Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s press statement on South Carolina was a bizarre display of the opposite of what it intended. As Greg pointed out, the statement’s harsh and threatening tone did nothing to support the claim that Common Core national standards and assessments are a purely voluntary consortium of the states. Instead, the statement was a not so veiled threat that South Carolina would lose out on the opportunity for federal grants like Race to the Top and lose the opportunity to receive waivers from impossible to satisfy NCLB requirements if it followed through with a proposal to withdraw from Common Core. If it is purely voluntary, why the need for threats and intimidation from the Education Secretary?
In addition to this abuse of power given the legal prohibitions on the US Department of Education from establishing national standards, testing, and curriculum, Duncan’s statement also displayed an abuse of research. He distorted the findings of a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) analysis to suggest that South Carolina had particularly weak performance standards when the research had not shown that. Duncan claimed:
[Prominent Republicans] have supported the Common Core standards because they realize states must stop dummying down academic standards and lying about the performance of children and schools. In fact, South Carolina lowered the bar for proficiency in English and mathematics faster than any state in the country from 2005 to 2009, according to research by the National Center for Education Statistics.
South Carolina did significantly lower its performance standards between 2005 and 2009. But they did so because they had earlier raised those performance standards to well-above the national average. In the end, South Carolina had math and reading performance standards that were close to the national average and close to the NAEP standard for Basic.
One of the potential benefit of state control over performance standards is that they can raise or lower them so that they are not too easy so that everyone passes or so hard that everyone fails. You have to hit the sweet spot between these points to motivate students and educators to improve without crushing them. Each state may have a different sweet spot and needs the flexibility to adjust in case they miss the mark (as SC initially did) or in case achievement improves (as has occurred in FL).
We actually had Jack Buckley, the Commissioner of NCES, out to give a lecture in Arkansas during which he presented this analysis. You can see a summary and the slides here.
Compared to what we could have had as an education secretary, Duncan has been pretty good. He’s shown some independence from the teachers unions and supported some promising reforms, like charter schools. But he’s ignored his own department’s research in seeking (multiple times) to kill the DC voucher program. And he seems oblivious to the limits of power that he and the federal government have over education policy. When people abuse their power they may also be more likely to abuse research.