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.

data points

Five graphs that show the challenges facing New York City’s ‘disconnected’ young adults

PHOTO: Getty Images

The share of young adults in New York City who are jobless and out of school has fallen over the past five years, according to a new report, owing partly to a rebounding economy and higher college enrollment.

But roughly 17 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24, or more than 136,000 people across the city, are still considered “disconnected” — both out of school and out of work.

That’s according to a new report jointly released by the Community Service Society and JobsFirstNYC, which have closely tracked young people who neither work nor go to school. The report is a follow-up to a similar study the two organizations conducted in 2010 as the country was still reeling from the recession.

The latest report offers a more encouraging picture. But it also reveals some worrying trends: More young adults have jobs, but they’re mostly part time. A larger number of students are enrolling in college, but they also often leave before earning a degree. Moreover, the young adults who are still out of school and jobless are likely even harder to serve.

“The out of school/out of work population is much smaller but there are also higher barriers to success,” said Lazar Treschan, a youth policy expert at the Community Service Society and one of the report’s authors.

Here are six pieces of data from the report that show who is out of school and out of work — and some of the biggest challenges they face.

1. The proportion of young adults who are out of school and out of work has been trending downward since the recession. Seventeen percent of the city’s young adults were jobless and out of school in 2015, down from 22 percent in 2010.

2. The share of disconnected young people has been falling for every racial group, but black and Latino students are still more than twice as likely to be out of school and jobless than their white and Asian peers.

3. A big reason fewer young adults are out of work is the economy is improving. But most of the job growth has been in part-time employment, jobs that are lower-paying and come with fewer benefits. “Despite overall job growth, there has been no net increase whatsoever in full-time jobs for 18- to 24-year-olds,” the report notes.

4. The percentage of the city’s students who are over 18 and still in high school has been falling — and the biggest drops are among students from low-income families, according to the report.

5. College readiness rates have increased, and more young adults are going to college. But many of them are going to college without earning degrees, potentially leaving them in debt. The number of young adults “who have started college but left before completing any type of degree has grown from under 50,000 in 2005 to nearly 70,000 today,” according to the report.

6. The young adults who continue to be out of school and jobless are harder to serve. Kevin Stump, a vice president at JobsFirstNYC who contributed to the study, noted that the young adults who have not found jobs or enrolled in school during the economic recovery “are harder to find and face even more difficult barriers.”

Though the report doesn’t present hard data to back up that assertion, its authors interviewed service providers who “cite a higher concentration of young people with low levels of literacy, mental health concerns, histories of trauma, criminal justice involvement, and severe housing instability in their programs today than five years ago,” according to the report.

You can read the full report and its recommendations here.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.