By Ben Velderman

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Common Core’s experimental, national K-12 learning standards are under heavy attack in a growing number of states, and that has U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan feeling a little defensive.

That was obvious during Duncan’s recent address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in which he asked journalists to challenge the arguments of Common Core’s critics, reports Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post.

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In his speech, Duncan predicted Common Core will be as historically important as Brown v. Board of Education – the landmark legal case that led to the desegregation of public schools –  but asserted that “the federal government had nothing to do with creating” Common Core standards.

“The federal government didn’t write them, didn’t approve them and doesn’t mandate them, and we never will,” Duncan continued. “Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or willfully misleading.”

Duncan then, as Strauss puts it, gave the editors “some tips on how to report the story.”

From Duncan’s speech:

“So do the reporting. Ask Common Core critics: Please identify a single lesson plan that the federal government created, or requires of any school teacher or district.

“Ask if they can identify any textbook that the federal government created, endorsed, or required for any school, teacher, or district in their state.

“Ask them to identify any element, phrase, or a single word of the Common Core standards that was developed or required by the federal government.

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“If they tell you that any of these things are happening – challenge them to name names. Challenge them to produce evidence – because they won’t find it. It doesn’t exist.”

Duncan is technically correct in all of those assertions, but only in the way used car salesmen are correct when they’re trying to pawn lemons off on unsuspecting customers.

He conveniently left out a few key details.

‘Questions become curricula’

The main criticism of Common Core is that it’s an attempt by the federal government to decide what gets taught in America’s K-12 classroom.

Duncan rejects that premise, saying that neither Common Core nor Washington D.C. mandates that schools use certain lesson plans or units.

True enough.

What Duncan doesn’t address is how the Department of Education is working hand-in-hand with selected companies to design Common Core-related student tests.

That’s a big deal, as anyone with a working knowledge of education can attest. Since many teachers will be at least partially evaluated by how well their students perform on these state-mandated tests, it’s a no-brainer that the topics addressed on the tests will eventually be taught in the classroom.

For example, if the English portion of a Common Core-related test consistently asks one question about Shakespeare but four questions about an Environmental Protection Agency document, it won’t be long before schools tailor their curriculum to include the EPA document.

As Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute told EAGnews, “Year after year, questions become curricula.”

Could this be the federal government’s backdoor attempt at controlling curricula?

Funny, but that wasn’t one of the questions Duncan told reporters to ask.

Here are some other questions Duncan forgot to include in his little talk:

How can supporters say Common Core will transform America’s education system when it hasn’t been field tested anywhere in the nation? Aren’t all such predictions – both good and bad – just wild guesses at this point?

If the federal government had no role in foisting this Common Core experiment upon the American public, why is it using stimulus funds to pay the test companies to design the Common Core-related tests that will be given to students?

Why did the federal government hand-pick the two companies that will design the tests? Shouldn’t the states have taken the lead on that, if the feds wanted to keep their hands entirely clean of Common Core?

Why isn’t the Department of Education being more transparent about its role in vetting the questions that will appear on Common Core-related tests? Shouldn’t the federal government stay out of this process entirely?

Odd behaviors for a disinterested party

Instead of addressing those relevant questions, Duncan mocked critics who fear the government is using the Common Core effort to collect and store loads of personal information about each student.

“When critics can’t persuade you that Common Core is a curriculum, they make even more outlandish claims,” Duncan said. “They say that the Common Core calls for federal collection of student data. For the record, it doesn’t, we’re not allowed to, and we won’t.”

Again, that sounds reassuring, but it also triggers a few more questions, such as:

If the feds have no interest in collecting student data, why did it use part of the 2009 stimulus to help states purchase longitudinal data systems that are designed to collect, track and analyze student information – from kindergarten all the way through a student’s first after-college job?

Why did Duncan’s Department of Education change the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act to allow third-parties – including educational technology companies that will use the data to design computer software – access to student data?

And why are federal employees helping standardize the data coding process for the states?

Aren’t these odd behaviors for a government that’s so disinterested in collecting student data?

In fairness, we actually agree with Duncan that some of the anti-Common Core rhetoric has been over-the-top and irresponsible.

But, again, that’s partly the fault of Common Core advocates who adopted the standards before Americans had any chance to study them.

Now that people are asking questions, Duncan’s getting defensive and conscripting his allies in the media to protect him.

But until Duncan and other Common Core supporters get a lot more candid with the American people, they’ll never convince critics that Common Core isn’t a backdoor attempt by the federal government to influence what gets taught in America’s K-12 classrooms.

And that’s unconstitutional, no matter how deep in the shadows the federal government chooses to hide.