published Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

No Plan B: Angst over Common Core puts Tennessee at crossroads in classroom

Susan Stiner, standing, leads high school educators in a TNCore summer training session at South Pittsburg High School in June.
Susan Stiner, standing, leads high school educators in a TNCore summer training session at South Pittsburg High School in June.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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COMMON CORE IN TENNESSEE

Here are key details about Tennessee's Common Core education standards:

THE STANDARDS: A set of higher expectations in math and reading that were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to ensure that every student graduates high school prepared for the future. The new standards are replacing Tennessee's old set of expectations for students. The standards set goals for what students should know in each grade, but they are not a curriculum. Local school districts will continue to customize and choose their own curricula and textbooks. The standards have been voluntarily adopted by 45 states. Tennessee adopted them in 2010 and began a three-year phase-in the following year.

SUPPORTERS: Education advocates say the standards' focus on critical thinking, problem solving and writing skills are needed to help students prepare for college and the workforce. The state has provided training on the standards to more than 42,000 educators.

OPPOSITION: Critics say the standards were written in private and never tested in real classrooms. Another concern is that they could lead to the sharing of personal student data with the federal government. Earlier this year, education officers from 35 states sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan addressing concerns that there will be new reporting requirements because of the standards. They said that won't happen and that the federal government is prohibited from creating a student-level database with individual students' test results. They said the states will continue to provide the Education Department with school-level data.

LEGISLATIVE ACTION IN TENNESSEE: A broad coalition of Republican and Democratic House members have passed a bill seeking to delay further implementation of the new standards by two years. The testing component for the standards would also be delayed for two years. The Senate would have to agree to those provisions before the measure would head for the governor's desk. When Gov. Bill Haslam was asked if he would veto the legislation if the Senate concurs, he just stated that he's "committed ... to Common Core."

Proposals that would require any data collected under the standards only be used to track the academic progress and needs of students has been approved in both the House and Senate.

— The Associated Press

As Gov. Bill Haslam traveled across the state Tuesday trying to preserve the suddenly endangered Common Core State Standards as Tennessee's educational program of choice, a House-passed bill that would delay Common Core for two years appeared to be headed for trouble in the Senate.

The legislature's fiscal review committee determined that, if enacted, the House bill putting the brakes on Common Core would cost taxpayers more than $10 million. That's because the state is already committed to both Common Core instruction and Common Core-aligned assessments. So if the state delays Common Core and its related exams, it would have to come up with another form of state assessments.

The bill threatening one of Haslam's key education efforts was originally designed to mandate the teaching of U.S. government in public schools. But the legislation was hijacked on the House floor last week by an unlikely coalition of hard-right conservatives, tea party adherents and Democrats.

This week, Haslam and his allies went on offense. The governor visited three schools Tuesday to defend Common Core, and the pro-reform group, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, hosted a news conference in the capital.

"One of the things I feel like we need to do is do a better job of explaining what Common Core is, what it's not; why it's so critical for our students," Haslam said at a school stop in Smyrna.

The governor stopped just short of threatening to veto the House bill.

"There are very few things that I am as committed to in this session," he said of Common Core. "It's historical that Tennessee is the fastest-improving state in the country. I don't want to see us turn around there."

Common Core represents the biggest and most widespread change in America's public schools since the monumental No Child Left Behind law was ushered in more than a decade ago. And the latest legislative hubbub is the culmination of months' worth of angst over Common Core from parents, policymakers and the general public.

Critics across the country have contended that the standards are nothing more than a federal takeover of education. Aside from political debates, some people have real issues with what's actually being taught under the new effort, which emphasizes problem-solving, the reading of nonfiction texts and collaboration among students.

During this school year, some parents have complained that the new standards are too tough and not age-appropriate. In Hamilton County, officials say a small number of families have even left the school system over Common Core.

Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman said it's more than just politics.

She said some of the standards, especially in math, are just too difficult. Complex concepts are being introduced in early grades, she said. In essence, "they're trying to teach them to build a skyscraper before they show them how to dig a foundation."

But the House move to put Common Core off for two years is raising questions across the state from educators and policy makers alike. No one is quite clear what a delay would look like, because the standards are already being taught. Would teachers suddenly revert to old state standards, which many considered to be inadequate? Would new standards need to be written?

"If we do this, what is our Plan B? No one really has a Plan B," said Jared Bigham, director of college and career readiness for SCORE and a former Polk County principal.


Tennessee adopted the standards in 2010 and has been implementing them over the past three years. So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have voluntarily committed to Common Core, though some states have shown signs of wavering in recent months.

The standards were created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to establish a consistent set of standards for students rather than relying on varying state standards.

While the bill that would delay Common Core passed the House 82-11 last week, its fate in the Senate is still in question.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he has no interest in rolling back Common Core, though state senators have their own bills floating around that address issues with Common Core. One bill seeks to ensure that any data collected from new exams remains confidential and another bill looks to reform the state's textbook commission.

Nolan Elementary Principal Shane Harwood said a few parents have expressed concern over the standards. But the Signal Mountain school continues to educate parents on what Common Core actually means for their child's classroom.

"It's a different type of education than what our parents have been used to," Harwood said. "A lot of times, they'll turn back to when they were in school -- how they were taught reading, how they were taught math. It's just different now."

Railing against Common Core has become a favorite cause of tea party conservatives. There are claims of mass collection of student data and outcry over what some call a federal power grab, though supporters note the federal government was hands-off in the creation of Common Core.

Among those leading the fight against Common Core in Nashville was Bobbie Patray, longtime president of the Tennessee Eagle Forum, a potent socially conservative group.

"There's an enormous grass-roots concern not only with the Common Core standards," she said, "but everything that has to do with them -- the testing, the data collection, there's so many facets of that."

Proponents say Common Core is simply a list of benchmarks, not a curriculum plan for how teachers should teach. But Thurman rejects that idea.

"If they make the test, you have to teach what's on their test or you don't pass the test," she said.


The view from teachers appears mixed.

Last summer, the state undertook its most ambitious training effort, working to train more than 30,000 public school teachers on Common Core.

A Vanderbilt University survey released last month found that a majority of the 28,000 educators questioned viewed Common Core positively. In that study, most teachers said the shift would improve the quality of their teaching.

A National Education Association poll in September found that two-thirds of members of the nation's largest teachers union supported Common Core. But last month, NEA's president blasted the rollout of the standards as being "completely botched."

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Education Association, the state's NEA affiliate, is backing the proposed two-year moratorium on Common Core.

"The issue is we just feel that [by] rushing implementation of PARCC next year, we will not be ready and we are setting ourselves up to fail," said TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye. "We don't have the resources. We're concerned about the training and now we're in a posture where there's so much riding on test scores -- and we're not sure how this test is going to function."

But Common Core backers say too much is at stake for the state to waver.

"I think it sends a really terrible message," said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, a local nonprofit working to support public schools through grants and educational programs. "It says that we don't believe that our students are ready for higher standards. And teachers have worked really, really hard to prepare for this."


In recent days, many other allies have worked to defend Common Core across the state, including the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

Rob Bradham, the Chamber's vice president of public strategies, said local businesses support the new standards because they will better prepare students for the job market.

"Our members are interested in having a next generation workforce. Our members are all businesses," he said. "And they look to the education system to produce their next generation of workers. That's why they're so concerned about this issue of Common Core. And that's why they're so supportive of Common Core."

Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said the House bill "would create a great deal of uncertainty for educators across the state who have been working hard to implement these standards in their classrooms, with the understanding that the state was transitioning to new assessments in 2014-15."

Since Jan. 1, at least 23 states have considered legislation or state action related to reversing or delaying their decision to adopt Common Core and associated tests, said Emmy Glancy, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States. But so far, Indiana is the only state to formally opt out of Common Core, though that effort awaits the governor's signature.

Several states, including Alabama and Georgia, have walked away from Common Core tests in favor of creating their own local versions. But Common Core standards remain in their classrooms.

Following Tuesday's publicity efforts, separate legislative efforts in the House Education Subcommittee failed to repeal Common Core and the related PARCC testing.

Cleveland City Schools Superintendent Martin Ringstaff testified in that hearing, pleading with lawmakers to keep Common Core.

"I, too, ask you to hold the course in the face of politics and an election year ..." he said. "Tennessee is better than that."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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