Are Children Learning

Educators, not politicians, take the reins in developing Tennessee’s new academic standards

PHOTO: G. Tatter
The Common Core standards for high school math adorn the walls of Christi Root's classroom at Monterey High School in Putnam County.

Though Tennessee’s review of the Common Core State Standards was borne out of fiery rhetoric and political maneuvering, the newest panel of reviewers in the process are quietly focusing on small changes to the once-controversial standards.

Members of the Academic Standards Recommendation Committee hope the revisions, which were proposed by a panel 42 educators appointed by the State Board of Education, will make the standards more developmentally appropriate for students and easier for educators to understand and teach.

The committee, which convened its second meeting Tuesday in Nashville, is scrutinizing the work of the revision panel of educators who spent the past four months culling through public feedback on the Common Core and revising and rewriting standards as needed. The public input was collected during a six-month online review open to all Tennessee residents and completed in April.

“This is an exciting time,” said Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of Kingsport City Schools and a member of the recommendation committee, whose members were appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell. “It just really makes you proud that this kind of work is being done by educators across the state.”

That sentiment is in stark contrast to the political furor only a year ago over the Common Core, a set of K-12 academic standards in math and English language arts that set out what students should know and be able to do. Billed as a move to higher expectations, tougher tests and significant instructional shifts in the classroom, they were adopted in Tennessee in 2010 and implemented beginning in 2012. However, a political backlash erupted over charges of nationalized education reform at the expense of homegrown values and input. The hullabaloo led to the current multi-layered standards review process, including the work of the Standards Recommendation Committee, created under a bill approved by the legislature earlier this year.

The committee heard Tuesday from several educators who helped revise the standards over the summer, including Joseph Jones, math coordinator for Cheatham County Schools. He said it helped that most participants in the first period of public review last winter and spring wanted to keep most of the standards.

“That just told me that our initial thinking was right in that the standards were pretty good,” Jones said. “It wasn’t like we were starting from ground zero.”

All of the members of the newest committee are educators, like the teachers who did most of the heavy lifting in revisions.

There was no dissension during the first part of Tuesday’s meeting, which focused on the modified version of the English standards. The educator-reviewers kept most of the writing standards, even ones that had been considered too challenging for their grade level, but added new standards to help support teachers and students.

They also added standards related to literacy, a competency that has befuddled educators across Tennessee because the state’s poor reading scores for grades 3-8 haven’t budged in recent years. And they rephrased standards to make them more understandable. For example, for standards that included suggestions of what materials teachers could use to teach the standard, the reviewers removed the examples.

“Let’s focus on the skill and the point,” said Susan Groenke, a professor of English education at the University of Tennessee, who helped revise the English standards. “We don’t want to tell teachers what literature to teach.”

Though the recommendation committee members and educator-reviewers all called upon their own classroom experiences, they were quick to refer to the public feedback, considered key to the review process.

Allowing the public to be involved will mitigate mistrust that surrounded the Common Core, said Sharen Cypress, dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Freed-Hardeman University and a member of the Standards Recommendation Committee selected by Haslam.

“When people lack knowledge or information about what students are learning, they fear it,” she said. “There will be no problem implementing these standards.”

The educators’ revisions went online on Tuesday and will be open for another round of public comment for one month. Then, the 12-member Standards Recommendation Committee will consider the second round of public feedback before sending its recommendations to the State Board of Education about what the final standards should look like.

In addition to feedback from the public, the committee will receive a report on the standards from higher education officials in the next month. The proposed version of the standards will be previewed at public meetings across Tennessee.

While the review process was designed to be transparent, it has so many layers that stakeholders might need a map to keep up.

The process began last fall when the governor ordered the public review of the standards amid growing calls for repeal of the Common Core, a lynchpin of Tennessee’s education overhaul that began when the state threw its hat in the ring for the federal Race to the Top competition, and the money that went with it.

While Ramsay had predicted that Common Core would not survive during the last legislative session, it did. Through a compromise pounded out, at least in part through the work of Americans for Prosperity, a well-funded conservative advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., the legislature opted instead to insert an additional layer into the governor’s standards review process by creating the Academic Standards Recommendation Committee.

The committee was a concession to both Common Core supporters, who believed the standards were a rigorous improvement on the benchmarks used before 2010, and its ardent detractors, who viewed the standards as federal overreach. The compromise specified that Common Core be “reviewed and replaced,” a directive previously avoided by Haslam but championed by Common Core opponents, including Ramsey.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.