School superintendents across Tennessee urged state lawmakers Tuesday not to “derail” the state’s educational momentum by repealing the Common Core State Standards during the current legislative session.

In a letter signed by 114 of the state’s 141 superintendents, district administrators asked lawmakers instead to maintain the state’s current academic standards, at least until Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and the state Board of Education completes their review of the standards this fall.

The superintendents also asked that the planned 2015-16 implementation of Tennessee’s new standardized test, which is under development to align with the current standards, be allowed to proceed without delay.

“Teachers have been working hard and preparing for this assessment,” the letter says. “It would be a huge blow to the morale of educators if the General Assembly passes legislation that puts Tennessee on a path to change standards once again or alters the timeline for the new assessment.”

Common Core State Standards are benchmarks in English language arts and math that clarify the skills each child should have at each grade level. In 2010, Tennessee joined most other states in implementing the standards and has been developing a test to align with them to accurately measure students’ academic progress. However, the standards have come under fire from many state legislators who view them as federal overreach because of their ties to education grant programs under President Obama’s administration. Two bills before the Tennessee General Assembly would repeal the standards, including one scheduled to go before a House subcommittee on Wednesday.

The superintendents’ letter was released by the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS), which represents local superintendents and school directors, to interject the voices of educators in the debate.

“This work is paying off,” said TOSS board chairman Randy Frazier, director of Weakley County Schools. “Tennessee has received national attention for historic gains in student achievement. That’s why we say to the General Assembly, please do not derail this momentum.”

Among those signing the letter were the superintendents of all four of Tennessee’s largest school districts.

In his 2015 State of the State address on Monday, Haslam called for more stability in the state’s education policy and urged lawmakers to stick with the current standards, at least for now. Last October, Haslam announced that the standards would undergo a period of intense review and, a month later, his administration established a website seeking comments and feedback. The site has received 82,000 comments so far.

“There has been unprecedented participation in the review process, especially by Tennessee teachers,” the superintendents’ letter says. “We ask that their input be valued and that we move forward with efforts to improve and enhance our current standards and truly make them our own, while also giving educators and students the stability they desire and deserve.”

If lawmakers vote to replace the standards, it will be the third time in seven years that Tennessee has done so. In 2008, Tennessee adopted the Tennessee Diploma standards and, two years later, began to implement Common Core and a bevy of other reforms tied to winning $500 million in federal money through Race to the Top.

“Teachers have worked for years learning through the professional learning opportunities through the state and districts, countless hours, and funds,” said Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of Kingsport City Schools, during a TOSS news conference outside of the Senate chambers in Nashville. “They’ve created curriculums that will go along with these standards that will be challenging and engaging for our students.”

Ailshie acknowledged concern that the current standards weren’t developed by the state for the state. However, he said they are a good foundation to build on. “I’ve maintained these are our standards, and we could even make them more our standards if we maintain the course the governor has set out for us,” he said.

The superintendents say that switching standards this year — just months before the state switches to a new assessment, TNReady — will cause confusion and stress for teachers whose evaluations are tied to student achievement.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the state’s largest teacher union, also supports the current review process and urges teachers to participate. “It’s time we settled down and utilize the things we have now,” said TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye.

TOSS executive director Wayne Miller said much of the standards controversy stems from misinformation. For instance, he said, assertions are untrue that Common Core was created by the federal government, or that they are a set of prescriptive tasks teachers must undergo in the classroom. He said participating in the review process, which involves reading each standard and offering suggestions to improve them, would help allay concerns.

Creation of Common Core was sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Before they were adopted by most states, state standards varied widely across the nation.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Despite pleas from Haslam and education advocacy groups, key lawmakers expect the legislature to continue with its own assessment of the standards and possibly to repeal them. “I think it’s a given: Common Core is dead in the state of Tennessee, and everybody knows it,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) told The Tennessean following Haslam’s address.

Miller said TOSS is ready to talk with standards naysayers such as Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and sponsor of a bill to replace Common Core before the review is complete.

“[Gresham] understands there needs to be a balance between what she’s hearing from her constituents, and what she knows to be happening in classrooms,” Miller said.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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