Haslam Administration’s Academic Standards Review Run by Common Core Advocates

Gov. Bill Haslam has promised a “full vetting” of Common Core, and this week he announced that a process for undertaking that exercise had been established by his administration.

A press release issued by the Haslam administration outlined a multifaceted “public review of the state’s K-12 academic standards in English language arts and math.”

But the group of people the governor has designated to supervise the vetting process doesn’t appear to include many Common Core critics. However, the list of instructional experts, teachers and local education officials who’ll handle the review does include several who are supporters or have played roles in Tennessee setting in motion the controversial academic-performance measurements.

Common Core was designed in 2009 through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers for the purpose of encouraging interstate uniformity in education priorities.

“Academic standards are typically reviewed in Tennessee every six years,” according to the Haslam administration press release issued Wednesday. “With these standards now in their fourth year, and with the discussion happening in Tennessee and across the country about Common Core state standards, Haslam believes this is the appropriate time to take a fresh look.”

The release quoted Haslam as saying, “This discussion is about making sure we have the best possible standards as we continue to push ahead on the historic progress we’re making in academic achievement.”

Of the six committee chairs and advisory team leaders the Haslam administration named to “gather input to make recommendations” and “propose possible changes to the State Board of Education,” four have connections to the Common Core implementation efforts:

One of the committee members, Susan Groenke, a University of Tennessee associate professor in English, has made published statements indicating she’s in the past been concerned about the pace of Common Core standards implementation. Groenke hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of this story’s posting.

Whether the appointees hold opinions for or against Common Core “wasn’t a criteria we considered,” said Ashley Ball, a Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman. “We provided names to the (State Board of Education) based on both geographic representation and content expertise.”

State Board’s ‘Appointments’ Were Actually Made by Haslam Administration

The administration’s press release indicated that the governor “asked the State Board of Education to appoint” the committees and advisory teams.

But Dr. Gary Nixon, the executive director of the State Board of Education, described the appointment process as driven more by the administration than as an independent effort by the 9-member board.

Nixon told TNReport that he and Fielding Rolston, chairman of the board, were asked to review a list of 40 or so names sent to them by the Tennessee Department of Education. Nixon said they did, and then “gave it the go-ahead.” There was no formal vote taken by the board on the matter.

“We reviewed the process,” Nixon said. “We looked at the appropriateness from the three Grand Divisions, and different grade levels, large and small schools, rural and urban schools. So we’ve got a good representation of all of the mixes that are out there in the school systems and the schools across the state.”

More Common Core Ties in Common

Also as part of the process of review, the administration plans to launch a website to take public input on Common Core. The as-yet-unveiled website is billed by the Haslam administration as a place where Tennesseans can go to “review each current state standard and comment on what that person likes, doesn’t like, or would suggest should be changed about that particular standard.”

An Atlanta-based nonprofit organization, the Southern Regional Education Board, “will collect the data in the Spring and then turn that information over to be reviewed and analyzed by professional Tennessee educators.” The administration press release described SREB as a “a third party, independent resource.”

The Southern Regional Education Board was, according to its website, founded in 1948 and serves 16 member states including Tennessee. The organization describes itself as committed to “improving quality of life by advancing public education.”

SREB’s list of financial supporters is made up of private and public funding sources, including the U.S. Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Pearson Foundation. Bill Gates is one of the country’s foremost and influential proponents of Common Core.

The Pearson Foundation is the nonprofit wing of a worldwide education materials publisher, Pearson, Inc., which sells Common Core-approved textbooks and training manuals. Last year Pearson paid a $7.7 million settlement to the New York State attorney general because it was found to have earned considerable financial benefits from the nonprofit foundation’s promotion of the Common Core products that the for-profit wing was selling.

The Haslam administration indicated it has no worries that SREB’s independence on Common Core matters might be called into question as a result of the pro-Common Core advocacy and financial interests of some of its funders.

“(Tennessee) has a 20-plus year history with SREB, and any organization like it is going to receive funding and grants from educational foundations,” a spokesman for Haslam said in an email to TNReport.

However, SREB has been involved itself in encouraging Common Core implementation efforts throughout the states it serves. A report released last winter, due to be updated soon, outlines progress 15 different states are making toward putting Common Core into effect. Tennessee, the report stated, was considered to be “partially aligned” with Common Core — meaning that it had “modified…state assessments in some way to align them more closely to the Common Core.”

The report noted that all the states it looked at were “working to foster the use of high-quality instructional resources and materials aligned to the Common Core.” Tennessee’s effort in that respect was said to be “strong.”

SREB’s report indicated that one of the obstacles to full and successful implementation of Common Core in the states it examined has been that oftentimes “educators and the public are still confused about what the new standards really mean: What are the specific changes that teachers and students should be experiencing?”

“This confusion frustrates educators in their efforts to implement the standards and evaluation systems with fidelity,” the report continued. “State board members, governors’ staff and others noted that a lack of effective messaging about what the standards are and why they are valuable has hampered reform.”

What’s also needed is “steady, long-term funding and policy support for (states’) efforts to foster successful implementation of the new standards and related initiatives,” the report concluded.

After TNReport left a phone message with SREB, a spokeswoman wrote in an email that the organization “will serve as an independent, nonpartisan advisor on the process,” and details about its role in Tennessee’s standards review will be released next week.

Resistance to Common Core has been mounting over the past year among Tennessee GOP lawmakers, particularly in the state House of Representatives. Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga have indicated an interest in scrapping Common Core in favor of the state developing high-quality standards of its own design. Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin made the cause of thwarting Common Core a central pillar of his primary campaign this year, which he won over a local school board official who supported the national standards package.

The governor’s proposed timeline calls for the committee recommendations to be made to the State Board of Education at the end of 2015.