Press Releases

TOSS: 114 School Superintendents, District Directors Oppose Changing Standards in Current Legislative Session

Press release from the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents; February 10, 2015:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) today released a letter to all members of the General Assembly signed by 114 Tennessee superintendents and school district directors who are asking lawmakers not to change the state’s academic standards during this legislative session.

The leaders who signed the letter represent school districts that are educating more than 850,000 students, or nearly 86 percent of public school students in Tennessee. The letter points out that in the past seven years Tennessee’s K-12 education system has undergone significant changes that have led to unprecedented progress in the quality of education that students receive. Another major change will occur in the spring of 2016, when TNready, a new statewide assessment aligned to Tennessee’s State Standards, is introduced.

“This work is paying off,” said TOSS Board Chairman Randy Frazier, Director of Weakley County Schools. “Tennessee has received national attention for historic gains in student achievement. That’s why we say to the General Assembly, please do not derail this momentum. We are asking the members to make no adjustments to Tennessee’s State Standards before we have the results of the public review process set up by the Governor and the State Board of Education. We also are asking that the implementation of TNready be allowed to proceed with no delays.”

The public review process allows Tennessee residents to review each standard for math and English language arts, to recommend whether the standard should be retained or changed, and to explain why.

“There has been unprecedented participation in the review process, especially by Tennessee teachers,” the TOSS letter says. “We ask that their input be valued and that we move forward with efforts to improve and enhance our current standards and truly make them our own, while also giving educators and students the stability they desire and deserve.”

“The superintendents who signed these letters believe the input from those closest to the classroom should be valued and more of it should be gathered through the online review,” Kingsport City Schools Superintendent Dr. Lyle Ailshie said. “We also believe that our teachers, principals, and students deserve some much-needed stability. For those reasons, we urge the General Assembly to allow the review to continue and to refrain from passing legislation this year that disrupts standards or assessment.”

TOSS represents the state’s superintendents and directors of schools and is the leading advocate organization for public education in the state of Tennessee. The TOSS mission encompasses advancing public education, promoting the work and interest of the superintendency, gathering and circulating information on general school matters, and providing pertinent information on sound education legislation to the General Assembly. TOSS also proposes and analyzes legislation that impacts local school systems.

These school district leaders signed the letter to the General Assembly:

  • Brian Bell, Alcoa City Schools
  • Larry Foster, Anderson County Schools
  • Robert Greene, Athens City Schools
  • Don Embry, Bedford County Schools
  • Mark Florence, Benton County Schools
  • Jennifer Terry, Bledsoe County Schools
  • Rob Britt, Blount County Schools
  • Dan Black, Bradford Special District
  • Gary Lilly, Bristol City Schools
  • Barbara Parker, Cannon County Schools
  • Johnny McAdams, Carroll County Schools
  • Kevin Ward, Carter County Schools
  • Stan Curtis, Cheatham County Schools
  • Troy Kilzer, Chester County Schools
  • Connie Holdway, Claiborne County Schools
  • B.J. Worthington, Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools
  • Jerry Strong, Clay County Schools
  • Martin Ringstaff, Cleveland City Schools
  • Vicki Violette, Clinton City Schools
  • Manney Moore, Cocke County Schools
  • LaDonna McFall, Coffee County Schools
  • Robert Mullins, Crockett County Schools
  • Donald Andrews, Cumberland County Schools
  • Mike Latham, Dayton City Schools
  • Mark Willoughby, DeKalb County Schools
  • Danny Weeks, Dickson County Schools
  • Dwight L. Hedge, Dyer County Schools
  • Neel Durbin, Dyersburg City Schools
  • Cory Gardenhour, Elizabethton City Schools
  • James Teague, Fayette County Schools
  • Janine Wilson, Fayetteville City Schools
  • Mike Jones, Fentress County Schools
  • Rebecca Sharber, Franklin County Schools
  • David L. Snowden, Franklin Special School District
  • Eddie Pruett, Gibson County Special District
  • J.B. Smith, Giles County Schools
  • Edwin Jarnagin, Grainger County Schools
  • Vicki Kirk, Greene County Schools
  • Linda Stroud, Greeneville City Schools
  • David Dickerson, Grundy County Schools
  • Dale P. Lynch, Hamblen County Schools
  • Rick Smith, Hamilton County Schools
  • Troy Seal, Hancock County Schools
  • WarnerRoss, Hardeman County Schools
  • Michael Davis, Hardin County Schools
  • Steve Starnes, Hawkins County Schools
  • Teresa Russell, Haywood County Schools
  • Steve Wilkinson, Henderson County Schools
  • Sam Miles, Henry County Schools
  • Jerry W. Nash, Hickman County Schools
  • Cathy Harvey, Houston County Schools
  • Versie Ray Hamlett, Humboldt City Schools
  • James L. (Jimmy) Long, Humphreys County Schools
  • Pat Dillahunty, Huntingdon Special District
  • Joe Barlow, Jackson County Schools
  • Verna Ruffin, Jackson-Madison Co. Schools
  • Charles Edmonds, Jefferson County Schools
  • Mischelle Simcox, Johnson County Schools
  • Lyle Ailshie, Kingsport City Schools
  • James McIntyre, Knox County Schools
  • Sherry Darnell, Lake County Schools
  • Shawn Kimble, Lauderdale County Schools
  • Bill Heath, Lawrence County Schools
  • Scott Benson, Lebanon Special District
  • Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City Schools
  • Susan Bunch, Lexington City Schools
  • Wanda Shelton, Lincoln County Schools
  • Jason Vance, Loudon County Schools
  • Mark Griffith, Marion County Schools
  • Mike Winstead, Maryville City Schools
  • Edward (Eddie) Hickman, Maury County Schools
  • Lynn Watkins, McKenzie Special District
  • Mickey Blevins, McMinn County Schools
  • John Prince, McNairy County Schools
  • Don Roberts, Meigs County Schools
  • Jesse Register, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Mary Reel, Milan Special School District
  • Tim Blankenship, Monroe County Schools
  • Chad Moorehead, Moore County Schools
  • Edd Diden, Morgan County Schools
  • Linda Arms Gilbert, Murfreesboro City Schools
  • Steve Thompson, Newport City Schools
  • Bruce Borchers, Oak Ridge City Schools
  • Russ Davis, Obion County Schools
  • Ann Sexton, Oneida Special School District
  • Mike Brown, Paris Special School District
  • Eric Lomax, Perry County Schools
  • Diane Elder, Pickett County Schools
  • Jerry Boyd, Putnam County Schools
  • Jerry Levengood, Rhea County Schools
  • Cindy Blevins, Richard City Special District
  • Gary Aytes, Roane County Schools
  • Mike Davis, Robertson County Schools
  • Rebecca C. Isaacs, Rogersville City Schools
  • Don Odom, Rutherford County Schools
  • Bill Hall, Scott County Schools
  • Johnny G. Cordell, Sequatchie County Schools
  • Jack A. (Jackie) Parton, Sevier County Schools
  • Dorsey Hopson, Shelby Unified County Schools
  • Tony Tucker, South Carroll Special District
  • Jubal Yennie, Sullivan County Schools
  • Beth Litz, Sweetwater City Schools
  • Sandra Harper, Trenton Special School District
  • Clint Satterfield, Trousdale County Schools
  • Denise H. Brown, Unicoi County Schools
  • Jimmy Carter, Union County Schools
  • Cheryl Cole, Van Buren County Schools
  • John R. (Bobby) Cox, Warren County Schools
  • Ron Dykes, Washington County Schools
  • Gailand Grinder, Wayne County Schools
  • Randy Frazier, Weakley County Schools
  • Eric D. Williams, West Carroll Special District
  • Sandra Crouch,White County Schools
  • Donna Wright, Wilson County Schools
Education Featured

TN Education Reforms Hailed in New U.S. Chamber Report

Changes in the state’s Department of Education since the Tennessee General Assembly voted to adopt the Common Core standards for education a few years ago are being highlighted in the summer issue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce quarterly magazine, Free Enterprise.

According to the magazine, the USCoC recently completed a follow-up to their 2007 report, Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on K-12 Educational Effectiveness, which indicates a “growing problem” of a less-than-sufficiently educated and skill-prepared labor force.

But Free Enterprise notes that Tennessee has been lauded by experts for its willingness to tackle the problem, most notably by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has praised state politicians and elected leaders for sticking to their “controversial but common sense decisions” in the face of pushback against reforms.

Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy at the U.S. Chamber, said in the article that the commitment to reform policies under both Gov. Bill Haslam and his predecessor, Phil Bredesen, have given Tennessee’s students “the promise of opportunity and success beyond high school.”

Interviewed for the article, Bredesen told Free Enterprise, “Education reform has got to be about picking a course of action and sticking with it over a long period of time, not just letting it flow back and forth when you get a new governor.”

Changes in the way Tennessee teaches kids in public school and measures their performance  has more and more become an area of political controversy. In particular, the nationwide effort to implement the Common Core Standards in Tennessee has over the past year created some odd bedfellows among those who’re becoming reform-weary.

The Obama administration are big fans of Common Core, as are big-name Tennessee political figures like Gov. Haslam, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and former U.S. Senator and GOP majority leader Bill Frist

On the other hand, skeptics and out-and-out opponents include both conservatives and liberals, teachers’ unions and anti-tax activists. There’s even a stand-up comedian working criticism of Common Core into his schtick. Conservatives fear that the standards complicate the ability to learn and will lead to liberally biased textbooks. On the left, there’s a worry that the curriculum and standardized evaluations will add to classroom pressures on both teachers and students, which isn’t conducive to enhancing a productive learning environment.

The Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national non-profit conservative political advocacy group is big in to the battle here in Tennessee. The state’s AFP arm announced this week  it’d spent about $500,000 in the past six weeks “bringing the issues with Common Core to light.” AFP claims its illumination of the issues impacted outcomes in several state primary elections last week.

In its 2014 legislative session, the General Assembly passed a bill, signed by Haslam, to halt implementation of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing, and do some price-comparisons on others in the meantime. The Volunteer state will continue to use the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program — or TCAP — until the 2015-16 school year.

The state’s largest labor group that represents teachers, the Tennessee Education Association, has claimed it’s lobbying efforts this past session resulted in lawmakers delaying the testing program, which is affiliated with Common Core. The Washington Post called the TEA’s effort’s “instrumental” in passing the delay.

Rep. Glen Casada is a vocal opponent of Common Core whose positions usually don’t line up with the wishes of teachers’ unions. He, too, has claimed responsibility for putting PARCC on the back-burner, and he also hopes that in the interim lawmakers will decide to scrap it altogether.

Casada sought to play up the downsides of Common Core up as much as possible in his Williamson County district’s primary race against a local school board member, Cherie Hammond, who was generally regarded as more politically centrist than the veteran House Republican caucus chairman. Casada won handily.

Casada told TNReport this week he’s not entirely convinced the gains the state’s posted in student performance of late can be attributed in any significant way to anything having to do with Common Core. For example, given that Common Core is still more-or-less in a rollout phase, it’d be a stretch to suggest last year’s big nationwide testing gains for Tennessee touted by both Gov. Haslam and Education Secretary Duncan had a whole lot to do with it, Casada said.

The Franklin lawmaker, who isn’t facing a general election opponent, said the state’s teachers and students posted testing gains that actually appeared to have emerged during a two-year “interim period” when Tennessee public schools got out from under No Child Left Behind and before Common Core Standards were being pushed in earnest.

Casada interprets that to mean, “When no large bureaucracy was guiding what teachers do, we excelled.”

Education Featured News

State Easing Into New ‘Common Core’ Curriculum

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. 

Education News

Haslam Seeking Waiver from ‘No Child Left Behind’

Gov. Bill Haslam asked the federal government Friday to let Tennessee opt out of national education standards and replace them with benchmarks set by the state.

The governor asked the Department of Education to allow the state to replace the gauges set by No Child Left Behind, the education reform passed under former President George W. Bush, with state-driven indicators. The state is crafting its own standards under Race to the Top, an Obama administration education initiative.

“This is a case of the federal government should trust the state to do what’s best for the state,” Haslam told reporters on a conference call Friday. “Applying for a waiver is not about making excuses in Tennessee. It’s actually just the opposite.”

Under No Child Left Behind, more than half of Tennessee schools are deemed as failing this year. However, 80 percent of those schools still saw improvements in reading, math, or both, according to state Education Commissioner David Huffman.

“If we do not get a waiver and if Congress fails to act, we will be back here in a year announcing that the vast majority of schools in the state failed to meet (adequate yearly progress). We can grow student achievement levels by 5 percent, by 10 percent across the board and that would still be true,” said Huffman, who contends current standards are distracting the state from focusing on other reforms.

This year, 78 Tennessee school districts and 806 schools failed to meet the annual progress measures set by the U.S. Department of Education.

Under the current guidelines, that could mean roughly 140 schools could be eligible for a state government takeover in 2015 and as many as 1,500 schools two years later. Last year, 13 schools’ performance qualified them to be taken over by the state.

“While No Child Left Behind has been very invaluable, we feel like it maybe outlived its usefulness in its current form,” Haslam said.

“It needs to be overhauled, we don’t see the action from Congress to do that any time soon and then finally, we think states really do know what we should do. We think we proved that in our Race to the Top application,” he continued.

Haslam’s predecessor, Phil Bredesen, led the state’s reforms to qualify it for the Race to the Top grant. But he contended at the end of his term that the federal government is often prone to authority-overreach in matters of public education.

“Our K-12 system operates with a lot of reference to and rules promulgated by the Department of Education, and the Department of Education pays about 10 percent of the bill and has no responsibility for educating the kids or any of those kinds of things, and that’s kind of a creepy invasion of that,” he told TNReport in December.

The U.S. Department of Education offered up in June that it would work with states that have problems measuring up to No Child Left Behind, assuming Congress doesn’t get around to reshaping the act before adjourning in August.

While Tennessee has a long way to go in turning around education outcomes, changing the state’s expectations so they make sense closer to home is a good first step, said Jamie Woodson, the former state senator who helped promote the Race to the Top education reform ideas. She’s since become CEO of SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

“A challenge that Tennessee faces is fitting this bold reform plan within a meaningful federal accountability framework,” she said.

Asking the federal government to change how it holds Tennessee accountable on education constitutes Haslam’s most visible attempt at telling Washington what to do.

Haslam has called for federal disaster relief after floods swept through the state earlier this year, and joined other governors in pushing back against higher fuel economy standards and asking for more flexibility in the Medicaid insurance program for the poor.

He has leaned on Attorney General Bob Cooper to challenge the national health care act and, along with other states, seek to police illegal immigration. But Haslam has avoided officially calling for the federal government to act on those issues. is an independent, not-for-profit news organization supported by donors like you!