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.”

Voucher votes

Trump wants states to push vouchers. Tennessee shows why that might be hard, even in red states.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Voucher opponents cheer as Tennessee lawmakers exit the House chambers following Rep. Bill Dunn's decision last February to table voucher legislation.

When President-elect Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos as his choice for U.S. secretary of education, advocates of school tuition vouchers saw it as a good omen. The Michigan Republican is a staunch advocate for vouchers that allow taxpayer money to be spent on private schools.

But the perennial battle over vouchers in Tennessee, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, suggests it won’t be easy for vouchers to sweep the nation, even if Trump’s administration champions federal incentives for such programs. While Tennessee’s Senate has voted in favor of a voucher bill three times since 2011, opponents have blocked it each year in the House of Representatives, albeit by decreasing margins. Opposition has coalesced around a fear of undermining public schools — a concern that transcends party lines and geography.

Tennessee’s voucher proposals have exclusively targeted urban schools, anomalies in a mostly rural state. But as each major vote approached, lawmakers in Nashville fielded calls from constituents back home who worried that the program would quickly expand at the expense of public schools in areas with few alternatives.

During the last legislative session, the perceived lack of public support for vouchers eclipsed Gov. Bill Haslam’s endorsement of them. It also countered an outpouring of spending from pro-voucher advocacy groups that include a state chapter of American Federation for Children, of which DeVos founded and serves as chairwoman of the board.

The most vocal opponent of vouchers has been the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and an organization that many Republican lawmakers openly oppose. But lawmakers also got pushback from statewide professional groups that represent superintendents and school boards and argue that vouchers would hurt public schools.

Rep. Bill Dunn
PHOTO: TN.Gov
Rep. Bill Dunn

During the most recent legislative session, Rep. David Hawk, a Republican from Greeneville, made a last-minute attempt to make vouchers more palatable to sympathetic lawmakers wary of how the issue would play out at home. With the blessing of the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, Hawk amended the proposal so it only would impact Memphis, home to Tennessee’s largest school district and frequently a laboratory for the state’s education reforms. The move infuriated many Memphis lawmakers and failed to sway enough undecided legislators to push the bill over the top.

Still, the proposal came closer to passing than ever before. It cleared all committees before Dunn tabled it on the House floor. He said he just didn’t have the votes. Later, Dunn told reporters that he only had 48 “yes” votes confirmed out of the necessary 50.

“I believe there are legislators who hear from their school board that they’re against this,” Dunn reflected on Tuesday. “Instead of legislators sitting down and saying what’s best for students, it’s about what’s best for school bureaucracy.”

Research is mixed on whether vouchers help or hurt students. According to a 2015 review by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “vouchers have been neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents.”

Undaunted, Dunn says he will sponsor voucher legislation again in the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. But if vouchers pass this time, he said, it will be because of growing support for the program among Tennesseans, not because of Trump or DeVos.

“Education is a state issue,” he said.