Sure, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan caused a firestorm earlier this month when he stated that opposition to Common Core standards came from “white suburban moms” learning that their children weren’t as “brilliant” as they were led to believe by the districts whose schools their kids attend. Whatever you think of what Duncan particularly said, he is right to point out that suburban districts have obscured the problems they have in educating all students, including black, Latino, and poor children. But what Duncan fails to mention is that he himself has helped suburban districts obscure the facts by rolling back the No Child Left Behind Act, which helped expose these problems in the first place.

wpid-threethoughslogoA few folks, including Eduwonk‘s Andrew Rotherham, have pointed out Duncan’s role in this. And this point hasn’t gone unchallenged by the Obama Administration and its surrogates. In the comments to Rotherham’s piece, Peter Cunningham, the former Assistant Secretary of Education for Communications and Outreach, tried to defend Duncan and the approach the Obama Administration has taken in rolling back No Child. The problem is that in his role as a surrogate for Duncan, Peter makes points that simply aren’t true. In fact, Peter seems to be advancing an approach that will, I fear, however high minded it is in many ways, actually lose ground for the country.

He starts by criticizing No Child’s approach to accountability. Nothing new. Yet, he offers a rather novel, double-pronged attack: he says on the one hand that No Child painted all the schools with the same brush yet allowed wildly different standards. Wow – doing both – and at the same time – that’s quite a feat! Aside from the absurdity of it, neither contention is true.

No Child simply said that if schools didn’t lift all subgroups increasingly toward their state’s bar of proficiency they were in need of improvement. And, with each passing year, consequences would become more serious, and opportunities for parents would increase. The accountability systems, yes, are varied because all 50 states have different systems; yet, the law tried to be both respectful of those differences and also create pressure to narrow gaps between white and middle class kids and disadvantaged kids and to encourage all children at least to jump over the states’ bars for proficiency. Complicated, yes. Diverse, yes. But it was an important goal, and progress has been made toward it both in the years when states began this sort of accountability on their own prior to No Child and in the years after its passage.

This administration’s waivers, frankly, are the far more serious culprit with respect to the crime of “wildly different standards.” As we look back on the scene five or more years out from now, we’ll really see what “wildly different” really means, and I suspect we won’t like it. We’re already seeing the first effects of these “wildly different” policies in the waivers that have been granted. Only time will tell if these differences contribute to the recent, virtual freeze in the narrowing of achievement gaps as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

That old canard about states lowering their standards in response to No Child? My, oh, my. How many studies have to be produced to cause this nonsense to stop? Some performance standards went up; some went down. But they’re about where they were before the law was passed, actually a little higher. There’s abundant research by Harvard University’s Paul Peterson and others that proves this quite clearly. [By the way, and on a related note, it will be mighty interesting to see what happens to the performance standards set by the consortia when (or if) their assessments are actually put in place in the states.]

Cunningham says the right policy is to set the bar high, let states figure out how to get there, and then hold them accountable. How? What does he mean? I have seen accountability reduced to just a sliver of schools through the operation of the waivers in many states. I must have missed the details of what exactly he’s talking about on, for example, how states will be held accountable to the new high standards. Please refresh me. Given all the gnashing of teeth when a majority of schools were at risk of being labeled in need of improvement to the “low standards” under No Child, I’m actually quite interested in the rates of failure that will be spawned when they are “held accountable” to the new, higher standards. I’d love some clarity on this.

Cunningham is wrong again in asserting that under No Child, a high performing school with an achievement gap is treated the same as a low achieving school. I spent quite a lot of time traveling across the country after No Child passed, and showed states how they could create differentiated accountability systems to distinguish such schools. While both types of schools had work to do, both could be given very different ratings and, in many respects, have different consequences. Several states, including Ohio, whose deputy commissioner is now the commissioner in Massachusetts, put such pioneering systems in place. Others followed. That some didn’t do so, even after Duncan’s predecessor as Secretary of Education (and my colleague) Margaret Spellings provided this flexibility, is due to their own lack of initiative. In fact, had the Obama Administration wanted to make the possibility of differentiation even clearer, it could have built on the flexibility Spellings put into place. This could have been done without getting rid of accountability. It also could have been done if the Obama Administration wanted to build a bipartisan coalition as we did in 2001 and pass a reauthorization of No Child that improved the law. These and other approaches would have been less destructive than the waivers the administration ended up putting in place.

These are the facts that Cunningham and his colleagues still in the administration are not admitting: Accountability is being weakened. Federal policy is being fractured. Commitments are being made that will likely not be kept over the long term. Content standards will be better, yes, but there may be no will to see them through or hold anyone accountable to learning to them. What we may end up with is a scattered landscape with fragmented, fleeting, and wildly different remnants of reform that do little for our students.

I tip my hat to Duncan and the Obama Administration credit for taking arrows from traditionalists for the sake of reform the same way Margaret and Rod Paige and George W. Bush and I did. That’s what happens to people who want to change and improve the system. But this false piety of those who persist in thinking they have it all right while their predecessors had it all wrong will only help destroy the base for reform. The administration will end up lonely and still despised by the defenders of the status quo. And to what end?