NASHVILLE - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is trying to hit the reset button on the debate over Tennessee's controversial Common Core standards after state lawmakers last spring forced him to back off plans to use one group's assessments and bid out development of new tests.
Haslam's forum was an "education summit" on Thursday in which he, the House and Senate Republican speakers, other lawmakers, educators and business representatives reviewed various major changes and strides Tennessee has made in education that have won the state national recognition.
The summit also sought to address concerns and charges by critics, a group of whom demonstrated against Common Core across the street from the downtown Nashville hotel where the summit was held.
"The consensus is that higher standards matter," Haslam later told reporters, noting he plans similar events to explain what's involved to stakeholders like educators and the public. "I think there's some disagreement about our current standards. Are they the right one? We very much intend to have a full vetting of those standards, what they are and what they're not."
Moreover, Haslam argued, aligning changes in how math and English are now taught with the new tests are key. The new standards are intended to impart critical thinking skills to students. And the testing is intended to complement that in part by placing far less emphasis on multiple choice answers.
Right now, the state is having to rely on its old tests, known as the TCAP.
"I think one of the things you heard loud and clear today is we can't live with assessments and standards which are not aligned which is where we are today, and I think that's causing a lot of frustration among our teachers," Haslam said.
Among those attending was Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville. He said later that teachers tell him they're feeling plenty frustrated by the current education environment and believe "they're not being listened to by the people at the top."
But even as the governor seeks to come up with a less controversial assessment than the now-rejected PARCC tests, developed for a consortium of states, Bell predicts hard going on winning approval from lawmakers next year.
"It's going to be tough," Bell said. "In fact, I still think Common Core as a whole and everything with it is on life support right now. I'll be somewhat surprised if it survives next year's legislative session."
Earlier at the summit, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, related how he and several other local lawmakers met with representatives of 15 area Japanese-owned businesses. He said he asked them what the state is doing right and what it's doing wrong in creating an environment for them to expand.
Gardenhire expected to hear talk about help with infrastructure and tax credits. Instead, he heard something else.
"Your workforce can't do ninth-grade math," Gardenhire said he was told. "Second, your workforce can't pass drug tests. And third, your workforce won't work; they don't have a work ethic."
Among Republican lawmakers, part of the issue is President Barack Obama's administration is relying on Common Core. With some Democrats, it's teachers' frustrations that this is coming on top of major changes in education policy, such as weakening teacher tenure, stripping educators' of collective bargaining, tying student achievement to salaries and more.
Johnson City businessman Ken Gough, an attendee, said the state needs high standards. In fact, it needs world-class standards, he said.
"I'm not competing against businesses in Tennessee," explained Gough, a manufacturer. "I'm competing with businesses around the world. I don't care how standards are set. I don't care who sets the standards."
Unless the state workers can compete with China and other nations "we will inevitably fail here in the state of Tennessee," Gough warned.
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman was asked by one lawmaker whether the federal government requires Common Core standards, a measure developed by the nation's governors and education chiefs. It was intended to get states on the same page when it comes to standards.
"The answer is no," Huffman said but noted "there is a compulsion to adopt college and career-ready standards. Those do not have to be Common Core standards."
Earlier, critics assembled on Legislative Plaza across from the hotel. The list included teachers, Nashville Tea Party President Ben Cunningham, the head of the Tennessee chapter of the billionaire Koch brothers-affiliated Americans for Prosperity, and Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Gordon Ball.
Andrew Ogles, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said that as "one of the most conservative states in the country Tennessee should take the lead in setting its own education standards, stopping the federal over-reach that is Common Core.
"Just like ObamaCare, Common Core is a Trojan horse for the federal government to take over state budgets," Ogles argued.
Several test developers have responded to the state's request for proposal on new assessments. The state is expected to make a decision on which one to use in November.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.