Are Common Core standards the next GOP battleground?

Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 10:05pm
070513 Haslam Common Core main.jpg
Gov. Bill Haslam (Andrea Zelinski/SouthComm)

These may be the lazy days of summer, but there’s an underground movement afoot preparing for an impassioned legislative battle next year.

This next fight isn’t over guns, or abortion or even charter schools. It’s about the standards teachers use to teach children, and the issue has the potential to be just as charged — if not more so — than the typical fodder that drives politics in an election year.

The fight is over Common Core, a new set of education standards that schools across the country, including in Tennessee, are using to drive classroom learning; the national Common Core initiative aims to focus more on developing students’ analytical skills than rote memorization.

The standards come with new ways for educators to look at instruction and include a new brand of standardized tests that roll out in the 2014-15 school year.

But the standards are catching the wrath of critics. Conservatives on the far right are vocal with their worry that the government is trying to nationalize education, glean private information from students’ standardized tests, and then stick taxpayers with the bill.

Yet people sprinkled all along the political spectrum say they too are worried, if not about one of those issues, then about the high-stakes tests their children consistently are facing.

“It appears that people who are raising concerns about Common Core range from people who are more liberal to people who are extremely conservative,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat who represents some of East Nashville, and much of the area between I-40 and I-24 in Davidson County. “The fact that so many people are concerned about this should give us pause.”

At the state level, leaders including Gov. Bill Haslam point out the state has “come out pretty strong” in support of the Common Core, and he plans to keep it that way.

“I have talked to five different businesses — literally, in the last week — and every one of them have said the same thing: we love being here [in Tennessee], but the prepared workforce that we need is lacking,” he said.

“That doesn’t just start when you get out of school, obviously it starts earlier. I think part of that is we make certain our third-graders are learning the math they need to, so that 10 years from now these companies aren’t saying that ‘we don’t have the workforce that we need.’ ”

Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman are on the same page. Both have spent the past several weeks defending the new education standards, calling it the way to move students forward in a state where pupils statewide fall among the 10 lowest-performing in the country.

Although test scores have improved for three straight years under more rigorous standards, about half of Tennessee’s third- through eighth-graders scored below proficient on math and reading this spring, according to state test results released last week. Fewer than half of high school students taking the Algebra II and English III exams were at grade level.

The state’s struggling academic performance isn’t new. In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee an F in “truth in advertising” concerning student proficiency, accusing the state of puffing up test scores and leading parents and the public to believe students were performing better than they actually were compared to other students across the country.

The report was a “cold slap in the face,” said Jamie Woodson, a state senator at the time and now president of the State Collaborative on Education Reform. SCORE has worked in tandem with the administration on changes to the state’s education system, like new teacher evaluations.

The result of the study was learning of a “huge disconnect between our expectations and the realities Tennessee students would face,” she said. The state then began to embark on reforms to realign itself, followed by working with a network of 15 other states evaluating standards. Some of the Tennessee-grown ideas were later plugged into the Common Core initiative, which was launched in 2008 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

By 2010, the state officially adopted the standards as its own, four months after officially winning $500 million from the U.S. Department of Education for embracing ideas dedicated to education reform, including Common Core.

There had been little debate in Tennessee over the intent or thrust of the new initiatives, but that changed in the past few months when people critical of the standards began bringing concerns to legislators and public forums.

Despite the pressures of the next legislative session falling on an election year, Woodson said she’s confident lawmakers won’t be swayed as voters ratchet up pressure on the standards, and by extension, their legislators.

“You’ve got very strong, thoughtful folks saying, ‘It’s very important for students to have the critical thinking skills and they’ll be able to be successful,’ ” she said of her former peers in the legislature. “Ultimately what will be most helpful is — whether it’s policy makers or parents — is that they have accurate information.”

The Senate Education Committee is planning a legislative hearing on the Common Core standards by the fall, a meeting that could hint at whether lawmakers are willing to take on the administration and push back on pieces or the whole idea of the Common Core.

That push might not just be from the Republican side of the aisle, said Stewart, although it may start there.

Critics on the conservative right have begun assembling, lobbying lawmakers, drafting legislation, even setting up booths at county fairs to hand out information.

If the fight comes to blows, Common Core could pin conservative Republicans against the legislative leadership that aligns itself closely with the governor and his administration, who is holding firm on the standards.

Two-thirds of the legislature is made up of Republicans, many of them swept into their seats by grassroots tea party support, all too aware the 2014 election is right around the corner.

“We are developing an army, and we have over 700 people on it now who can mobilize when we need to put pressure on our legislators,” said Katherine Hudgins, a chief organizer for Tennessee Against Common Core and a political activist for the 9/12 Project and an officer with the Rutherford County Tea Party. “We will join forces with anybody of any stripe that has the same political concern.”

That’s where the plot thickens, according to Stewart, a Democrat with serious concerns over Common Core. The topic can drive people of various political persuasions together and give political heft to an effort challenging any aspect of the new standards instead of making it an intra-party squabble.

Stewart has different reasons for picking a fight with Common Core, though.

“I worry that Common Core is yet the latest untested program forced upon the state from the Department of Education,” he said. “We should be very skeptical of education ‘reforms’ put forward by this commissioner,” he added, capitalizing on discord among teachers frustrated with Huffman’s move to restructure minimum teacher pay scales.

Stewart is also concerned there’s already too many standardized tests for students to take, a topic that parents and school board members echo.

That includes Jill Speering, a member of the Metro Nashville school board and a critic of the volume of “high-stakes” testing she argues fails to drive learning. With new tests to evaluate students under Common Core coming down the pike, she’s considering bringing a resolution next week to put the board on the record on the issue.

And aside from teachers having to juggle learning new Common Core expectations while preparing students for the last year’s testing under the old standards, high-quality teachers so far “seem to be impressed” with what they know about the program, she said.

But not all.

While various associations representing teachers, educators, reformers and the like have come out backing Common Core in light of the criticism, the rest of teachers are showing up late to the conversation and having to play catch-up and decide what role they want to play in a public policy showdown, said Jeanne Clements, a test prep specialist in New Jersey focusing on Common Core.

“Classroom teachers weren’t paying attention,” she said. “They don’t have time to really follow all of this. They were concentrating on how to get my kids to pass this year to go into the next grade level. Administrators were in the same boat, too. ... Your state tests, everybody was concentrating more on that than looking to the future.”

9 Comments on this post:

By: pswindle on 7/8/13 at 10:51

If Haslam ane Hauffman are for it, get rid of it. They are both failures. Did you read about Haslam and the Flying J in this morning's paper. He sure pulled one over on TN.

By: joanjoan4211 on 7/8/13 at 8:45

Common Core usurps parents voice in education. Invasive data mining, over the top assessments, mediocre and untested. Its simply another power grab by the Obama Administration for the education of America's next generation. After dictating curriculum by defining the standards the noose is closed by the PARCC and College Board assessments which schools teach to to attain the highest student test scores that they are so covetous for. Communities don't decide what they want their children to learn, Bill Gates and David Coleman (College Board) do. They are not exactly educators. Kevin Huffman is simply a DC educrat with the Common Core political agenda. His own daughter attends a non-common core Harpeth Hall.

By: pswindle on 7/8/13 at 9:55

I will just say that Haslam and Hauffman are against anything that President Obama is for. Hauffman's ex-wife Rhee is for this and she was fired from the Washington DC School System for her radical approach to education.

By: boyzmom on 7/9/13 at 6:31

And the Rhee-Huffman daughters attend a prestigious private school rather than the public schools. Huffman has got to be the most unqualified Commissioner of Education our state has ever had, and don't get me started on Ms. Rhee!

By: ChrisMoth on 7/9/13 at 9:47

Before anyone says a word about Common Core, I urge you to read the standards first. Here they are again.

We can continue to bicker about why whether TN is 43rd, 48th, or 45th. Or, we can step up to the plate and try to catch up to Massachusetts. Before we can hope to do the latter, we need to embrace their curriculum - through common core - which is, in many respects, two years ahead of our old curriculum.

I've read through the standards on several occasions, and will do it again shortly. I am still working on some of them, personally... and was probably only at 75% at age 35.

One little point of particular personal enjoyment is the treatment of simple connection of the Pythagorean theorem to Euclidean distance measurement in the math standards. Read that discussion. Did all your teachers make that connection when you were growing up? It is so simple - but I recall no teachers at my alma mata ever making that critical, simple, conceptual link.

Whatever you do, don't base your opinion on Common Core on my opinion, the opnion of Fox News, or the New York Timest. This is America - and "we" are the government, folks. READ THEM for yourself! :)

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: ancienthighway on 7/9/13 at 10:47

One thing that always amazed me is how often certain people go out and buy or lease new cars. In the Overland Park, Kansas neighborhood I lived in, Three of the six families had a new car in their garage every one or two years. Two families didn't have cars older than four years. I had one car that was 20 years old and another that was 15 years old. Both worked perfectly fine.

The way this state buys into new education ideas and testing to measure education reminds me a lot of my former neighbors. Last year's model isn't sexy enough. What they adopted last year didn't produce the miraculous results promised in one year and so it was discarded. Unlike my former neighbor who got some relief from the cost of a new car every year or two, the state gets no money back.

We will never know if the initiatives the state bough into five years ago were good ones because the state abandoned those four years ago. What we can do is continuously change the way we teach to locate the perfect measure of "incompetent" teachers that have no time to teach while administering enumerable tests.

By: wyley2 on 7/9/13 at 11:26

The problem isn't that they are standardizing curriculum, it's how they are attempting to teach it. Just because you want young children to be able to make fantastic leaps in analytical thinking doesn't mean that they can do it without having been taught a solid base to be able do draw on when needed.

Here are some some other articles to read.

By: pswindle on 7/9/13 at 11:35

Common Core is good within itself, but tying everything to test scores is not the true way to prove that the child is learning. Every class room is not equal. To get a fair reading, each child has to be evaluated on ability and learning, and not lumped together, but based on individual scores. Most students progress, but enough will not that will bottom out any gains that have been made. Hauffman and Haslam does not know enough about education to know the difference.

By: joanjoan4211 on 7/10/13 at 10:22

Common Core is not good within itself. It is mediocre at best. What Rocket Scientist decided education should be one size fits all? And what jerk decided to set up a system that no one is responsible for and no one can revise after it has been test driven on our kids and we find all of the start-up flaws in it.

How about instead of reading the standards, we read the model curriculums that the feds paid PARCC to produce to back up their assessment tests? You think the teachers want to teach any other curriculum than the one produced by the organization who is making the assessment tests? The same assessment tests that will effect their salaries? Oh wait a minute, doesn't it break 3 federal laws for the federal government to exercise any kind of direction over curriculum in the states? Why yes it does. But Im sure we can trust the feds to look out what's best for us right?

Common Core stinks. If there is anything good about it, then as Tennesseans we should be able to take the good and not be beholden to the bad. Why sell out our control over our kids education for one federal carrot of $502 million when Tennesseans spend $16 BILLION a year? I'll choose self-governance over big brother every time.