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Who controls standards? Who controls curriculum? Tennessee lawmakers seek clarity

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

Controversy over the Common Core State Standards in Tennessee has largely abated now that the State Board of Education is in the process of adopting new homegrown standards for math and English.

Now lawmakers are ensuring that confusion that often was at the core of objections to Common Core is cleared up in the future: the difference between standards and curriculum, and who controls what.

On Tuesday, the House Finance Committee passed a bill specifying that the state sets academic standards, while local districts control curriculum to teach to the standards. The bill already has been approved by the Senate.

“We’ve long said that standards are a matter to be set at the state level, and curriculum is exclusively at the local level,” said Nathan James, director of legislative affairs for the State Board. “This is a cleanup. There is actually nothing new happening as a result of this bill. It’s just making it crystal clear.”

“Standards are what you should know at a particular point in time, while curriculum is how a course is structured and what is going to be taught,” he explained to lawmakers. “And those are entirely for the LEA (local education agency) to decide.”

Although James said the State Board is happy for the clarification, the bill was written by Sen. Delores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville — not state education officials. Rep. Sheila Butt sponsored the bill in the House.

Specifically, the proposal would edit several statutes pertaining to education to make the differentiation between “standards” and “curriculum” more clear. It turns out that even policymakers in the legislature have confused standards with curricula in the past.

“Throughout the code, there were places that it actually said the State Board of Education sets the curriculum, which they do not,” Butt said.

After the state adopted Common Core in 2010, several parents and advocacy groups became concerned that the state, and even the federal government, were taking too much control over what students learned in the classroom. While that was only one of many concerns about Common Core — other parents and experts argued that they were vague or developmentally inappropriate — it was the concern most often cited in legislative debates over the standards.

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