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VOL. 130 | NO. 30 | Friday, February 13, 2015

Common Core is Working – So Kill It

SAM STOCKARD | Nashville Correspondent

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Common Core determines what Tennessee’s K-12 students should know and when they should learn it, yet like many other issues it has become a political pariah, especially for the state’s Republican leaders.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative was announced in 2009, a national education plan sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers – not, as many believe, by President Obama or the U.S. Department of Education.

Its intent is to set “unified expectations’’ for K-12 students.

As the state Legislature prepares to debate those educational standards, curriculum and the related testing this session, even some of the most veteran lawmakers are finding themselves in difficult situations if there’s any sign they endorse Common Core.

“We’re risking the future of our students,” says Oakland High School English teacher and Rutherford Education Association leader Jim Gifford.

(The Ledger/Michelle Morrow)

State Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, recently found herself in an odd double reversal over the standards.

After hearing from teachers that “children are really learning” under the state’s current standards, Gresham said she planned to change legislation she is sponsoring to repeal Common Core.

The next day, however, Gresham issued the following statement: “I reaffirm my commitment to higher academic standards through passage of Senate Bill 4, which sets our own Tennessee Standards Commission. In order to do this, we must clear the way before severing our ties with the current Common Core standards.”

Even though proponents, including some teachers, say the standards allow for more critical thinking and in-depth study, Gresham said a “great misconception” exists that favoring higher standards means only Common Core standards.

She pointed out that she is among those who “take exception” to Common Core but that she still backs “the highest standards to keep our students moving forward.”

Gresham’s legislation would create a Tennessee standards commission that would recommend standards to the state board of education for adoption.

Haslam steps back, listens in

State Sen. Jim Tracy, a former school board member who serves on the Senate Education Committee, is sponsoring a similar bill that would set up standards review and development committees and advisory teams made up of teachers, higher education faculty and parents “to propose world-class, highly rigorous K-12 English language arts and mathematics for use in public schools.”

In a recent meeting with Rutherford Education Association teachers, Tracy conceded that Tennessee has a “good story” to tell about education and that student test scores are improving. Yet, he’s against Common Core.

“I want it locally controlled and state controlled,” says Tracy, noting he wants to “sever ties with Common Core and do our own state standards. Go ahead and get it going.”

The timing of legislation sponsored by Gresham and Tracy clashes with the position taken by Gov. Bill Haslam, who at one point in 2014 appeared to endorse Common Core, then called for a cooling-off period last November when he set up a website to take public comment on academic standards.

Standards determine what students should be expected to know by the end of a certain grade.

Tennesseans can go to the website at https://apps.tn.gov/tcas/ and make comments.

In announcing the review, Haslam states, “Tennessee is making historic progress in academic achievement, and this discussion is about having the best possible standards as we continue that important work.”

Tennessee reviews education standards every six years and is in the fourth year of Common Core, which evolved from the Tennessee Diploma Project as a way to make school more rigorous, in part by moving up the grade in which students are supposed to learn different aspects of English, language arts and math. Those are the only subjects affected by Common Core.

The Southern Regional Education Board is to act as an independent third party, collecting data from the state’s website this spring for review by state educators, who would propose changes to the state Board of Education.

Federal ‘overreach’

Many Republican legislators don’t want to wait for that process, noting it could take the entire year.

“We need to leave at the end of April with some clear direction,” says state Sen. Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican.

That will let teachers know what is expected of them on classroom teaching, student testing and teacher evaluations, part of which are based on test scores, says Ketron, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus.

In an apparent attack on Common Core and any connections to the federal government, Ketron and Gresham are co-sponsoring a resolution that seeks to end what they call overreach by the U.S. Department of Education and establishment of a federal school board that places “burdensome” regulations on local school systems.

State Sen. Doug Overbey, however, isn’t taking quite the same hardline approach, saying he likely will wait to see what the governor recommends.

Tennesseans want students to be able to compete in a national and global marketplace, the Maryville Republican says, but he notes, “I don’t know that people care that they’re Common Core or Tennessee standards as long as (students) are competing in a global world.”

It is paramount, though, that the “measurement tool,” or test, has a correlation with the standards and curriculum and that it remains in the hands of the local board of education, Overbey says.

In the Democrats’ corner, albeit a small set of votes, state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh says it’s probably best to wait for the governor’s review to play out, mainly because the Legislature rushed to complete Common Core and the related aspects and “messed it up.”

“There are some things that are appropriate with Common Core,” says Fitzhugh, from rural Ripley in West Tennessee. “I’d hate to do away with it completely.”

Fitzhugh says his caucus, which has only 26 votes in the House, “will be flexible” on education standards. The Senate has only five Democrats.

“The Common Core moniker has certainly gotten a tarnished name in this state,” he says.

Outside the Legislature

For many, Common Core has become as politically toxic as the Affordable Care Act. Some groups even dub it ObamaCore, just as early opponents of the federal health-care law adopted the term Obamacare.

MTSU political science professor Kent Syler says he saw it used by the conservative Koch brothers’ political action committee in direct mailers sent to Williamson County voters during the 2014 elections to try to unseat school board members there.

Syler points out that people across Tennessee want better schools and accountability to enable graduates to compete on a national and global scale but reaching agreement is a “tough political problem.”

Common Core originated with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The term was part of Race to the Top, as well, President Barack Obama’s education initiative, a competition of sorts for federal funds that Tennessee entered when the Legislature was starting to shift from Democratic to Republican control six years ago.

But in the last couple of years, Republican politicians began distancing themselves from the term and the set of standards, claiming they became a federal mandate.

Even Ketron acknowledges that Republicans sought federal funding through Race to the Top, but he says at that time they didn’t realize Common Core was supported by Bill Gates’ foundation, and they were not enthused with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a test the Legislature dumped last year.

Says Syler, “At this point, Common Core has been so demonized it makes it very difficult to continue with unless you revamp it or do a better job of educating the public about what its goals are.”

Chambers chime in

Still, there are numerous groups across the state that are backing Haslam, a highly popular governor who won re-election last year with ease. The Chambers of Commerce in Knoxville and Nashville both endorse the governor’s move and see no need to move away from Common Core.

“The Knoxville Chamber is opposed to any repeals on K-12 education standards. Tennessee is the fastest improving state in the country in education and we must continue to raise the bar,” says Josh Buchanan, policy analyst for the Knoxville Chamber. “The job market is becoming more demanding of post-secondary certification, and we must prepare our students for the transition to the workforce.”

The Knoxville Chamber looks forward to responses in the public review and hopes to see no legislation this session that would disrupt the governor’s process, Buchanan says.

The Nashville Chamber supported adoption of more rigorous K-12 Common Core standards in 2010 and is backing Haslam’s review and update this year, spokesman Mark Drury says.

“The Chamber’s position is that it is important for the Tennessee General Assembly to let this review process move forward, along with adoption of state assessment tests aligned with those standards,” Drury states. “We believe it’s important for Tennessee to adopt standards and assessments which make students college- and career-ready.”

The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents said this week it is sending all legislators a letter of support for Common Core signed by 114 state superintendents.

SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education founded for former Republican Sen. Bill Frist, has stated the General Assembly should wait on the governor’s process before it tries to change education standards.

“Our teachers have made a lot of changes to improve student achievements,” says Teresa Wasson, spokeswoman for SCORE.

She points out that next year will be the first year for assessments based on the Common Core standards and curriculum in classrooms. Constant shifts only serve to undermine the education process, she says.

“(Teachers) and the students need some stability,” she notes. “When the standards are working, they’re confused about why they’re changing.”

Once tests align with curriculum and standards, the state will have better data to decide what changes, if any, need to be made and how teachers should be trained to handle that.

In SCORE’s 2014-15 State of Education in Tennessee report, it notes that results from the National Assessment of Education Progress show Tennessee made the fastest improvement nationwide in 2013 for student achievement. The state’s ACT score growth also ranked among the nation’s best for states that require all students to take the college entrance exam.

SCORE recommends:

  • Tests with national benchmarks that align with state standards
  • Continued improvement of state standards without legislative changes this year and more training for teachers
  • Elevation of the teaching profession through more rigorous teacher preparation
  • Transforming classroom instruction through better school leadership by principals

In the trenches

Tennessee Education Association spokesman Jim Wrye says Common Core has nearly become the “third rail” of education politics in the state.

“TEA and teachers in the state have always been for rigorous standards,” Wrye says.

Yet even as many teachers say Common Core allows them to delve deeper into subject areas, some express concerns about whether students are ready to learn certain skills at such a young age. That’s really when testing becomes a factor.

For example, are third-graders ready to learn long division? And if they are put in that situation, will testing give them any credit for the work they do, or will test scores be based entirely on the right or wrong answer, Wrye asks. Another consideration is that teachers’ evaluations are based, in part, on those test scores.

For years, teachers have balked at standardized tests – two days in April – determining their livelihood. Thus, they don’t like the idea of testing with scores determined by “wrong answer, right answer.”

But, ultimately, Wrye says, “We’re teachers. We’re told this is what you need to teach, and by golly we’re going to meet those standards.”

Rutherford County Schools Director Don Odom points out the Common Core deals only with English and language arts and math, while science and social studies standards are set by the state.

When someone asks him questions about the matter, he encourages them to go to the state’s website and look over the standards at: http://www.state.tn.us/education/standards/index.shtml.

In sixth-grade English language arts, for example, students must be able to “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.”

For high school Algebra II courses, students must be able to “define appropriate quantities for the purpose of descriptive modeling” and “solve quadratic equations with real coefficients that have complex solutions.”

Those are just two of dozens of standards students must meet at each grade level.

“Most people hear the words Common Core standards, but they don’t know what that means,” Odom says. “It helps them to be able to see it.”

Odom says there is no doubt that classes are more difficult than they were before the Common Core curriculum was adopted. He also points out that when it put together new standards, the state Board of Education combined many and lowered the number of standards, making it easier for teachers to handle.

Oakland High School English teacher Jim Gifford, a leader in the Rutherford Education Association, says some of the changes adopted at the state level could prove to be counterproductive.

Although math teachers say Common Core standards give them the opportunity to drill down into subjects, end-of-year testing could become a burden.

The Legislature dropped an assessment linked with Common Core last year and is using a test this year similar to what students have been taking. But the state signed a contract with Measurement Inc., and students will take different tests in 2015-16 that could last seven hours for high school English, Gifford says.

Those tests will eliminate essay answers and go to what is called a “constructed response,” which will take longer to administer and, ultimately, sacrifice classroom teaching time for testing, he says.

“Speaking as an English teacher, we’re risking the future of our students and, really, our entire culture,” Gifford says.

Ketron acknowledges that for the last four years, matters such as testing and teacher evaluation have been “upside down.”

“I think teachers should be held harmless until we get something concrete,” he says, noting teachers shouldn’t be evaluated until the Legislature makes a final decision on standards and tests.

Something firmer could come from legislation requested by Gov. Haslam to adjust teacher evaluation laws and policies. Under current law, student testing growth comprises 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. The governor’s proposal would:

  • Change how much student improvement counts on teacher evaluations when new tests in English language arts, math, social studies and science are used to 10 percent in 2016, 20 percent in 2017 and 35 percent in 2018.
  • Lower the impact of student achievement growth the teachers whose grades and subjects aren’t tested to 15 percent from 25 percent.
  • Give local school districts “discretion” on teacher evaluation models dealing with classroom observation and growth in student achievement when making personnel decisions.

Haslam announced that for English language arts and math assessments, the state would release practice questions before testing, involve more than 100 teachers in the test-question process and train all teachers on testing design.

“We’ve asked more from our teachers and students over the past four years than ever before, and they are responding by making historic gains in academic achievement,” Haslam says.

“Educators are vital to continued progress in Tennessee, and we want to make sure we’re supporting them in meaningful ways and giving them the tools they need to lead their classrooms, schools and district.”

Yet, even with those feel-good words, some people are concerned that constant upheaval in Tennessee’s education is designed to undermine it. TEA’s Wrye says out-of-state groups appear to be using the debate “as a way to blow up public schools.”

Consequently, issues such as charter schools and vouchers, the use of tax dollars to send students to private schools, likely will see nearly as much debate as Common Core this session.

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