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State Easing Into New ‘Common Core’ Curriculum

The endgame is to ensure that the state produces students who are both college ready and have the skills needed to enter the workforce, said one state education official.

State officials are beginning to phase in changes to Tennessee’s public education curriculum to include more analytical thinking and, officials hope, less teaching to the test.

The state is training 12,000 classroom instructors this summer how to teach math principles under the new “common core” curriculum in grades three through eight, a system Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says will better ready Tennessee’s youth for college and the work force.

“Ironically, the schools that have the best test score gains, they’re not teaching to the test,” said Huffman.

“They’re teaching really rich, complex critical thinking lessons that incorporate the skills. They’re the ones who are getting the most gains. But we need to move everyone over in that direction,” he told reporters at the John Seigenthaler Center in Nashville during a half-day workshop about the goals of the “common core,” hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

The endgame, he said, is to ensure that the state produces students who are both college ready and have the skills needed to enter the workforce.

Common core standards were were born out of a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. To date, 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, which focus on English, reading, math and science. Tennessee officials expect to fully implement the new standards for English language arts and math for all grades by the 2013-14 school year.

According to 2011 ACT data, 15 percent of graduating Tennessee students were academically ready in all four core subjects to enter college, compared to 25 percent nationally. About half first-time college students needed some type of remedial education at two-year institutions, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Improvements in education will directly help businesses looking to hire local talent, said Scott Niswonger, founder and CEO of Landair Transport Inc., a Greeneville-based logistics company.

Practical wisdom and critical thinking that comes with a thorough understanding of the four core subjects will ensure graduates have the skills to better think through problems and “hit the ground running and understand things that are important to us,” he told attendees during a panel discussion on why the new teaching strategy is important.

“If I can get $2.20 to get to New York or $1.70 to go to Chicago, which would you take?” said Niswonger, who said the company’s workers have to consider factors like the distance, time, tolls and return costs.

“I would say it all depends on where you’re buying your fuel,” quipped Gov. Bill Haslam, who moderated the discussion and whose family owns the Pilot Corp. chain of truck stops.

As the state shifts towards focusing on the new standards, Haslam says his administration is looking across the state for best practices in encouraging parental involvement in their children’s education — a link he says ultimately translates in better student performance.

“The secret sauce that everybody would like to discover is how do we get parents better engaged,” said Haslam. “We’re looking at a variety of things across the state. I’d like to tell you we found the magic formula, but I think a lot of that is personal engagement, and I think our great principals and great teachers are finding a way to do that.”

This year, Haslam has said he will likely sign a bill, HB2994, that would ask parents across the state to voluntarily sign a contract saying they will review their child’s homework, attend school functions and teacher conferences. As part of a pilot program, parents of kindergartners through third graders at two Memphis elementary schools — Corning Elementary and Frayser Elementary — would be asked to grade their own parental involvement, under the bill.

Feature photo by Itzel Gonzalez. 

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