Are Children Learning

For representatives at Nashville education summit, Common Core number one issue

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Gov. Bill Haslam and Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson at the education summit in Nashville.

Politicians homed in on the validity of the Common Core standards and the assessment that will test those standards at an education summit Thursday in Nashville. The forum, which included Department of Education officials, several state representatives, and members from education-related professional groups, hinted that Common Core is likely to be a central education battle this upcoming legislative session.

The education summit was convened by Gov. Bill Haslam, and brought together forty participants that ranged from a representative for the Tennessee Education Association, which has historically opposed Gov. Haslam’s education reforms, to representatives from the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, which has been an engine of new proposals involving new standards and revising the state’s career preparation.

Department of Education officials, Candice McQueen, the dean of Lipscomb University’s school of education,  and Ron Zimmer, a professor from Vanderbilt, presented on accountability, assessments, and school choice respectively. Each presentation was followed by a question and answer session, in which participants aired concerns or words of support for reforms.

“We’ve got to reinstall confidence in Tennessee and our education system, and I think that can only be done by Tennesseans doing standards, and by Tennesseans building an assessment that goes with that,” Rep. Judd Matheny, a Republican from Tullahoma said.

Despite the politically charged topics, the roundtable never took the tone of a debate and remained relatively tame. Gov. Bill Haslam never defended the reforms he’s spearheaded, and spent most of the time listening to participants.

Controversy over the Common Core State Standards has been mounting since the state first adopted the learning standards for math and language arts in 2010. The standards determine what children must learn by the end of each grade. Last year, the first year the standards were fully implemented, conflict over the standards reached a high point during the legislative session. Mirroring conservative action in other states, legislators protested the standards, arguing they were a means of federal control. With the help of the Tennessee Education Association, they successfully delayed the implementation of the PARCC assessment,  a Common Core-aligned exam that was designed with other states.

This year, several politicians could work to pull the state out of the standards all together. Should Tennessee adopt new standards for math and English, it would be the third time since 2008. Considerable funds have been devoted to training teachers on transitioning to the Common Core State Standards and the department is on track to contract with a testing vendor for a Common Core-aligned test by November.

Twice during the forum Thursday, representatives raised concerns that the federal government pressured Tennessee to adopt the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee and most other states use for math and English. Rep. Susan Lynn, a Republican from Mt. Juliet, asked if the standards were necessary for continued funding, and Sen. Mike Bell, a Republican from Riceville, asked if Tennessee could have received Race to the Top funds if they hadn’t adopted the standards. Race to the Top was a competition held by the U.S. Department of Education in which Tennessee won $500 million to improve low-performing schools, better train teachers and principals, and train educators on new Common Core standards.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said federal funding was never contingent on the Common Core. “There is a compulsion to adopt college and career ready standards,” he said. “Those do not have to be the Common Core State Standards.”

Rep. Bill Spivey, a Republican from Lewisburg, said that by the time the legislature was done arguing about the standards, they would be outdated. “We need to be talking about what we’re doing next,” he said.

A bus sponsored by Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity was parked in front of the education summit at its start.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
A bus sponsored by Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity was parked in front of the education summit at its start.

Common Core was also the focus of about 50 protestors outside the Sheraton. A coach bus emblazoned with “Stop Common Core” that accompanied the protestors was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy organization funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. The protestors wore shirts with the same message and waved signs for Tea Party U.S. Senate candidate Danny Page.

Eli Broadstreet, an eighth grader from Rutherford County who was at the protest with his mother, said his family was against the Common Core because the math standards were stressful and illogical, and because the standards promoted a biased view of history that promoted Islam and Buddhism over Christianity.

“It’s just a big mess,” he said.

The Common Core standards do not address history.

Representatives, business leaders, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and teachers at the forum said they were all were curious about the state’s next assessment. Although the TCAP, which students will take for the last time this year, has been narrowed to only address material covered by the Common Core State Standards, speakers including Candice McQueen, a dean at Lipscomb University’s school of education, and Rep. John Forgerty, a Republican from Athens, said that it was still not adequately aligned with what students are learning and teachers are teaching.

A competitive bidding process for a new test is currently underway, with a committee of undisclosed teachers, state officials, and higher education administrators working to select a test developer by November. Gov. Haslam checked with the office of procurement, who is in charge of the bidding process, during the summit, and announced that there are five vendors under consideration. You can read about some of the probable candidates here.

In addition to the state standards, participants raised concerns about teacher evaluations and the quality and number of assessments students take.

School vouchers, a topic that has been hotly debated in past legislative sessions, went almost uncommented on at the summit. Ron Zimmer, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, presented research on school choice options, including vouchers. Zimmer cited both positives and negatives for options like charters and vouchers, but repeatedly asserted that neither reform was a “silver bullet.” No one asked questions about the possibility for vouchers in Tennessee in the near future, although a participant from the conservative think tank the Beacon Center said he supported vouchers.

Rep. Matheny said he was glad to discuss a range of education issues before the legislature convenes in January.

I appreciate this kind of round table so we can start thinking about these things,” he said.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.