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.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.