Will $400K, more review improve on Common Core

Friday, May 22, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 21

Is it Kabuki theatre or a transformative process? That question comes to mind in the aftermath of the legislative session as the General Assembly passed a bill “repealing and replacing” Common Core, a set of K-12 education standards, by adding another layer of review and pushing the governor’s process for completion to 2017, along with adding a $400,000 expense.

Public comment on Tennessee’s standards, a massive set of guidelines determining when students should learn what, closed April 30, eliciting more than 131,000 reviews and 20,300 written comments from 2,260 reviewers, according to the Tennessee Board of Education.

Seventy percent of reviews came from K-12 teachers, while parents and guardians followed with 12 percent of the reviews after Gov. Bill Haslam set up the review website in November 2014. Elected officials offered seven of the reviews.

In early June, teams of educators statewide will analyze those reviews and use the information, along with their own expertise, to recommend changes in math and English language arts standards, according to Sara Heyburn, executive director of the state Board of Education.

“This review and development process builds on the state’s current math and ELA [English Language Arts] standards with the express goal of making them stronger and specific to Tennessee,” Heyburn states, in response to questions about the law passed this session.

The large majority of responses were positive, but some call for review or removal, according to Heyburn, who expects changes to build on the existing standards to set up rigorous guidelines, rather than Common Core being ditched entirely.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about Common Core,” Heyburn says.

Some believe the standards are about teaching science, history and social studies from a liberal point of view, all pushed on Tennesseans by Washington politicians with financial strings attached.

In fact, Common Core has nothing to do with social studies or science, officials say. Instead, it is a set of guidelines stating what math and language arts skills students should have mastered by the end of each of grade. Educators across the state tend to look at them in that manner.

Reviews show Common Core is working better than many would like to admit.

Of the total English language arts reviews, 72,910 called for keeping certain standards, 8,410 for review and 3,708 for removal. In math, of 46,395 total reviews, 37,675 said keep the standards, 5,364 said review and 3,356 said remove.

A thorn from the start

Common Core promised to be a polarizing point for Republicans early this year, with Gov. Haslam wanting to keep the standards in place, along with Chambers of Commerce and many other groups, and the party’s conservative wing pushing to kill it, apparently because of a perceived connection with President Barack Obama and Washington politicians.

Common Core came out of the National Governor’s Conference, and most saw it as a way for Tennessee students to pick up their game.

Dissent developed with GOP supermajorities in both legislative houses and appears to stem from Obama’s 2010 Race to the Top, a barrel full of money the Republican-led Legislature gladly took as educators agreed to a new set of guidelines for evaluations based in part on students’ standardized test scores.

However, state Rep. Billy Spivey, who sponsored the House bill to “repeal and replace” Common Core, experienced an “epiphany” early in the session and opted to work with the governor, not against him.

“The one thing that I wanted to capture, and the one thing I thought was the crux of the epiphany, if you will, was it needed to take folks like me that don’t know anything about standards out of the standards development and standards writing,” says Spivey, a Lewisburg Republican.

“I’m a process guy, so this is not a standards bill, it’s a process bill.”

Spivey says he took the bill to the governor, who improved it, then it went to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who worked on it and made it better, before it went to other legislators who found ways to bolster it.

Calling Common Core a “political quagmire” in many states, Spivey says Tennessee’s new process could serve as a “template” for the rest of the country. It offers “transparency” and allows “all the stakeholders to weigh in,” he says.

Moving forward, one group will separate the reviews and comments into subject areas and grades and send them to advisory teams, which will draft reasonable standards and send them to teams of professionals who will write a rough draft.

A board of 10 people appointed by the governor and House and Senate speakers will put that rough draft on a website so educators can see what they will teach and be held accountable for.

That comes back to the 10-member board, and a final draft will be transmitted to the state Board of Education to be adopted. Then it will be put up for 60 days of public review.

Review is done every four years, so it was time to do it anyway, Haslam points out.

“What we added was one more level in the review process between those committees of educators and the Board of Education who will make the final decision on that. I don’t think it’s actually making it that cumbersome at all,” Haslam says.

The governor calls the fiscal note “minimal,” even though $400,000 was added to his budget to pay for additional review steps.

Polar views

Americans for Prosperity, a national organization gaining influence among conservative ranks in the Legislature, calls the legislation proof government works. In this case, it provided control at the “local level.”

“When moms and dads and teachers and voters of Tennessee come out, have their voices heard, the Legislature will respond. That’s what our Founding Fathers intended, and that’s what happened here today,” says Andrew Ogles, AFP director in Tennessee.

“Whether it’s health care or education or transportation, if the grass-roots, moms and dads, parents get out here and have their voices heard, we can tell the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., we don’t want you in our state.”

SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, agreed with Haslam’s early initiative and never felt legislation was needed to create what many call “Tennessee specific” standards.

In fact, SCORE officials wonder why standards for math and English language arts should be any different here than in Kentucky or California.

“These are not things that are inherently political or geographical,” says Teresa Wasson, SCORE’s director of communications.

Tennessee’s existing standards raised expectations in classroom and students met that challenge by achieving more, Wasson says.

State educators called for stability on standards and testing, and the legislation does that by keeping the TNReady testing on track and setting up “measured transition” to new standards in 2017-18, Wasson says, adding students need math and English standard as high or higher than existing ones.

“This bill does create a path that could lead to that goal, and SCORE is among many education partners who will be watching the review process closely on behalf of students, parents and teachers,” Wasson says.

So the question remains: Does this bill create a process for producing better Tennessee graduates, or like the genre of Japanese acting with overdone makeup and high drama, does it put on a show to get rid of an unpopular and largely misunderstood program?

Educators across the state agree Common Core needs review. Some teachers believe students aren’t developed enough to do what’s expected of them in the early grades. They’re also concerned about whether tests will match what’s being taught on a daily basis, especially when assessments start requiring more written answers.

Tennessee will find out in about four or five years.

But consider what Spivey says: His “epiphany” was to remove himself from the standards process and let educators do it. Tennessee lawmakers would do well to follow that and stay out of Kabuki wardrobes.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.