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.”