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.

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.”

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”