Education Secretary Arne Duncan faced heated criticism Monday for reportedly dismissing foes of so-called Common Core standards as "white suburban moms" who are worried their schools or children don't measure up to the new benchmarks.
Duncan made the comments on Friday in Richmond, Va., discussing academic standards which have become highly controversial at the state level.
"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 an account from Politico. "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."
The Education Department said no official transcript of the remarks exists, but did not dispute Politico's account.
Asked about the remarks on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the "broader point" was that "I think we need to be honest about whether we're providing the skills ... our children need to succeed."
He said Duncan is "focused on making sure that we do everything we can working with states and others to ensure that our kids are getting the education they need for the 21st century."
Duncan consistently has shown little patience for critics of the Common Core State Standards, being implemented in 45 states and the District of Columbia.
But his comments on Friday only fueled that criticism.
One group launched a petition on the White House website calling for Duncan's removal.
Citing his latest comments, the petition said: "This clearly demonstrates the complete lack of understanding he has and his utter contempt for the American people. He is both unqualified and unfit to lead the Department of Education and should be removed immediately."
The petition had nearly 2,000 supporters as of Monday afternoon.
Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin called Duncan a "corrupt and bankrupt bigot" for his remarks. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, a supporter of Common Core program, said Duncan "really doesn't get it."
In an interview with Politico, Duncan later acknowledged he "didn't say it perfectly."
When schools shift to standardized tests based on Common Core standards, scores generally fall. Duncan has long warned of those first-year tumbles and says the lower scores more accurately reflect the reality at the school.
Education Department communications chief Massie Ritsch said the secretary "was observing that the higher standards that states have adopted to better prepare their students for college and careers are revealing in some places that good schools aren't as strong as parents in those areas have long assumed."
The Common Core State Standards were a project of the nation's governors and state school chiefs that aims to improve students' readiness for life after high school. The standards outline grade-by-grade skills students should learn although the actually lessons to teach them are left to each school.
Under Common Core, students are encouraged to do more critical thinking. It's no longer good enough for students to recall facts and figures, but they have to demonstrate why things work the way they do.
Some opponents of the standards say they are a one-size-fits-all approach that isn't appropriate. Other critics say the standards put too much emphasis on high-stakes testing and punish teachers for students' stumbles. Some oppose the standards because the Obama administration used them as a requirement for states to receive money from the economic stimulus bill.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.