Proposed changes could leave big moments in Tennessee's past out of history books

Proposed changes could leave big moments in Tennessee's past out of history books

October 3rd, 2016 by Andy Sher in Politics State

Tennessee state flag

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Future generations of Tennessee public school students may no longer learn how a Monteagle-based social justice center influenced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or discover how a single "aye" uttered a century ago by state Rep. Harry Burn on the House floor resulted in millions of American women being allowed to vote today.

A variety of commemorative Coke bottles are displayed as the Choo Choo Chapter of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club meets at the Chattanooga Choo Choo on Nov. 14, 2015.

A variety of commemorative Coke bottles are displayed...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

They won't hear how Tennessee earned its nickname as the "Volunteer State," learn about a major female Cherokee leader from Southeast Tennessee or find out how a pair of sharp 19th-century Chattanooga lawyers snatched up the bottling franchise rights of a bubbly soft drink called "Coca-Cola."

Students now learn a voluminous amount about Tennessee historic events, figures and places in their classes on U.S. and world history, geography and civics.

But some historians, lawmakers and others worry that parts of Tennessee's past could disappear from public schools under preliminary recommendations on changes to state history education standards.

The changes are part of an overhaul of Tennessee's social studies guidelines and are intended to update grade-specific goals on what students are expected to know and when in a given grade or course.

Some of the proposed changes are going down about as well with historians as the Civil War battles of Chickamauga, Nashville, Franklin and Fort Donelson — all of which would vanish from the required teaching list.

"In brief, I urge the committee to withdraw this proposal and signal its continued support for the existing standards that have proved so beneficial for Tennessee students for the last few years," wrote Dr. Carroll Van West, Tennessee's state historian, in an impassioned emailed plea to the Tennessee Standards Recommendation Committee.

West, director of Middle Tennessee State University's Center for Historic Preservation, noted that while he understands "tweaking" and "fine tuning" can be useful, he believes the General Assembly's purpose in changing the state law on standards in 2015 was to "ensure that our core values are identified and valued."

"But these new proposed standards go well beyond legislative intent," West warned, adding that if adopted, they "constitute a whole scale change in what students learn about their history, their communities, and state."

In an op/ed piece now running in a number of state newspapers, Jason Roach, the chairman of the Tennessee Standards Recommendation Committee, and William Freddy Curtis, the vice chairman, say the "educator advisory team" has "worked relentlessly to represent the core values of Tennesseans while also understanding the need to address a variety of historically relevant topics throughout the social studies curriculum."

"We have seen this team in action," wrote Roach, a Hawkins County principal, and Curtis, a Cannon County social studies teacher. "They are a phenomenal group of social studies teachers and leaders that have worked to revise the social studies standards according to the needs of our students."

Step-by-step process

Under the 2015 law, the State Board of Education set up a public, online process to review current standards and allow teachers and the public to make comments and suggestions. The educator advisory team looked at an estimated 60,000 comments and 16,000 reviews, many coming from teachers before coming up with recommended changes.

The team's proposals now go to the Social Studies Standards Recommendation Committee, which may make its own changes and forward all or parts to the State Board of Education for a final decision. Any adopted changes would go into effect in the 2019-2020 school year.

Wary and watching

Besides history, other elements of the overall review include economics, psychology and other social studies.

Deputy House Speaker Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, a Civil War battle reenactor and history buff, takes Tennessee's past seriously and is watching the situation.

"My feeling is this is going through a process that the public needs to be aware of," McDaniel said.

He worries that "teachers who are serving on this committee possibly believe there are too many standards to be taught regarding Tennessee history," and said the recommendations so far are just preliminary.

"From what I've read, it appears to me they've removed far too many Tennessee historical facts from their proposal and that it needs very careful review by the public and by Tennessee's historians," McDaniel said.

Dr. Nancy Schurr, who teaches history at Chattanooga State, also has concerns. Under proposed changes, she said, K-12 students would no longer learn about Nancy Ward, a prominent 18th- and early 19th-century Cherokee woman who lived in Southeast Tennessee, achieved influence and stood her ground among Native American and European-American men.

And while students still would learn that Harry Burn's vote on Aug. 18, 1920, made Tennessee the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, they would miss important parts of the story under proposed revisions, Schurr said.

Students wouldn't learn how Rep. Burn, a 22-year-old Republican from Athens who initially opposed the amendment, changed his mind and his vote after getting an earful from his adamant mother. Burn's "yes" vote broke a 48-48 House tie, leading to Tennessee's adoption of the amendment by a single vote.

And as the 36th state to ratify, Burn's vote put it over the top not just in Tennessee but nationally. A furious crowd rewarded Burn by forcing him to flee the chamber.

Part of history

Schurr said Tennessee students also would not longer learn about the Highlander Folk School on Monteagle, which operated from the 1930s to the early 1960s.

The school offered workshops on labor organizing and, later, civil rights. The Highlander school attracted King as well as Rosa Parks, who attended sessions there shortly before the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

Laura Encalade, director of policy and research with the State Board of Education, said the proposals have a long way to go.

She said the board wants to make sure students have access to "the most rigorous content possible" in social studies to be prepared for college and the workforce.

She said the education advisory team discovered from the 16,000 online 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."

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