WASHINGTON – Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried Monday to quell the outrage sparked by his comments that injected race and class into the debate about the Common Core academic standards taking root in classrooms across the country.
Duncan said Friday that he was fascinated by the fact that some opposition to the standards was coming from “white suburban moms” who fear that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”
The remark lit up social-media sites, prompting pointed responses from bloggers, an open letter from a school superintendent, digital images of Duncan’s official federal portrait with the word “bigot” emblazoned across it, and one congressman’s call for Duncan’s firing.
Duncan, whose office declined interview requests Monday, posted a statement late in the day on his agency’s website.
“I used some clumsy phrasing that I regret – particularly because it distracted from an important conversation about how to better prepare all of America’s students for success,” he wrote. “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 talking only about poor minority students in inner cities. This is simply not true. Research demonstrates that as a country, every demographic group has room for improvement.”
At a gathering of state school superintendents Friday, Duncan spoke about the opposition to the Common Core standards, which are being implemented in 45 states and the District of Columbia with the aim of creating a national baseline for education.
“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,” Duncan said, according to media reports. “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.”
Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, was interviewing Duncan at Friday’s event and said that Duncan’s larger point vanished amid the outcry.
“He was actually saying that these standards are harder than what many states had in the past and fewer kids are going to be passing,” Minnich said.
Increasingly, high school graduates have not been ready for college; recent studies have found that up to 40 percent of first-time undergraduates need at least one remedial course in English or math.
Chester Finn, president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said Duncan’s remarks were valid, if impolitic. “A ‘gut punch’ is part of what American education needs, especially to shake up complacent, white, middle-class suburbanites,” Finn said.