Common Core Hearings Commence

The Tennessee Senate Education Committee held its first day of hearings Thursday on the controversial new nationwide Common Core Standards reform initiative.

Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, a Somerville Republican, said her aim with the hearings is to sort through the worries people of various ideological perspectives have been increasingly expressing about Common Core, which was conceived in 2009 by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“Over the course of the last several months, many legitimate concerns have been raised about the Common Core State Standards, and many have arisen to praise the standards,” Gresham said. “More than this, the level of trust of Tennessee citizens in their federal government is at an all-time low. Around the world people are concerned with the amount of data the federal government is tracking, and the concerns about the data being collected on our children are at an all-time high. The process which led the State Board of Education to adopt the standards, as well as their exact content must be examined, and reexamined.”

Gresham characterized the Education Committee’s effort as “a fact-finding hearing.” Discussion of the standards is intended “to enlighten our understanding, not provoke animosity,” she said.

Common Core Standards have been both hailed as the next big thing in education reform as well as criticized on both the left and right.

Conservative detractors of Common Core grumble that it constitutes yet another example of improper federal interference in state affairs. They complain that the Obama administration has essentially mandated that states adopt the “voluntary” Common Core standards by making adherence to the them a requirement for federal education grants, as well as issuance of No-Child-Left-Behind waivers.

Some liberals grouse that the standards seem too complex and difficult, and that there’s no certainty they’re going to do anything to improve public-school learning environments.

Common Core State Standards are intended to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them,” according to the initiative’s mission statement on its website. The standards have been created “to be robust and relevant to the real world,” and to reflect “the knowledge and skills” needed for success in further education and careers, the statement continues.

To Gov. Bill Haslam, who is a strong supporter of Common Core, its about “about setting the standards” for what children should know by a certain grade, regardless of geographic location.

“I think Common Core is about helping everybody understand, ‘Ok, here’s what a fifth grader should know in math skills, or here’s what an eighth grader should know in reading comprehension.’ So, for that reason we think it’s really important,” Haslam told reporters after reading to kids as part of his “Imagination Library Week.” Thursday morning at the Wayne Reed Christian Childcare Center.

The first day of the Senate Education Committee hearings went by with little in the way of debate or denunciation. Thursday’s meeting consisted of opening remarks, rules for the hearing and a reading through of the standards, with questions from committee members.

Day two, Friday, is scheduled for testimonies on various aspects of the standards — such as cost, data and assessments, as well as personal perspectives and views on the standards themselves – by members of the Tennessee Department of Education, educators and various other individuals and organizations.

The Common Core Standards, which fall into two broad categories of Math and English Language Arts, were read almost in their entirety at the hearing, and the committee members piped in with questions over the course of the reading.

The questions asked by committee members ranged from when students would learn to use calculators and keyboards to whether students would be required to learn calculus or read and write cursive. Reoccurring questions cropped up around the differences between the new standards and those previously in place.

An explanation of the differences between Common Core and the state’s previous set of educational standards was initially requested by State Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.

The Common Core Standards change the structure of Tennessee’s education standards by reducing the number of criteria which had to be met under the Tennessee Diploma Project, while raising the standards of the criteria that must be met, explained Emily Barton, the assistant commissioner for curriculum and instruction.

Additionally, the issue of whether or not the standards provide any kind of guidelines as far as curriculum and appropriate text materials for the various grades arose on several occasions.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, asked Barton if the selection of reading materials and curriculum would be left entirely to local education agencies, with no state oversight.

“You might have somebody in Bradley County decide to use…Gone with the Wind, and somebody in Hamilton County decide, well, we need to look at a collection of Playboy magazines,” Gardenhire suggested. “Is there a criteria for value that the state has?”

State law requires that local school boards adopt the textbooks that will be used in their community’s schools, Barton explained.

“The selection of textbooks is not the same as the standards themselves, but I will happily answer that the statute of the state places ultimate selection authority of textbooks in the local community,” Barton said.

The Senate Education Committee will be holding hearings sometime this fall to review the state’s textbook selection process, Gresham added.

The second portion of the hearings is scheduled to begin 9 AM, Friday.