Academic standards

Tennessee launches review of social studies standards amid concerns over world religion studies

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

The State Board of Education kicked off its social studies standards review on Friday, months after receiving some complaints that middle school students are being “indoctrinated” into Islam, and days after lawmakers filed bills that would alter the way world religion is taught in Tennessee classrooms.

The state reviews academic standards roughly every six years, and the current social studies standards are only in their second year. But the State Board decided last summer to bump up its review by two years based partly on feedback from parents and teachers.

Across the state, many school board members have heard concerns from vocal parents and activists that the study of world geography and history, including a unit on “the Islamic world” up to the year 1500 A.D., are encouraging the spread of Islam — just as the world seeks to stop attacks by terrorists who claim to espouse Islamic beliefs.

Social studies teachers have issues with the current standards too — but not about religion. “What I’ve heard from teachers across the state, regardless of grade level, is that there are too many standards for the time we have,” Mark Finchum, a teacher at Jefferson County High School and president of the Tennessee Council for the Social Studies, told Chalkbeat in October. 

Any Tennessee resident can review the standards at the board’s website and offer comments until April 30. The feedback will be incorporated into revisions this summer by a panel of social studies teachers from across the state, and a second public review will held in the fall.

Some Republican state lawmakers already have passed judgment on the standards, however. Legislation filed this week would revert to the previous standard for the study of world religions in middle school. Another bill would prohibit teaching religious doctrine at all before 10th grade.

The bills are unlikely to gain steam, however, as the standards review process put into place by Gov. Bill Haslam was tweaked and embraced by the legislature last year.

The social studies review will follow the same process for a separate review coming to a close for the Common Core State Standards for math and English. Launched in the fall of 2014, that review has included two public feedback periods and multiple revisions. The State Board is scheduled next week to take its first vote on the results.

“There are significant changes to a good number of standards,” said Laura Encalade, director of policy and research for the board, which plans to release more specifics next week.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.