NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended his Common Core standards during an address at the annual convention of the American Society of News Editors at the end of June. He admonished his critics.

Secretary Duncan noted that academic standards were not headline news at one time. But now that has changed and it is a topic for editorials.

"Why?" asked Duncan. "That's because a new set of standards—rigorous, high-quality learning standards, developed and led by a group of governors and state education chiefs—are under attack as a federal takeover of the schools.".

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He observed that the editor's "role in sorting out truth from nonsense is really important." He asked the audience to assist Americans in distinguishing between information and misinformation.

"I'd like to make the case that these standards have the capacity to change education in the best of ways—setting loose the creativity and innovation of educators at the local level, raising the bar for students, strengthening our economy and building a clearer path to the middle class," he said. "But for these new standards to succeed, Americans will need to be clear on what's true and what's false. For America to prosper—and for journalism to survive—we need a generation that reads, writes and thinks."

Duncan explained that the controversial Common Core program was derived from the necessity to provide American youth "an education that leaves them not just college-ready but innovation-ready."

He associated education with the redistribution of wealth claiming, "We're not going to pave a path to the middle class with the cheapest labor. We're not going to reverse the polarization of wealth in this country through unskilled jobs. The only way that we can promise all of our young people a genuine opportunity is through a world-class education."

Then Duncan made this startling pronouncement. He said school systems have been deceiving the American people.

"The problem is a lot of children, in a lot of places in America, have not been getting a world-class education," Duncan said. "But rather than recognize that, for far too long, our school systems lied to kids, to families, and to communities. They said the kids were all right—that they were on track to being successful—when in reality they were not even close."

Concurrence with this statement came from a source on the other side of the ideological divide. Neal McCluskey, associate director at the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, said Duncan is correct in his assessment. But he is doubtful about the proposed solution.

"He is right about that," he said. "No Child Left Behind defined proficiency at a real low level. But there is no convincing reason to believe that Common Core is going to change all that at least since no one has seen a Common Core exam."

No Child Left Behind was loaded with good intentions but the devil was in the details, according to McCluskey. He does not see much difference with Common Core.

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But Duncan stressed that there is a difference. He said that the low standards were recognized by governors and state education department chiefs, and in 2007 they set out to develop a new set of learning standards aligned to the demands of the real world.

"The federal government didn't write them, didn't approve them, and doesn't mandate them," said Duncan. "Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or willfully misleading."

Duncan said that when the Obama administration came into office in 2009, the Common Core standards were already in the works. All he did was support them. But he reiterated that it was the states that took the lead.

"Some of the hostility to Common Core also comes from critics who conflate standards with curriculum, assessments and accountability," Duncan complained. "They oppose mandated testing and they oppose using student achievement growth and gain as one of multiple measures to evaluate principals and teachers. They also oppose intervention in chronically low-performing schools. Some seem to feel that poverty is destiny."

He urged the journalists to challenge the Common Core critics. He wants them to inquire whether they can identify a single lesson plan that the federal government created, or requires of any school, teacher or district.

"We need guardians of the truth to separate fact from fiction," Duncan concluded.

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But Cato's McCluskey thought Duncan's entreaty to the editors was bizarre. As far as he was concerned it was somewhat fictitious.

"It sounded to me like what he was trying to do was to cajole the media into writing only favorable articles about Common Core," countered McCluskey. "He upbraided the media for reporting what opponents of Common Core are saying. He urged that the media should be ripping apart these criticisms."

McCluskey noted that Duncan argues it is incorrect for critics to say that the federal government is heavily involved in Common Core.

"But then here is the Secretary of Education being heavily involved in promoting it," he pointed out.

--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet