Common Core: What’s Behind Arne Duncan’s Race Card?

A stated goal of Common Core has been closing “the achievement gap” that exists largely between inner-city and suburban schools, and white and minority students. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan let slip a key aim: equalizing educational outcomes by redefining proficiency. Objective measurements as traditional letter grades A through F are also being abandoned.


By Mary Grabar | January 9, 2014

During a November speech, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claimed that opposition to the “Common Core State Standards” was coming from “white, suburban moms” upset because their children were no longer as “brilliant” and their schools no longer as “good” as they thought they were.

Duncan’s statement increased pushback to Common Core and its unconstitutional mandated “standards” for math and English Language Arts, national testing, and data tracking of students and teachers. Michelle Malkin, calling herself a “brown, suburban mom,” swung back in a column. A group called MAD, Moms against Duncan, gathered 2,000 members in two days.

The Secretary of Education was blaming their children for being confused by math assignments that involve byzantine drawings and narratives, complicating straightforward math problems. Students who mastered the math got no or only partial credit, but those who had only a partial grasp could get credit for explanations and drawings. Algebra has moved from eighth grade to ninth. Conversely, younger students are asked to do developmentally inappropriate tasks, like “collaborate.” And “informational texts” replace much of the literary reading.

Duncan’s “apology,” issued the following Monday as a blog post titled, “High standards for All Schools and Students, Everywhere,” only admitted that he had used “some clumsy phrasing.” In fact, Duncan doubled down on his original point. He again attributed the drops in scores to “a result of a more realistic assessment of students’ knowledge and skills”—in other words, to students’ shortcomings that earlier tests were incapable of discerning. He redeployed the sales pitches of “higher standards,” widely supported by teachers (through unspecified “surveys”) and “leaders from both sides of the aisle.”

Claiming “Other countries are rapidly passing us by in preparing their students,” Duncan disingenuously turned his original statement around by saying, “we want more for all students.

A stated goal of Common Core has been closing “the achievement gap” that exists largely between inner-city and suburban schools, and white and minority students. Duncan let slip a key aim: equalizing educational outcomes by redefining proficiency.

Academic measurements through assessments and grades are being changed. Eliminating competition through objective standards has been the career goal of radical educators, the most famous perhaps, Bill Ayers.

Bill Ayers does not have an official post in the Department of Education, but his close colleague, Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, does. After serving as head of Obama’s education transition team, she was put in charge of developing one of the two national Common Core tests.

While Ayers rails wildly against testing, recalling the school-as-prison metaphor from his Weatherman days, Darling-Hammond is more circumspect. In journal articles she has expressed goals that align with the stated goal of “closing the achievement gap” posted on the 2008 Obama-Biden campaign site. In the Summer 2009 Harvard Educational Review, she heralded the Obama administration’s “opportunity to transform our nation’s schools.” What drew her to the Obama campaign, she wrote, was, “a sincerity and a depth of commitment to education, a genuine concern for improving the quality of teaching and learning, an intolerance of a status quo that promotes inequality, and a drive to move our education system into the twenty-first century—not only in math, science, and technology but also in developing creativity, critical thinking skills, and the capacity to innovate—a much needed change from the narrow views of the last eight years” (emphases added).

She reasserted her commitment to such “creative” attributes in the April 28, 2010, issue of Education Week, promising that her new “balanced assessment system” would go “beyond recall of facts and show students’ abilities to evaluate evidence, problem solve and understand contexts.” Importantly, this new testing would serve to end “inequality.”

Darling-Hammond’s definition of “inequality” is radical: it means outcomes, not just opportunity. In a December 2008 Phi Delta Kappan article, “Assessment for Learning Around the World,” she wrote, “The integration of curriculum, assessment, and instruction in a well-developed teaching and learning system creates the foundation for much more equitable and productive outcomes.”

The questions released by Darling-Hammond’s group, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, attempt to assess the elusive “creativity, critical thinking skills, and the capacity to innovate” that she named in her Harvard Education Review article. The sample questions were empty of content and provided much opportunity for subjective grading.

Darling-Hammond’s model follows those of five California high schools that she and Diane Friedlander described in an article for the May 2008 issue of Educational Leadership, “Creating Excellent and Equitable Schools.” In it, Darling-Hammond castigates high schools that track and place students on academic scales as based on “the 20th-century factory model.” In contrast, the June Jordan School for Equity employs “a project-based college preparatory curriculum infused with social-justice and civic-engagement themes,” relying on community-service internships and work portfolios. Leadership High School similarly “focuses on creating community leaders”; portfolios and projects ensure “equitable outcomes for all students.”

In a 2010 article liberally citing Ayers heroes, John Dewey, Maxine Greene, and Paulo Freire, “Documentation and Democratic Education,” co-written with Beverly Falk, Darling-Hammond promoted similar “documentary practices” that help “students to understand themselves and each other, both as learners and as members of a collective community” (Theory Into Practice). Invoking Marxist Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy for empowerment,” described in Teachers as cultural workers, Darling-Hammond and Falk urge teachers to “truly see students” by learning “to look and listen carefully and non-judgmentally. . . .”

Under this model, the teacher is a “facilitator” helping students to develop and answer their own questions, and “ultimately, manage and guide their own learning” based on everyday events. This kind of teaching emphasizes “looking and listening rather than quizzing and telling.” Such “documentary” assessments require teachers to record students’ bursts of creativity, insights, or problems.

But the results of such alternative assessments have been disastrous, when measured by current standards. The 2010 statistics for the June Jordan School for Social Equity, one of the five schools noted in Darling-Hammond’s Educational Leadership article, are damning. The enrollment stood at only 194, but the city-data.com school rating for test scores gave it a 7, out of a possible 100 in 2010. That year, the school did even not meet the Adequate Yearly Progress Report and had not met AYP since 2005. The “equitable outcomes” have been across the bottom.

The recent downward spiral with Common Core assessments, especially in New York State, seems to indicate a trend in the same direction. Secretary Duncan claimed that plummeting scores were an indication of “a more realistic assessment of students’ knowledge and skills.” But what does Duncan mean by “realistic assessments”?

On April 30, at the annual American Educational Research Association (AERA) meeting (with Darling-Hammond and Bill Ayers listed as participants), Duncan promised that the new assessments would diagnose problems and would measure “non-cognitive skills.” In other words, students’ attitudes and behaviors would be monitored. The measurement of such “soft skills” through psychologically invasive means has raised alarms.

Objective measurements as traditional letter grades A through F are also being abandoned.

Joan Tornow, Ph.D., a “Federal Way-based curriculum specialist” in a blog post announced that “As we adapt to the Common Core, our traditional grading system of A-F is on the chopping block, and rightfully so.” Defying logic – or standard word definitions – she writes, “Our A-F grading system has been built on the assumption that it is natural for only a certain percentage of students to excel.” For Tornow, it seems that all students should excel, and they will under Common Core’s “Standards-based education (SBE).”

According to Tornow, with SBE, “students are not ranked against their classmates—or sorted like so many potatoes or apples. Rather, students are evaluated in terms of progress towards objective standards.” The word “objective” too is redefined – to mean having each student “achieve his or her potential.” Tornow calls standards-based education “part of a national vision in which education is more democratic and effective.”

In an interview on NPR recently, Alissa Peltzman, vice president for state policy for Achieve, the well-connected nonprofit that put together Common Core, noted that many districts across the country were moving to standards-based grading. Brian Stack, a New Hampshire principal, described the new system at his high school as consisting of E, M, IP, LP, NM, NYC (not yet competent), and IWC (insufficient work shown).

At a New Hampshire elementary school, a four-point scale is used, with numbers being assigned for various abilities like skills, homework, participation, and paying attention. The principal maintains that the new system has the advantage of being able to point out a bad work ethic, even when the student is getting a good grade.

One thinks back to Duncan’s promise to measure “non-cognitive skills.” Is this a way to help ease grade disparities, to award points for behavior?

Indeed, the Common Core standards themselves reward behavior – but conformist behavior. “Literacy” skills require students grades 3 through 8 to: “Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on [appropriate grade] topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.” The criteria are similar for high school.

Reward for such collective behavior is part of the new assessment strategy. Bill Ayers complains about schools “sorting” students, and so do less notorious educators working in and with the Obama administration’s Department of Education. Ensuring “equality of outcome,” however, is not the answer.


Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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