Tennessee’s Haslam Holds Summit to Discuss Wide Range of Ed Issues

Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Haslam called for an “education summit” — noted as “Progress of the Past, Present, and Future” — concerning the controversial Common Core standards after state legislators last spring insisted that he change his mind on assessments and take bids for the development of new tests, writes Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

In light of these concerns, last week Haslam chaired a gathering of  House and Senate Republican speakers, other lawmakers, educators, and business leaders who reviewed and discussed the various major changes and adjustments the state has made in the field of education, many of which have garnered the state national recognition.

Also addressed were concerns and charges by critics, some of whom demonstrated against Common Core, near the site where the summit was held.

‘The consensus is that higher standards matter,” Haslam later told reporters, noting he plans similar events to explain what’s involved to stakeholders like educators and the public. “I think there’s some disagreement about our current standards. Are they the right one? We very much intend to have a full vetting of those standards, what they are and what they’re not.”

The new tests will have to align with the changes in how English and math are taught, and, because the new standards are designed to build critical thinking skills, will require that testing emphasizes multiple choice-type testing less.  As of now, the state is still depending on its old test, the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP).

When Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chatanooga) and several other lawmakers met recently with 15 area Japanese business-owners, their input was critical:

“Your workforce can’t do ninth-grade math,” Gardenhire said he was told. “Second, your workforce can’t pass drug tests. And third, your workforce won’t work; they don’t have a work ethic.”

Johnson City businessman Ken Gough, an attendee of the summit, says the state needs world-class standards.

Haslam refrained from inviting only those who agree with his administration’s positions on education.  There were superintendents who have expressed a lack of confidence in Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, members of the teachers union who are suing over student test data playing a role in teachers evaluations, and conservative lawmakers who are against Common Core, which they say is an overreach by the federal government, writes Emily R. West of Nashville Public Radio.

Department of Education officials presented information about Common Core and the testing that accompanies it. Tennessee has five companies working on the revision of the state’s standardized testing.  The most debated topic was teacher evaluations.

If our schools are not producing a quality product and an on time budget, then we are failing,” said Ken Gough of Accurate Machine Products in Johnson City. “I don’t care about the assessments. Are schools giving a good product? Are they getting the education they need? As a parent, I can’t see teachers’ scores, but if teachers don’t improve, they need to leave.”

Another hot topic was expanding school choice.  Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) is all for school vouchers because vouchers give parents the option to move their child from a failing school to a private school., with the state paying the tuition. However, voucher legislation has failed to pass in the legislature two times. Professor Ron Zimmer, of Vanderbilt’s Peabody College said:

“If school choice is the silver bullet for test scores, it’s not meeting its goal,” Zimmer said.

Meanwhile, across the street, protesters told WKRN-TV that they were against Common Core because of the excessive paperwork required from teachers and that Common Core puts too much added pressure on students and staff.

The testing debates continue to dominate. Joseph Garrison, writing for Gannett Tennessee, says that possible contenders for tests that could take the place of the current standardized test for the 2015-2016 school year are ACT, Smarter Balanced, Pearson, and even potentially PARCC again.

“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that perhaps the biggest decision we’ll make in the next legislative session is which assessment tool we’ll use,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who co-hosted the event with Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell.