Top state legislative leaders concerned over proposed changes in Tennessee history curriculum

Tennessee state flag
Tennessee state flag

A group of top state Republican lawmakers are voicing alarm over portions of Tennessee history that would no longer be required teaching in public schools under a proposed overhaul of state social studies standards.

photo Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, speaks to the Pachyderm Club at a lunch at the Hamilton County Republican Headquarters on Chestnut Street.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Deputy Speaker Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, were among a group of five lawmakers who wrote in a letter on Wednesday to the Social Studies Standards Recommendation Committee that "Tennessee history is not trivia."

Others signing the letter included Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge; Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin.

"Tennessee history is critically important to the civic health of our state," the lawmakers wrote in response to the recently issued draft which would revise current standards.

The leaders called it "vital that students know the Tennessee story and understand how Tennessee has played a key part in national events such as westward migration, the Civil War, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement."

Working with online input from K-12 teachers and the general public, an educator advisory team came up with revisions in standards for social studies, including history, civics and geography, for public schools. The team's draft recommendations now go to the Social Studies Standards Recommendation Committee, which will decide what, if any, changes to make and then forward their recommendations on to state Board of Education members.

Some historians and a number of others - including state lamwakers - are upset.

Proposed changes include dropping lesson plans about the Cherokee origins of Tennessee's name, the Highlander Folk School on Monteagle where Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, among others, received training in civil rights advocacy, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley of West Tennessee, whose novel "Roots: The Saga of an American Family" became a bestseller and later a national television miniseries phenomenon in 1977 that ignited interest among American blacks about their past.

A number of Civil War battles also would be dropped from the curriculum. Among them would be the Battle of Chickamauga, which, although it took place across the border from Chattanooga in North Georgia, was part of a series of battles in the area that ultimately helped doom the Confederacy.

Laura Encalade, the director of policy and research at the State Board of Education, explained last week that changes come with teachers struggling to cover a lengthy list of topics that they must fit within the context of U.S. history and other subjects.

She said the education advisory team realized from the 63,000 online comments and 16,000 reviews that teachers felt "there was just a lot of content to cover each year and really too many standards for teachers to be able to reasonably get through in a single year as to the level of the depth and the rigor."

"So one of the things that they were looking for and one of their goals in the process after they looked at public feedback was to start to think about places where they as an educator advisory team might find opportunities to streamline the standards," Encalade said.

The draft standards reflect efforts to streamline the standards to make them "more manageable for teachers and for students as well," she said.

But lawmakers note in their letter that "Tennessee public schools previously required a separate class on Tennessee history.

"That class was downgraded to elective status about 15 years ago," Ramsey and the others wrote. "Since that time, members of the Tennessee General Assembly have been assured that Tennessee history lessons would still be taught, imbedded into U.S. history classes taught in grades 4, 5, 8 and 11."

Legislative leaders said they think "this system has worked helping students better understand Tennessee's connection to the history of our nation and the world. If this rough draft of the social studies standards were adopted, it would represent a break with this 15-year understanding between the Board of Education and the Tennessee General Assembly."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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