Editorial: Arne Duncan speaks the truth about Common Core

Arne Duncan didn’t say it correctly, but what he said was correct, and nowhere is it truer than on Long Island.

Last Friday, addressing state school superintendents, the U.S. secretary of education discussed the outcry against the new Common Core standards. "It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary," he said. "You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut."

Duncan’s gender, racial and geographic specificity — as if dads or black suburban moms or white moms in cities don’t exist or share these feelings, or the feelings of white suburban moms aren’t valid — was thoughtless and wrongheaded. Imagine the firestorm if he’d marginalized pushback against an education initiative by arguing it was only coming from "black inner-city moms." But at the core, he made a valid point, one he stated more clearly on Monday in an attempt to clarify his remarks.

"I want to encourage a difficult conversation and challenge the underlying assumption that when we talk about the need to improve our nation’s schools, we are only talking about poor minorities in inner cities," Duncan wrote. "That is simply not true. Research demonstrates that as a country, every demographic group has room for improvement."

On Long Island, where prosperity and property values were built on the promise of superb schools, only about 50 percent of students finish high school ready for college-level work. As many as 60 percent of enrollees in Suffolk and Nassau’s community colleges must take remedial courses. The problem is not that the local schools haven’t traditionally been good, experts say. It’s that they haven’t changed to reflect a world that’s quickly becoming more demanding, competitive and technologically complex.

Last year, students in third through eighth grades in New York were tested for the first time on the Common Core curriculum. The results, with rates of proficiency about 30 percentage points lower than in previous years, shouldn’t have surprised anyone who understood the statistics for our high school graduates. But parents were surprised to see kids who previously had done well receive scores suggesting they were lagging behind. Since then, the outcry against the new tests and curriculum from some parents — as well as from educators, who also are judged on the test results — has been heated. But as rough and as poorly handled as the transition to the Common Core has been, reversing course is not the answer. Success lies ahead, as teachers and students become comfortable with the curriculum and tests. Why slow or stop progress?

Our standards have been too low. The schools are not preparing our kids as well as we had hoped. And it has to change.

Pointless or redundant tests, as in the case of advanced eighth-graders forced to take year-end exams in both algebra and the standard curriculum for that year, should be eliminated. Students and parents should be helped to understand that less-than-perfect scores in the middle of a huge educational transition are not the end of the world.

But the Common Core curriculum, testing on it, and evaluation of teachers partly based on it, cannot and should not be slowed.