Backstroke

Tennessee scraps social and emotional standards collaboration following pushback

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville

Following a backlash from some critics and only a month after joining, Tennessee has pulled out of a multi-state initiative meant to help teachers support students’ emotional well-being.

In August, Tennessee was selected from a field of more than 20 states to work with leaders from seven other states to draft standards focused on students’ emotional well-being and mental health in grades K-12. The initiative was spearheaded by the Chicago-based nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, also known as CASEL, which also awarded Tennessee $5,000 for its work.

The announcement was followed by a flurry of complaints from Tennessee lawmakers charging that the standards were an overreach by the state, even though they would have been voluntary and never would have been assessed. Some groups and bloggers also joined in, charging that the federal government is seeking to track and manipulate kids’ feelings and relationships.

This week, officials with the State Department of Education said they are pulling out due to CASEL’s one-year timeline and Tennessee’s desire to be transparent and to align its work around social and emotional learning with other state initiatives.

“We need to align these various related workstreams, and we want to be thoughtful and transparent about what we are doing,” spokeswoman Sara Gast said Wednesday. “Given that, participating in CASEL does not make sense.”

Tennessee is not totally reversing course. The state will continue to develop social and personal “competencies” without working with experts from outside of Tennessee, and on a slower timeline.

“We believe this work is vital to ensuring students can develop their unique abilities to grow into well-rounded lifelong learners and become more prepared for the variety of expectations they will have in the workforce,” Gast said.

The social and emotional standards developed with CASEL would have set benchmarks for what students should know or be able to do in each grade when it comes to skills such as decision-making, self-awareness, social awareness, self-control, and establishing and maintaining healthy relationships.

During the last few years, the word “standards” has become politically charged across the nation, with many mistakenly believing that standards dictate what curriculum is taught in the classroom. Rather, standards establish grade-by-grade learning goals so that teachers and parents know what is expected of students and if they are achieving on grade-level.

The recent pushback over social-emotional standards also has included a wariness of collaborative work across state lines, an attitude that contributed to the state’s decision to scrap the Common Core academic standards for math and reading in favor of “homegrown standards” that Tennessee will roll out in 2017.

“I don’t understand why we have to constantly collaborate with other states,” Rep. Sheila Butt said during a summer study session last month. “We don’t have to do it that way.”

Research shows that a focus on students’ emotional well-being and behavior leads to greater academic success.

CASEL officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

an almost-deal

Albany deal appears close after Assembly passes two-year extension of mayoral control

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at a 2015 press conference with Democratic colleagues

After weeks of haggling by state lawmakers — and a day spent huddling behind closed doors — the stage is set for a possible two-year extension of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools.

The Assembly passed a bill in the wee hours of Thursday morning that outlines both the extension and a number of other provisions, including the reauthorization of local taxes and the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge for the late Governor Mario Cuomo. Notably, it does not include sweeteners for the charter school sector, which Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has forcefully opposed.

The state Senate is expected to return for a vote Thursday afternoon, though it is not yet clear if a deal has been reached. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, did not confirm a final agreement, but told reporters Wednesday night that negotiations were “moving in the right direction.”

According to Politico, the text of the bill was released just before 11:30 p.m. and passed the Assembly around 1 a.m., by a vote of 115-15.

The bill was passed in an “extraordinary session” called by Governor Andrew Cuomo this week after lawmakers failed to reach a deal during the regular legislative session, which ended last Wednesday. Mayoral control is set to expire Friday at midnight, an imminent deadline that’s led to a flurry of “what-ifs.”

If the Senate approves the deal, it would be a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly sought multi-year extensions but been granted only one-year reprieves. It would also allay the fears of education experts on both sides of the political aisle, who have spoken out on the need to retain mayoral control rather than returning to a decentralized system run by 32 community school boards.

Losing mayoral control “would be devastating,” wrote schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a June 19 op-ed. “If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress.”

But not everyone was pleased with the way things have gone down this week. “Today’s extraordinary session produced nothing to celebrate,” wrote Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb in a statement released after the vote. “There is no victory in completing work that should have been done weeks ago. No one deserves applause for passing bills in the middle of the night out of public view.”