Scrutinizing Content

You’ve heard what Buzzfeed thinks about Tennessee’s social studies standards. Here’s what teachers say.

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
The civil rights movement, depicted in displays (above) at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, is among Tennessee-specific topics that would be reorganized in the state's proposed new social studies standards.

Mark Finchum loves to teach his social studies students about Nancy Ward, a Native American who brokered peace between European settlers and Cherokee Indians in what is now East Tennessee.

Ward isn’t identified in Tennessee’s proposed new standards for social studies. But Finchum says that doesn’t mean she’s not important, or that his students at Jefferson County High School won’t get to learn about her. He’ll make time between teaching state standards to tell students about her, too.

Most people weighing in on Tennessee’s controversial new social studies standards have been teachers like Finchum — voices largely missing from debate that has spilled onto national media sites like Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post.

The standards have generated controversy two years in a row. Last year, concerns about an overrepresentation of Islam in seventh-grade world history propelled them to national headlines. This year, Tennessee has been derided in media reports that lessons about Islam, as well as important events in the civil rights and women’s movements, may be cut out of revisions.

Social studies, which includes civics, history, geography, and economics, has been a flashpoint across the nation in recent years, including concerns that politics and cultural values are bleeding into curriculum or textbooksTennessee is one of the few states to open up its standards revision process to the public, the result of a 2015 state law.

The state-appointed Standards Review Committee responded this month to the recent hoopla over social studies by extending its public review by six weeks to December. Now, Tennessee residents have more time to weigh in on what historical facts the state’s students should know at each grade level.

So far, 65 percent of reviews of the proposed standards have come from K-12 teachers, according to data presented Friday to the panel monitoring the process.

Tennessee’s review wasn’t actually due until 2018, but teachers had complained they were having to teach too many standards; then the process was hastened by controversy over instruction about Islam.

Overall, teachers participating in the review process thus far prefer the proposed standards to current ones. In the first public online review, which was open to any Tennessee resident, 64 percent of the reviews were to keep current standards, a contrast to last year’s examination of the Common Core standards for math and English, where most reviewers were happy with the existing standards.

In the last two years, Tennessee has launched standards reviews of all four core subjects, and social studies is the last one to be wrapped up. So far, the proposed social studies revision has the highest percentage of approval for standards of any subject, according to the State Board of Education.

Finchum, a former president of the Tennessee Council for Social Studies, said he welcomes a set of slimmed-down standards. Under the current ones, he’s expected to cover 105 standards in a 180-day school year. The proposed revision has only 84. Still, he isn’t thrilled with some of the cuts. He’d like a course in Tennessee history to be required instead of elective. But it’s impossible to please everyone, he acknowledges.

“Whatever the decision is, however they look at the end, I’ll agree with a lot of that, and disagree with some,” said Finchum, who attended a roundtable about the draft earlier this month in Knoxville. “There will never be a complete consensus, but trimming will be helpful.”

Other teachers say they already adapt their lessons according to current standards and expect to do the same with the new ones, which will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

Amelia Klug, a fifth-grade teacher at Valor Collegiate Academy in Nashville, says the standards are only one of many components of designing her curriculum — what materials to use in class, and how she structures lessons. The focus of her class is social justice: Is the American Dream accessible to everyone? Why or why not?

“I take the standards and ask questions that allow my students to relate history to their own lives and experiences,” Klug said. For instance, the high number of current standards only allows for two to three days to teach about the civil rights movement, so she incorporates the topic in other lessons. “I don’t necessarily feel tied back,” she said.

test prep

In final year of Common Core, Tennessee teachers can use practice test questions from PARCC

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education have helped to lead training sessions in six Tennessee cities to give educators more information about the state's TNReady test. The state's testing window for students in grades 3-8 runs from April 17 to May 5.

As Tennessee prepares students for its final year of tests aligned with Common Core standards, teachers can pull practice questions from a variety of sources, including the same testing consortium that the state once distanced itself from.

In 2014, Tennessee joined other states that pulled out of a multistate consortium known as PARCC due to the growing political backlash over Common Core — the standards on which the consortium is based. That exit led Tennessee to work with a private test maker to develop its own assessment called TNReady.

At a TNReady training session last week in Memphis, educators were told that this year’s TNReady questions will look different than they’ve seen on past tests. Those seeking practice questions for their students were directed to the state’s internal online platform called EdTools. Questions from PARCC and Smarter Balanced, another testing consortium, also are acceptable as long as they “aligned to our standards,” said Nakia Towns, assistant state education commissioner for data and research.

“But in terms of the rigor of those items and the development process for those two consortiums, I would say definitely those are high-quality items,” Towns told the group.

Tennessee still uses Common Core as its guide for teaching and testing, even though state officials formally dropped using the controversial name in recent years.

Officially, this will be Tennessee’s final year to administer Common Core-aligned tests for math and English language arts. Next school year, the state switches to teaching and testing to its Tennessee Academic Standards, developed after 18 months of review and revisions that began with an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

And when the testing window opens on April 17 for grades 3-11, this will be the first year of administering TNReady under Questar Assessments Inc., the state’s new testing company. The State Department of Education hired the Minneapolis-based firm last summer after firing North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. only a few months earlier. The switch came after the botched online debut of TNReady led to the test’s cancellation last year for grades 3-8.

Why the failed debut of TNReady leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come

Representatives of Questar were among those fielding questions from teachers last week in Memphis. Marty Mineck, a Questar vice president, said TNReady is a homegrown test that won’t look like the company’s assessments in other states.

“This is not a Questar assessment. This is not a Questar test. The reason we are here is to build a TNReady that is literally for the students of Tennessee,” he told the group.

Unlike last year, most students will take TNReady by pen and paper. After the statewide attempt at online testing failed in 2016, the Department of Education adopted a new game plan that includes gradually transitioning most schools to online testing by 2019. Only 25 out of 130 eligible districts have signed up for online testing this spring for their high school students.

The TNReady training in Memphis was among six hosted across Tennessee by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonpartisan education advocacy group founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist. The other sessions were held in Chattanooga, Kingsport, Knoxville, Jackson and Nashville. In all, about 500 teachers have attended.

Clarification: March 30, 2017: This version clarifies that the State Department of Education is directing teachers seeking practice questions to its EdTools platform, but also has endorsed using PARCC as a resource.

Doing the math

Trying to sort out Tennessee’s new math standards? These educators are doing it for you.

As mathematics director for Tennessee’s second largest school district, David Williams faced down several daunting tasks over the summer.

The Nashville educator had to figure out how to deal with the aftermath of the state’s cancellation of its end-of-year test, and the accompanying lack of data. He had to wade through Tennessee’s new math standards and how to train teachers on the differences. And then there’s the perennial challenge of making education equitable, with all kids having access to rigorous coursework.

Williams soon realized there was no reason to figure it out on his own. His counterparts across the state have the same challenges, he figured, so why not work together?

In August, Williams convened a group of math coordinators and instructional coaches from nearby districts to form the Mid-Cumberland Math Consortium, a kind of support group for educators working through common challenges with math instruction. Leaders from Cheatham, Dickson, Rutherford, Williamson and Wilson counties showed up to the first meeting.

“We’re all dealing with the same issues,” explained Williams, now interim director of curriculum and instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

But he didn’t want the group to be all talk. “There are a lot of groups that just talk. I wanted products,” he said.

So the group took on the task of creating grade-by-grade guides to help teachers tackle the state’s new math standards, which replace the Common Core State Standards and will go into effect next school year.

There are hundreds of standards that identify what students should know at the end of each grade. For any one district, highlighting the changes would have been a huge task. But consortium members divided them up and have spent the last few months collaborating via Google Docs to create a color coded guide: green for additional standards, red for those removed, and orange when the wording changed.

The guides are meant to save teachers time so they can focus on adjusting their teaching to the changes. They also will help district officials design professional development programs.

The State Department of Education isn’t developing similar guides, but enthusiastically supports the work of the consortium and similar collaborations, said spokeswoman Sara Gast.

Unlike the last time Tennessee switched math standards in 2011, the changes for next year aren’t drastic because the revision committee used the Common Core as a foundation rather than starting from scratch. That makes the differences in this transition more subtle, but no less substantive, according to Williams.

"Some of the revisions are so minute that if you don’t pay attention to the detail, you might miss it."David Williams, Metro Nashville Public Schools

“Some of the revisions are so minute that if you don’t pay attention to the detail, you might miss it,” he said. “If you don’t have some document telling you (what’s) new, it won’t be in your curricular materials; it won’t be in your (professional development).”

Consortium members have brought different levels of grassroots expertise to the project. Joseph Jones, mathematics coordinator for Cheatham County Schools, chaired Tennessee’s standards review committee for math and brought a wealth of knowledge and documents to help create the guides. He’s also helping the state develop professional development opportunities around the new standards, which means he can help districts avoid redundancies. And Williams served as the math coordinator for the entire state for three years, until 2015.

“With this group, it’s a benefit to all of us, that we can have each other’s insights, that we have different information from each other … so we can all move forward more efficiently,” he said.

The consortium will meet again in November and plans to finalize its guides. But what’s next on their agenda, neither Williams or Jones can say.

“We’re just a bunch of like-minded math leaders discussing issues,” Jones said. “I can bounce ideas off of people I respect quite a bit.”