For representatives at Nashville education summit, Common Core number one issue

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. (G. Tatter)

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.