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The Common Core standards for high school math adorn the walls of Christi Root's classroom at Monterey High School in Putnam County.

The Common Core standards for high school math adorn the walls of Christi Root’s classroom at Monterey High School in Putnam County.

G. Tatter

Educators, not politicians, take the reins in developing Tennessee’s new academic standards

Though Tennessee’s review of the Common Core State Standards was borne out of fiery rhetoric and political maneuvering, the newest panel of reviewers in the process are quietly focusing on small changes to the once-controversial standards.

Members of the Academic Standards Recommendation Committee hope the revisions, which were proposed by a panel 42 educators appointed by the State Board of Education, will make the standards more developmentally appropriate for students and easier for educators to understand and teach.

The committee, which convened its second meeting Tuesday in Nashville, is scrutinizing the work of the revision panel of educators who spent the past four months culling through public feedback on the Common Core and revising and rewriting standards as needed. The public input was collected during a six-month online review open to all Tennessee residents and completed in April.

“This is an exciting time,” said Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of Kingsport City Schools and a member of the recommendation committee, whose members were appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell. “It just really makes you proud that this kind of work is being done by educators across the state.”

That sentiment is in stark contrast to the political furor only a year ago over the Common Core, a set of K-12 academic standards in math and English language arts that set out what students should know and be able to do. Billed as a move to higher expectations, tougher tests and significant instructional shifts in the classroom, they were adopted in Tennessee in 2010 and implemented beginning in 2012. However, a political backlash erupted over charges of nationalized education reform at the expense of homegrown values and input. The hullabaloo led to the current multi-layered standards review process, including the work of the Standards Recommendation Committee, created under a bill approved by the legislature earlier this year.

The committee heard Tuesday from several educators who helped revise the standards over the summer, including Joseph Jones, math coordinator for Cheatham County Schools. He said it helped that most participants in the first period of public review last winter and spring wanted to keep most of the standards.

“That just told me that our initial thinking was right in that the standards were pretty good,” Jones said. “It wasn’t like we were starting from ground zero.”

All of the members of the newest committee are educators, like the teachers who did most of the heavy lifting in revisions.

There was no dissension during the first part of Tuesday’s meeting, which focused on the modified version of the English standards. The educator-reviewers kept most of the writing standards, even ones that had been considered too challenging for their grade level, but added new standards to help support teachers and students.

They also added standards related to literacy, a competency that has befuddled educators across Tennessee because the state’s poor reading scores for grades 3-8 haven’t budged in recent years. And they rephrased standards to make them more understandable. For example, for standards that included suggestions of what materials teachers could use to teach the standard, the reviewers removed the examples.

“Let’s focus on the skill and the point,” said Susan Groenke, a professor of English education at the University of Tennessee, who helped revise the English standards. “We don’t want to tell teachers what literature to teach.”

Though the recommendation committee members and educator-reviewers all called upon their own classroom experiences, they were quick to refer to the public feedback, considered key to the review process.

Allowing the public to be involved will mitigate mistrust that surrounded the Common Core, said Sharen Cypress, dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Freed-Hardeman University and a member of the Standards Recommendation Committee selected by Haslam.

“When people lack knowledge or information about what students are learning, they fear it,” she said. “There will be no problem implementing these standards.”

The educators’ revisions went online on Tuesday and will be open for another round of public comment for one month. Then, the 12-member Standards Recommendation Committee will consider the second round of public feedback before sending its recommendations to the State Board of Education about what the final standards should look like.

In addition to feedback from the public, the committee will receive a report on the standards from higher education officials in the next month. The proposed version of the standards will be previewed at public meetings across Tennessee.

While the review process was designed to be transparent, it has so many layers that stakeholders might need a map to keep up.

The process began last fall when the governor ordered the public review of the standards amid growing calls for repeal of the Common Core, a lynchpin of Tennessee’s education overhaul that began when the state threw its hat in the ring for the federal Race to the Top competition, and the money that went with it.

While Ramsay had predicted that Common Core would not survive during the last legislative session, it did. Through a compromise pounded out, at least in part through the work of Americans for Prosperity, a well-funded conservative advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., the legislature opted instead to insert an additional layer into the governor’s standards review process by creating the Academic Standards Recommendation Committee.

The committee was a concession to both Common Core supporters, who believed the standards were a rigorous improvement on the benchmarks used before 2010, and its ardent detractors, who viewed the standards as federal overreach. The compromise specified that Common Core be “reviewed and replaced,” a directive previously avoided by Haslam but championed by Common Core opponents, including Ramsey.