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Uninformed perceptions of Common Core among Tennessee politicians and public

The Common Core State Standards Initiative provides information about the standards and the state adoption process.
Whitney Schmidt

This week, bills HB2332 and HB1825 to postpone further implementation of Common Core and to end it altogether failed in the 108th General Assembly of the Tennessee State Legislature as of house votes held on Tuesday, March 18, but what lingers is confusion among public opinion and understanding of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the broad scope of public education policy issues that surround them. Daily news reports on education in Tennessee and across the nation announce piecemeal bits of misleading information about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Few news accounts provide feedback from teachers, students, and administrators who work with these standards in the classroom on a daily basis; nor do many news sources differentiate between the standards (like CCSS) and the assessments (like TCAP and PARCC), and with news accounts like Tensions Mount Over Common Core As Tennessee Senators Pass Bill To Target “Data Mining” and East TN reacts to vote to delay Common Core about a recent bill proposal to halt the implementation of these standards for the subjects of science and social studies, the general public is left uninformed about exactly what it is about the new standards that makes them so bad – or good for that matter, where to look or listen to become informed, why these new standards have been adopted in the first place, or how the current implementation has affected Tennessee schools so far.

The Common Core State Standards have been officially adopted by public schools in “forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA),” and they were adopted by Tennessee on July 30, 2010. According to WBIR reporter John Henry, Tennessee Representative Gloria Johnson “voted for the bill [to delay CCSS implementation in science and social studies] with the belief more time was needed to implement some of its standards.” On the other hand, Knox County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre described the bill as “disappointing” and “unfortunate,” and stated, “What we've done in the State of Tennessee is put in place higher standards, more rigorous expectations for our kids, and it seems that there's some effort afoot to try and move backward on that." As is often the case with speakers in the news about CCSS, these words from Johnson and McIntyre are open to wide interpretation from the audience without deeper explanations of what they mean.

Why is “more time needed to implement” these standards, as indicated by Johnson? School systems across the state, including Knox County and surrounding systems, have already been training their teachers on the key instructional shifts that take place with the shift from teaching the former Tennessee state curriculum standards to the Common Core State Standards. For example, during the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years, teachers in Oak Ridge Schools examined these shifts along with the common essentials between the former Tennessee curriculum and the CCSS to begin reorganizing curriculum design within each subject area and grade level in preparation for the full shift to Common Core this year. Like Oak Ridge Schools, other districts in East Tennessee are not making the shift one subject area at a time. This change is a unified effort, which is important because the subject areas support each other. For example, in terms of CCSS literacy standards and according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, “with the ELA standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary nonfiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas,” so all content area teachers, even history and science teachers, are focusing on supporting reading and writing skills within the context of their respective subject areas. Although schools are taking steps to implement CCSS in instructional design across grade levels and subject areas, a hiccup in the process lies in assessment because the state of Tennessee is still split in that various groups of students will be tested using different assessments according to the grade and subject they are taking, including the TCAP, End of Course Tests, and PARCC when the new PARCC assessment begins because it is not scheduled to begin for all grade levels and subjects at the same time, which means that there will be some variance in data collection and scoring, and even now without the PARCC test, teachers are designing instruction based on CCSS when they know all the while that their students will be tested by assessments based on the old state standards. When Johnson talks of needing more time, she may also be referring to implementing the assessment of CCSS, which is a separate challenge in itself.

In terms of McIntyre’s statement, in what way is it evident that anyone is trying to “move backward on” the placement of “higher standards [and] more rigorous expectations” for students? At any rate, these failed bills seemed to be geared toward protecting the status quo due to unknown variables because both politicians and the general public need to be educated on the benefits of implementing CCSS – especially in light of why they were initially adopted. There are websites like those provided by the Common Core State Standards Initiative and TNCORE dedicated to this endeavor.

In addition to information about the standards themselves, the effects of these standards in practice would be an important data set to provide in making informed decisions about public education policy. Of the mass of news about CCSS, few are the stories that report teacher, student, and administrator feedback of how the standards affect student learning and day-to-day practice in the classroom. Feedback from teachers like Oak Ridge High School English teacher Dianna Williams who shares, “Common Core allows so much more freedom than ever before, without the pressure to steamroll through literature,” and Powell High School English teacher Jenny Jordan who states, “I fully support Common Core,” is critical because these teachers are informed, educated stakeholders in public education and on the front lines who understand the effects of CCSS on those who matter most, their students.

When it comes to Common Core in the news, along with omitting feedback from the people who are most affected and work most closely with the standards, news sources also seem to lump other issues in with Common Core so that they seem to be the same issue altogether. The aforementioned data mining article about the data mining bill that was passed in the Senate on Monday had Common Core in the title when the bill was actually about concerns over how state governments use student data from state tests. Teacher Dianna Williams also voices her concern that “the general population thinks that [Common Core] is [the PARCC assessment] and the news media does not seek to educate.” In other words, PARCC is a test that the state of Tennessee plans to use next year to assess student learning and skills according to the measures set forth in the Common Core State Standards, but the standards are not the test. The CCSS are a guide for what states expect students to know and be able to do at the end of each grade level. Therefore, the article about data mining should have referred to PARCC in the title, not CCSS. Regardless of the standards in place, states like Tennessee can find a way to assess student learning by using tests like PARCC or TCAP.

If, after researching the CCSS and hearing feedback from teachers like Williams and Jordan who support CCSS, someone were to determine that the standards are acceptable, then the next steps in uncovering where all the frustration and controversy in Tennessee public education is stemming from might be to investigate student assessment practices (which include PARCC, EOC, and TCAP) and teacher evaluation systems.

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