Arne Duncan sat down with Chris Hayes on MSNBC to explain why folks are just so all-fired fire-up about Common Core. Let's see what the current story is.
Hayes starts by saying that CCSS has trouble because it has been conflated with high stakes testing which was linked to all sorts of stuff because of NCLB. This skips past the Obama/Duncan administration's role in bolting high stakes testing to everything from school evaluation to teacher evaluation, but okay. We're only seven seconds in.
Hayes leads with a fun question-- what, if anything, has been achieved in the years since NCLB was signed by Bush?
Duncan: Fixing achievement gaps is the big achievement, but NCLB "has been broken for a while" (which raises the question-- was it ever not broken) and Congress also sucks. So the administration "partnered with states" to provide waivers which allowed them to part ways with the most onerous parts of the law. Which begs a huge question-- outside of the absurd 100% above average test scores requirement, was there any part of NCLB that wasn't given a huge shot of steroids under waivers? Sadly, Hayes is not going to ask that question.
Hayes: My reading of the data (and one of the problems is that there's so much data you can read anything) is that the testing gap (and I love him just a little for calling it a testing gap and not an achievement gap) hasn't really narrowed at all, "certainly not the narrowing that we were promised back in 2001."
Duncan: We have a long way to go. (Which is true in the same way that I have a long way to go to get to Chicago because I'm still sitting in my office at home.) Anyway, we've seen gains over the past twenty-thirty years, but it's not fast enough. So this law has to be about equity. So put politics aside (says the guy who's got no political juice left in his thermos). This law also has to be about early childhood education, because that will level the playing field. Also, we have to bring more dollars to disadvantaged communities. The children who need the most get the least, says the man whose administration likes to frame all aid and grant proposals as competitions. But he thinks maybe Congress can fix inequity.
Hayes: I want to talk about Common Core for a second. (And he smiles a little smile, like "let's do this silly thing, I'm going to ask a question, you're going to sling baloney, it'll be fun"). Are you surprised by how controversial Common Core (which he characterizes as "kind of an obscure issue in certain ways") has become?
Duncan: "It's actually very simple. The goal's to have high standards." So, kids, the whole national consistency issue, the whole being able to compare kids in Idaho and Maine, the whole keeping everyone on the same page so mobile students will never get lost-- that's no longer the point.
Duncan goes on to display how much he doesn't understand about how this works. He talks about how, under NCLB, too many states dummied down standards. He says this was "to make politicians look good." I'd be more inclined to say "to avoid punitive consequences for their schools." If Arne had reached my conclusion (and really, given that he was in charge of a large school district at the time, it's kind of amazing that he didn't reach my conclusion) then perhaps he wouldn't have figured that the solution was to make the consequences of high stakes testing even more punitive than before.
Insert story here of how schools lied to students about how ready they were for college. So brave governors decided to stop lying to children. "Let's have true college and career ready standards for every single child." As always I wonder why reaching that conclusion leads to a next step where one says, "Let's hire a couple of guys who have no real education experience, either pedagogical or developmental, and have them whip something up."
Hayes: When you say it like that, it sounds swell. But instead this is very polarizing. Arne looks dumbfounded like "I know, right, dude? What is up with these crazy people?" and Hayes continues to point out that Jeb Bush is going to have to spend a bunch of time in Iowa confronting people (unless his huge ad buy actually helps and....nahh).
Duncan: It's only polarizing to politicians. If you talk to parents, to real parents--
And Hayes cuts him off to say "I disagree. I strongly disagree" which is an appropriate response to Arne's deep-fried fluffernuttery. It's ironic. Duncan is all "let's keep politics out of this" and yet the whole "this is polticians raising a stink and real parents just love it" is, of course, pure political spin.
Duncan soldiers on. If you ask parents if they want their children to really be college and career ready, do you want them to be able to write well, think critically, have a real chance at life, parents think that's just swell.
Hayes: That's right. But if you go in and say Common Core-- and he cuts to specific examples all across the country of kids coming home with dumb crap or taking a terrible test and the source of their kid's anxiety is Common Core. Common Core has become the name for all testing related stress.
And I'm going to interrupt to say, yes, that's right, because at this point "Common Core" is a deeply meaningless term. Duncan's point is also deeply dumb, because it assumes the sale. Sure parents want all those things-- but there is not an iota of evidence that Common Core is linked to any of them.
Look. If I say right now that I'm hungry and ready for supper, and you bring me out a plate of steaming hot liver covered in peppermint ice cream and pickles, when I say "Get this out of here," you would be an idiot to be puzzled and ask, "But I thought you wanted supper." Common Core is steaming hot liver covered in peppermint ice cream and pickles, with sauerkraut on the side.
Duncan: People are just confused and misinformed. The higher standards are different degrees of higherness in different places. We need to communicate with parents and students-- which is just a great insight to have five years into this mess. I suppose it's an improvement that he didn't just call white suburban moms big babies. Again.
Now he's going to trot out Tennessee as an example-- he looks really excited, like he just thought of the correct answer for a tough test-- which is brave given the mess that Tennessee has become, including the slinking away of reformster Kevin Huffman last fall. But the state was brave enough to tell their students that they all sucked, and now they are rapidly improving by some measure that we're not going to discuss.
Hayes: Softball round. Here's the Ted Cruz quote about repealing every word of Common Core and get the feds out of curriculum. Ted is of course wrong twice-- Common Core isn't in any federal law and it's already illegal for the feds to mess with curriculum. Let's see if Arne can handle this high lob.
And he gets it. And he looks so happy. Duncan always looks so pleased and surprised when he really nails something.
In the next over-talking portion, Arne says that we never claimed that the standards were universal. Which is...wellllll. It's true the administration has been pretty careful about not saying things that could be construed as, say, illegal federal directing of state education. But if you look at, say, Duncan's 2010 speech about the Big Vision, there's an awful lot of talk about how this will bring the whole nation up to equal excellence and scary stuff like this:
The North Star guiding the alignment of our cradle-to-career education
agenda is President Obama’s goal that America will once again have the
highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
That goal can only be achieved by creating a strong cradle-to-career
continuum that starts with early childhood learning and extends all the
way to college and careers.
This would probably be the time to note that the original draft of Race to the Top allegedly mentions CCSS by name. [Can't find a link-- if you've got it, leave it in the comments.]
Duncan plows on. States should do their own thing, but their universities should be saying that freshmen don't need remedial classes, which-- you do remember that CCSS only covers math and language, right, Arne?
Hayes: There is a question of who makes those standards. The fear is "that some nefarious actor somewhere..." and he doesn't really need to finish the sentence because "nefarious actor" sufficiently conveys that some critics be crazy.
Duncan: Nobody nefarious here. This has been led on the local level by governors from both parties (in some cases, "led" so much that they signed up for the standards before they were completed). This has also been led by educators, fantastic teachers-- and I'll give him a pass on what exactly "led" means in this context because I just know he's not silly enough to trot out the old canard about teachers helping to create the Core.
Hayes: Finally, a higher ed question. The for-profit Corinthian chain comes up, and that is not Arne's happy face. Corinthian, disaster, and federal government all make it into the same sentence, but Hayes fumbles this one, saying that the chain was essentially cut off from federal loans, and no, not so much. The feds were remarkably reluctant to kick Corinthian off the federal teat. Either way, there are now students with lots of debt and not so much education. Nine attorney generals are calling for the USED to forgive the loans. Are you going to do that?
Duncan: We're looking at this very closely. Duncan takes credit for the gainful employment measure and Hayes interrupts to call it one of the best things this department has ever done. Anyway, Duncan is watching the hell out of this, and even talked to some of the students.
Hayes: That's a non-answer (I love Hayes a little bit more).
Duncan tries to rally by adding a very (We are looking at this very very closely) and how it's about bad actors (cousins to the nefarious actors) who were allowed to just do whatever, which is swell, but does not address why the USED, which is already making obscene amounts of profit from student loans, can't just tear these loans up. But, boy, he's not going to tolerate any more of this bad acting, even though the department has been tolerating the heck out of it for over a year. There's no excuse at all for this weaselly response unless he's just afraid to say out loud that the department is deeply committed to looking out for the interests of the investors in Corinthian, which might be reflected by the association of Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell, whose qualifications for his job were his long history in the for-profit school industry. Duncan finishes with some noise about how he's not afraid of political pushback on the thing that he might do some day after he's done looking very very closely at the situation.
And we're done.
Kudos to Chris Hayes for pressing Duncan a tad harder than anybody else at MSNBC is ever inclined to, thereby adding to our gallery of ever-changing Common Core narratives. But this was still largely a baloney-delivering conduit for Arne, who should be limited to only so many stretchers per tv appearance, and he was once again over his limit.