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.

under study

Tennessee lawmakers to take a closer look at school closures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The once-bustling sidewalks outside of shuttered Lincoln Elementary School are empty today. Shelby County Schools closed the school in 2015.

In five years, more than 20 public schools have closed in Memphis, often leaving behind empty buildings that once served as neighborhood hubs.

Now, Rep. Joe Towns wants to hit the pause button.

The Memphis Democrat asked a House education subcommittee on Tuesday to consider a bill that would halt school closures statewide for five years. The measure would require the state comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to study the impact on students and communities before allowing local districts to shutter schools again.

The panel will review Towns’ proposal during a summer study session.

Towns said empty school buildings hurt property values, lower tax revenue, and hit local governments in the pocketbook. Currently, there’s no Memphis-specific research on the economic impact of shuttering schools.

“There are unintended consequences,” Towns said. “What this does to a community is not good. Who here would want to live next to a school that’s been closed?”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he sympathizes. But pausing school closures might make it more difficult for Shelby County Schools to balance its budget, he said.

“Our superintendent is faced with buildings that hold a thousand kids, and they’re down to 250,” White said. “I don’t want to put one more burden on them.”

Last fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district may need to close 18 schools in the next five years if student enrollment continues to decline. Hopson recently unveiled a framework for investing in struggling schools before being considering them for closure.

Any future school closures in Memphis won’t be just to cut costs, district leaders have said. And for the first time since the historic merger, Shelby County Schools is not grappling with a budget deficit.

education power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: Rep. Tim Brown

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos and Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 41, covering parts of Montgomery, Boone, and Tippecanoe counties. So far, has served 23 years in the House of Representatives. Brown had a career as an emergency room doctor in Crawfordsville, retiring in 2015.

Why he’s a power player: Brown is chairman of the influential House Ways & Means Committee, one of the main budget-writing bodies in the Indiana General Assembly. In addition to helping craft the state budget, which includes money for schools, Brown’s committee also considers bills that could have a financial impact on the state. Any proposal involving money — including testing, school choice and preschool — has to pass muster with him. In recent years, Brown has supported funding increases for students with special needs and virtual charter schools.

Money follows the child: Brown has pushed for changes over the years to how Indiana funds schools, favoring plans aimed at equalizing the base funding allocated for students across districts. Historically, the state had padded the budgets of districts that were losing large numbers of students — helping them adjust but leading to disparities between schools across the state.

Brown finally achieved his goal of having the same basic aid for each district in 2015. Enrollment is now the driving factor in how much money schools get, as opposed to where they are located or what kinds of students attend.

On school choice: Brown served on the House Education Committee in 2011, the year the legislature passed a number of major education reform measures dealing with charter schools, teacher evaluation and vouchers. Since then, Brown has continued to support school choice options, working on bills about “education savings accounts” and other choice programs that would let students take individual classes outside their public schools.

Who supports him: Brown has received campaign contributions from Education Networks of America, a private education technology company; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country; and Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers.

Given his support for choice-based reform, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education gave Brown an “F” in its 2016 legislative report card highlighting who it thinks has been supportive of public schools.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year and where they were halfway through the session.