed the Common Core Standards. In all, there were 135 people on those panels. Not a single one of them was a K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional.” They added, “It appears that early childhood teachers and child development experts were excluded from the K-3 standards-writing process.”

That is indeed troubling. Why would early childhood teachers and child development experts not have a seat at the table when the education standards for young children were being written? Who knows what is most appropriate both educationally and developmentally for children in kindergarten through the third grade?

Stephanie Feeney—as well as many other early childhood educators and researchers—were “shocked” when the standards were first released in March 2010. Feeney of the University of Hawaii, who is chair of the Advocacy Committee of the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators, said, “The people who wrote these standards do not appear to have any background in child development or early childhood education.”

Marion Brady—a veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author—said the standards development process was “done with insufficient public dialogue or feedback from experienced educators, no research, no pilot or experimental programs — no evidence at all that a floor-length list created by unnamed people attempting to standardize what’s taught is a good idea.” Add to that another criticism from Miller and Carlsson-Paige that the Common Core standards “do not provide for ongoing research or review of the outcomes of their adoption—a bedrock principle of any truly research-based endeavor.”

Alliance for Childhood Statement

The following statement was issued by the Alliance for Childhood in March 2010:

Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative

WE HAVE GRAVE CONCERNS about the core standards for young children now being written by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The draft standards made public in January conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades. We have no doubt that promoting language and mathematics is crucial to closing the achievement gap. As written, however, the proposed standards raise the following concerns:

Such standards will lead to long hours of instruction in literacy and math. Young children learn best in active, hands-on ways and in the context of meaningful real-life experiences. New research shows that didactic instruction of discrete reading and math skills has already pushed play-based learning out of many kindergartens. But the current proposal goes well beyond most existing state standards in requiring, for example, that every kindergartner be able to write “all upper- and lowercase letters” and “read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.”

They will lead to inappropriate standardized testing. Current state standards for young children have led to the heavy use of standardized tests in kindergarten and the lower grades, despite their unreliability for assessing children under age eight. The proposed core standards will intensify inappropriate testing in place of broader observational assessments that better serve young children’s needs.

Didactic instruction and testing will crowd out other important areas of learning. Young children’s learning must go beyond literacy and math. They needto learn about families and communities, to take on challenges, and to develop social, emotional, problem-solving, self-regulation, and perspective-taking skills. Overuse ofdidactic instruction and testing cuts off children’s initiative, curiosity, and imagination, limiting their later engagement in school and the workplace, not to mention responsible citizenship. And it interferes with the growth of healthy bodies and essential sensory and motor skills—all best developed through playful and active hands-on learning.

There is little evidence that such standards for young children lead to later success. While an introduction to books in early childhood is vital, research on the links between the intensive teaching of discrete reading skills in kindergarten and later success is inconclusive at best. Many of the countries with top-performing high-school students do not begin formal schooling until age six or seven. We must test these ideas more thoroughly before establishing nationwide policies and practices. We therefore call on the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to suspend their current drafting of standards for children in kindergarten through grade three. We further call for the creation of a consortium of early childhood researchers, developmental psychologists, pediatricians, cognitive scientists, master teachers, and school leaders to develop comprehensive guidelines for effective early care and teaching that recognize the right of every child to a healthy start in life and a developmentally appropriate education.

You can check out the names of the five hundred signatories to the above statement here.


“Part of the problem is that the enterprise of raising standards in practice means little more than raising the scores on standardized tests, many of which are norm-referenced, multiple-choice, and otherwise flawed. The more schools commit themselves to improving performance on these tests, the more that meaningful opportunities to learn are sacrificed. Thus, high scores are often a sign of lowered standards–a paradox rarely appreciated by those who make, or report on, education policy.”

~ Alfie Kohn (Education Week—September 15, 1999)


White Suburban Moms Unite! A Letter to Arne Duncan (Huffington Post)

How Common Core is Slowly Changing My Child (Mrs. Mom Blog)

Arne Duncan: ‘White suburban moms’ upset that Common Core shows their kids aren’t ‘brilliant’ (Washington Post)

The biggest weakness of the Common Core Standards (Washington Post)

Arne Duncan reflects on ‘white suburban moms’ comment (MSNBC)

A white suburban mom fires back at Arne Duncan. ‘Common Core is a one size fits all approach.’ (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A parent’s response to Arne Duncan (Daily Kos)

A Parent’s Letter to Arne Duncan (Diane Ravitch)

Arne Duncan Doubles Down On “White Suburban Moms” Comment, Promotes Economic Ignorance (FDL/Firedoglake)

Arne Duncan is clueless, if he thinks Rhode Island School Board made right decision (Daily Kos)

Arne Duncan is Just Plain Clueless. . . (The Tempered Radical)

Clueless in Seattle (Schools Matter)

Education Secretary Duncan’s Failure to Connect (Education Frontlines)

Arne Duncan Sics His Flying Monkeys on Diane Ravitch (NYC Educator)

Chicago Tribune says ‘Renaissance 2010’ has failed (Substance News)

What big drop in new standardized test scores really means (Washington Post)

A tough critique of Common Core on early childhood education (Washington Post)

Buying Support for the Common Core (Huffington Post)

Battle Lines Solidify Over Common Core (The Catholic World Report)

Arizonans Against Common Core

Ohio’s Common Core opponents vent their concerns with the new education standards (The Plain Dealer)

Debunking the Case for National Standards: One-Size-Fits-All Mandates and Their Dangers (Alfie Kohn/Education Week)

Confusing Harder With Better (Alfie Kohn/Education Week)

Alfie Kohn Interview: Will the Common Core Benefit Children? (Education Week)

What Arne Duncan Can Learn From Texas Moms (Huffington Post)

Common Core standards criticized (The Buffalo News)

School Standards’ Debut Is Rocky, and Critics Pounce (New York Times)

Common Core standards also under attack from the left (The Capital Times)

Why I Cannot Support the Common Core Standards (Diane Ravitch)

Is the Common Core an Attack on Progressive Education? (Huffington Post)

Children of the Core: American Students at Risk (The Innovative Educator)

Critics speak out about new Common Core standards (WKRN-TV)

Education chief says he regrets ‘white suburban moms’ comment about Common Core critics (StarTribune)

Common Core Nonfiction Reading Standards Mark The End Of Literature, English Teachers Say (Huffington Post)

A critical analysis of Common Core math standards (Washington Post)

Math professor: Common Core “will set our children back one to two years.” Governor in retreat. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

For Common Core, a new challenge — from the left (Miami Herald)

Eight problems with Common Core Standards (Washington Post)

61 thoughts on “Rotten to the Common Core?: On the Subject of Education Standards, Arne Duncan, “White Suburban Moms”…and Bad*ss Teachers”

Comments are closed.