Tennessee schools instrumental in shaping Common Core

Rick Wagner • Jun 18, 2013 at 2:09 PM

KINGSPORT — Local school systems along with those across Tennessee are headed toward implementation of Common Core standards for math and English/language arts in 2014-15.

Education officials from the state commission down to the local level say it’s important to keep in mind what Common Core isn’t as much as what Common Core is.

It is a set of academic standards, adopted by 45 states. It is not a curriculum, which is still left to the state and local education systems.

“Standards are not curriculum,” Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman said during an April 25 “brown bag” on education webinar the Department of Education held from Nashville.

In other words, he said the Common Core standards are what students are supposed to know. It’s up to the state and local systems to make sure the students know it through curriculum.

There is “still significant local freedom and autonomy as to how you get from here to here,” Huffman said.

“The curriculum of Sullivan County always has and always will be designed by the teachers and administrators of Sullivan County,” Sullivan County Assistant Director of Schools David Timbs recently said at a Sullivan County Board of Education meeting. “Local control is one of the most important key elements.”

However, Kingsport Superintendent of Schools Lyle Ailshie said the standards will drive the curriculum.

Kingsport Assistant Superintendent Dory Creech said the standards are robust and relevant for college- and career-readiness on the national and global level.

Creech said one of her favorite ways of characterizing the program came from a Brentwood educator, who said it was raising the floor on standards, not the ceiling.

In math, for instance, Creech said current standards in Tennessee could be described as a “mile wide but inch deep,” while the new standards are more narrow and deep, with a focus on specific standards at each grade level.

And in English/language arts, Creech said that the push over the K-8 standards is for more nonfiction — roughly a 50-50 split across the elementary and middle school years. In addition, she said reading, writing and speaking is geared toward literacy and informational, as well as having regular practice with complex text and academic language.

Standards are organized, year by year, in grades K-8, 9-10 and 11-12.

Creech said advantages she sees to Common Core are opportunities for collaboration among teachers and districts across the country, common resources and potential curriculums that can be shared and reviewed and a common benchmark so student performance in Tennessee can be measured against that in the other 44 states and the District of Columbia.

Creech said one challenge for teachers is that they face trying to prepare for the Common Core standards while also keeping up with the TCAP tests, since TCAP results in grades 3-8 will be part of the teacher evaluation and student grades until 2014-15.

The Common Core also is something Tennessee helped develop, not standards suddenly thrust upon the state, officials said.

“Tennessee helped develop Common Core,” Jamie Woodson, president and chief executive officer of SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education), said during the webinar.

In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee an “F” for truth in advertising for its education testing, and in ensuing years state officials were involved in what in 2009 became the Common Core, with implementation beginning in 2011-12 and the first testing in 2014-15.

The Expect More Achieve More Coalition has formed to support the higher standards, featuring support from the business community, including Eastman Chemical Co. and chambers of commerce.

Unlike other states and even other parts of Tennessee, Timbs, Creech and Ailshie said that local opposition and questioning of the Common Core has been all but nonexistent.

Common Core coaches are being trained to help systems across the state implement the changes.

Huffman said he’s not sure why questions about Common Core have erupted now other than it is getting close to the implementation of the PARCC testing. Tennessee committed to Common Core more than three years ago and was involved in developing the standards five years ago, he said.

In the South and Southeast, the closest states not participating in Common Core are neighboring Virginia and Texas.

The standards for grades 3-8 in math and English/language in Tennessee and 22 of the other Common Core states will be measured by the PARCC or Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers.

PARCC tests, already given to students in the equivalent of a beta test, are not traditional multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests. Instead, they are online tests more directly engaging the student.

Scott Langford, assistant principal at White House Middle School and a member of Tennessee’s Common Core Leadership Council, said in the webinar that the Common Core and PARCC are all about applying conceptual understandings in real-world settings.

He said grades K-2 already have adopted Common Core standards, while higher grades have implemented Common Core standards this year and English/language arts standards were piloted.

As for concerns about technology and computer availability for the online PARCC, Langford said things have gone well in pilot testing.

The PARCC exams will be given in the February-March and April-May time frames, the latter the traditional TCAP time frame.

In addition, special needs populations and English language learners have done well in the pilots, Langford said, because the computerized testing includes verbal instructions for those two groups, if needed.

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