Arne Duncan To Defend Common Core, Call Tea Party Critiques 'Outlandish'

UNITED STATES - April 17 : Education Secretary Arne Duncan during the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Labor, Healt
UNITED STATES - April 17 : Education Secretary Arne Duncan during the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee 'The FY2014 Budget Request for the Education Department.' (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Over the last few months, the louder critics of the Common Core learning standards have associated the initiative with varying degrees of evil: vampires, zombies, brain tracking, Hitler.

In a Washington, D.C. speech to the American Society of News Editors Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is expected to add one more to the list.

"Traditionally, this event has been an opportunity for federal leaders to talk about touchy subjects," Duncan will say, according to prepared remarks. "For example, you asked President Kennedy to talk about the Bay of Pigs. So, thanks for having me here to talk about the Common Core State Standards."

Duncan will say that the standards are "under attack," call on the editors gathered to separate fact from fiction, and label some of the initiative's critics "fringe groups."

The Common Core is a set of learning standards that 45 states and Washington, D.C., agreed to. The standards, developed by governors, policymakers and teachers organized by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and with funding from the Gates Foundation, are supposed to help students from all states get "college and career ready" for a global economy. The standards focus on cognitive skills and stress more informational testing and depth over breadth. The federal government has incentivized the adoption of such standards through tools like the Race to the Top competition and the No Child Left Behind waiver program.

Critics say that the Core standardizes education, giving the federal government too much power over an area that has traditionally been the domain of local school districts. Others who might be generally supportive of the Core worry about potential difficulties in implementation, especially at a time rife with changes for teachers and schools. Recently, some states pulled back from the Core; the Core was initially a bipartisan effort, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) issuing several vocal defenses, but the right-wing outrage over the standards makes it a harder for Republican governors to maintain.

Congressional Republicans have spoken out against the Core, with Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), a member of the House education committee, saying the standards are "watered down" and that they achieve "mediocrity at the expense of states' sovereignty and local control." At a No Child Left Behind hearing last week, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) accused the federal government of coercing states into buying into the Core. "I don't think Congress has any policy to make on common standards," House education committee member Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) told HuffPost. "Somehow it's become a talking point on the Tea Party right."

Duncan will give a full-throated defense of the Core in his ASNE speech. The Obama administration has been sensitive about the Core because its perceived closeness to the initiative can be seen as dampening Republican support. But Duncan is expected to relate what he calls the "powerful" Core to America's future prosperity.

"Today, for the first time in American history a child in Mississippi will face the same expectations as a child in Massachusetts," Duncan's speech says.

"We are no longer lying to kids about whether they are ready. We are finally telling them the truth, telling their parents the truth, and telling their future employers the truth. We are finally holding ourselves accountable to giving our children a true college and career-ready education."

Duncan will also stress the administration's refrain that the standards were in development before Obama came into office. "It was voluntary -- we didn’t mandate it –- but we absolutely encouraged it," Duncan will say.

He will also blast the Core's critics. "The Common Core has become a rallying cry for fringe groups that claim it is a scheme for the federal government to usurp state and local control of what students learn," the speech says. "When the critics can’t persuade you that the Common Core is a curriculum, they make even more outlandish claims. They say that the Common Core calls for federal collection of student data. For the record, it doesn’t, we’re not allowed to, and we won’t. And let’s not even get into the really wacky stuff: mind control, robots, and biometric brain mapping."

These critiques, Duncan will suggest, are tantamount to lowering the level of student learning. "If your state lowers standards, you lose a high bar for reading, for critical thinking, for writing, and for taking ideas seriously. You lose one of the cornerstones of democracy."

"Because the power of democracy depends upon an informed electorate – and a free press."