Standards review committee or repeal Common Core committee? Tennessee leaders are split

The newest standards review panel at the crux of a compromise over Tennessee’s much-discussed academic standards now has its members. But just as interesting as the committee’s lineup is the pointed messaging included in respective press releases from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Gov. Bill Haslam in announcing their appointments.

Last week’s fiery press release by Ramsey, who named three people to the panel, refers in the headline to the “Common Core repeal committee” and then states in the release: “The committee was established by the Tennessee General Assembly for the explicit purpose of repealing and replacing the Common Core Standards established in 2010.” He described one of his appointees, Shirley Curry, as a “conservative activist” and invoked “Tennessee values” as being central to the need for an academic overhaul.

By contrast, this week’s statement by Haslam, who appointed four people to the group, called the same body a “Standards Recommendation Committee” and never mentions the words “Common Core” or “repeal.”

“We are committed to obtaining the highest possible standards in Tennessee’s schools, and I am grateful to these dedicated educators for agreeing to serve in this effort,” Haslam said in a more muted statement. “All Tennesseans want the best for our students, and this process will build on the historic gains we have made in education.”

The not-so-subtle messaging speaks to a continued fracture in perceptions and emotion around the Common Core State Standards, which spell out what academic skills that Tennessee K-12 students should know and when they should know them. It also offers conflicting evidence of what the committee will finally accomplish: a complete overhaul of the Common Core — or selective decisions based on the ongoing in-depth review of feedback from Tennessee educators, even if that doesn’t lead to significant changes in the standards.

If the latter, the standards will undoubtedly be rebranded, as Haslam acknowledged earlier this year that the name “Common Core” is problematic for many groups. “I just realized that fixing the brand is too hard,” Haslam told editors and publishers at a Tennessee Press Association meeting in February. “There’s certainly hills you should die on, but dying on a brand that people feel that way about, I don’t think is smart.”

Last fall, Haslam initiated a year-long review process to scrutinize the current enhanced standards, so that the standards, which were fully implemented during the 2012-2013 school year, do not get gutted alongside the Common Core label.

Though Common Core standards haven’t polled well among Tennessee teachers, teachers and district leaders have been adamant that they want consistency. 

The legislature, which this year considered several bills to repeal the standards, opted instead this spring to insert an additional layer into the governor’s standards review process by creating an Academic Standards Recommendation Committee of 10 members appointed by the governor, Ramsay (R-Blountville) and House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville.)

The committee was a concession to both Common Core supporters, who believe the adoption of the standards in 2010 by the State Board of Education heralded a new era of academic rigor in Tennessee, and its ardent detractors, including Ramsey, who believe the standards should have been homegrown instead of adopted from a nationwide standards initiative.

Though the compromise legislation specified that Common Core be “be reviewed and replaced,” a directive Haslam had previously avoided, it’s not clear how many of the 1,100 content standards in English and more than 900 standards in math will be scrapped when the process is complete. The results of an online public review — in which the state received more than 131,000 reviews and more than 20,000 comments from 2,262 reviewers — suggested that most standards should be retained. Throughout the summer, a group of educators appointed by the State Board of Education have been reviewing the public feedback and revising the standards.

Other states that have repealed and replaced Common Core have ended up with similar standards as the ones with which they started.

The review committee consists of experienced educators. And despite Ramsey’s rhetoric, his choices include Kingsport City Schools Superintendent Lyle Ailshie, who has publicly supported Common Core. Harwell was the only one of the three government officials who announced her appointees without issuing a press release.

Here are the committee’s members, including the person who appointed them:

  • Shirley Curry (Ramsey), a high school math teacher and former director of the Early Reading First program in Wayne County;
  • Lyle Ailshie (Ramsey), Kingsport City Schools superintendent and the former superintendent of Greeneville City Schools;
  • Darcie Finch (Ramsey), a numeracy coach for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and a member of the math committee of the standards review process;
  • Sharen Cypress (Haslam), dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Freed-Hardeman University;
  • Tracy Franklin (Haslam), principal at Steekee Elementary School in Loudon County;
  • Amy Gullion (Haslam), K-5 instructional coach at Smyrna Elementary School in Rutherford County, and a Common Core proponent;
  • Doug Hungate (Haslam), academic director at Cheatham County Central High School;
  • Cathy Kolb (Harwell), a special educator at Moore Magnet STEM Elementary in Clarksville;
  • Shannon Duncan (Harwell), the assistant principal at Tullahoma High School;
  • David Pickler (Harwell), former chairman of the Shelby County Board of Education and president of the National School Boards Association in 2013-14. The latter organization at the time supported “high academic standards, including Common Core, when they are voluntarily adopted by states with school board input and when the standards are free from federal directions, mandates, funding conditions or coercion.”