Arne Duncan could barely conceal a smirk as he answered the Republican congressman’s question about educational standards that his Education Department had encouraged states to adopt.
“Facts matter,” Duncan, the secretary of education, said, dismissing concerns raised by Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona that the Common Core standards amounted to a “federal takeover of curriculum.”
“It is not a black helicopter ploy,” Duncan said. “We’re not trying to get inside people’s minds and brains.”
The scene, from a May 2013 budget presentation, would seem unfamiliar now. Duncan is weeks away from leaving his post and surrendering much of his education policy reform agenda. When he announced his impending departure in October, a professor writing for the Brookings Institution quipped that he had become a “bipartisan institution — he attracted vitriol from the right and the left.”
On Thursday, President Obama is expected to sign the first new comprehensive education bill since President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law — a bill that will undo many of Duncan’s signature policy changes and scale back the role that the Education Department plays in overseeing schools. It will specifically prevent the secretary of education from attempting to “influence, incentivize or coerce” states to adopt standards such as the Common Core.
But in that budget meeting just two years ago, Duncan had reason to be dismissive of Salmon’s concerns. His department had offered incentives over the first five years of Obama’s presidency that convinced nearly every state to pledge adoption of the administration’s preferred policy changes. First, 18 states and Washington, D.C., won grants from the $4 billion Race to the Top program for promising to adopt the policy changes. Then, nearly all states applied for a waiver allowing them to duck penalties for missing some of the achievement targets of No Child Left Behind in exchange for signing up.
Those changes included pegging teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests and adopting “college and career-ready standards.” And while the department didn’t specify any particular set of standards, nearly every state said it would meet that goal by adopting the Common Core, a set of educational benchmarks in English and math that had been jointly developed a few years earlier by governors and state education chiefs across the country.
At that point, both Duncan and the standards shared broad bipartisan support. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had suggested months before that Duncan’s ability to successfully negotiate with labor unions and drive education policy change made him the columnist’s choice to replace the outgoing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
The Common Core standards, meanwhile, enjoyed rare approval from both teachers unions and so-called “education reformers,” most notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, perhaps thanks to the millions spent by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to get both sides on board. By the end of 2013, 45 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the standards.
Cracks in the support had started to appear, however. A month before the May budget hearing, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution opposing the Common Core as a plan that “creates and fits the country with a nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.” The previous November, the popular Republican state education chief in Indiana — who’d once been labeled an “education-reform idol” — was defeated by a Democrat backed by the biggest teachers union in the state and, some said, some tea party Republicans opposed to the state’s adoption of the standards.
The Common Core was still a fringe issue politically, though. The majority of Americans hadn’t even heard of it, according to the results of an annual education poll conducted by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa, a professional education association, in May of 2013.
That began to change. In 2013, New York became the second state, after Kentucky, to link its state standardized tests to Common Core standards. When the first results in New York came out in August, passing rates for the tests plummeted — as had been predicted — and a backlash began to grow among some parents and teachers.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country, said in November of that year that implementation of the Common Core had been “far worse” than that of the Affordable Care Act. She repeatedly called for a moratorium on using results from Common Core-aligned standardized tests to judge the performance of students, teachers and schools.
Duncan didn’t help his case later that month when he attributed opposition to the Common Core to “white suburban moms” upset that their children weren’t as “brilliant” as they thought they were, initiating a firestorm of negative publicity.
The following year, opposition to the standards found its way into state capitols, as 17 states considered bills to opt out of them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Indiana became the first to do so, in March. Oklahoma and South Carolina would soon follow suit, rejecting the standards that many conservative opponents had taken to referring to as “ObamaCore.” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Education Committee and a former secretary of education, began labeling Duncan’s efforts to push states toward adopting standards and test-driven teacher evaluations as akin to creating a “national school board” and overstepping the boundaries of the federal government.
As the backlash grew, Duncan himself began to back away from his connection to the standards. When asked about states opting out at a House budget hearing in April 2014, Duncan denied that he particularly favored the Common Core. “I’m just a big proponent of high standards, and whether they’re common or not is sort of secondary,” he said.
Duncan took a bigger step back when he spoke at the National Parent Teacher Association convention that June, giving a 25-minute speech in which he discussed at length the standards and the controversy surrounding them without actually saying the words “Common Core.”
By then, the public was far more aware of the Common Core, with 81 percent of respondents in the 2014 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll saying that they knew at least a little bit about the standards. Sixty percent of the poll’s overall respondents said they opposed the standards being used in their local schools.
Duncan wasn’t much more popular. In July 2014, the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, called for his resignation. In August 2014, the top Republicans on the House and Senate education committees — Rep. John Kline of Minnesota and Sen. Alexander — called for the Government Accountability Office to look into the Education Department’s waiver process. Only 42 percent of “education influentials” approved of Duncan’s performance, according to the results of a small survey released that August by the Washington-based consultants Whiteboard Advisors.
As the chorus of complaints grew louder, Duncan’s administration backed off some of its proposed changes — most notably delaying the requirement that teacher evaluations be pegged to the results of state tests linked to the Common Core.
The Obama administration and Duncan also called for a reduction in standardized testing — acknowledging that their policies were partially to blame for an increase in the amount of class time taken up preparing for and taking standardized tests, which had led a growing number of parents to have their children opt out of state tests.
The new federal education law will go even further, preventing the federal government from requiring teacher evaluations linked to test scores and from providing any incentive to states to adopt the Common Core or any other particular set of standards — a direct rejection of two of the signature policies of Duncan’s Education Department.