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Vocal dissenters overshadow Common Core forum

What began as an informative meeting April 29 about how Common Core State Standards might affect students, devolved into outbursts from audience members who oppose new statewide academic guidelines.

The meeting took place at The People’s Church on Murfreesboro Road in Franklin.

A panel of experts gathered to deliver presentations and answer questions about the state-adopted standards – not curriculum – Kevin Huffman commissioner for the Tennessee State Department of Education, emphasized.

Panelists included WCS Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney; Huffman; Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of SCORE, State Collaborative on Reforming Education – a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization; David Williams, a regional math coordinator; and Jane McGrath, president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at Kenrose Elementary, who served as a parent voice on the panel.

Experts said CCSS affects reading and math only, and offers greater depth and academic rigor to better prepare students for college.

“Focusing on fewer standards but more in-depth knowledge and mastery of those standards, gives teachers more time for deeper lessons and time with students on a standard,” said Huffman.

Woodson said that the history of the adoption of CCSS began at the state level as an effort to raise the bar in academics to better prepare students for college. Woodson said that Common Core represented the Tennessee General Assembly’s commitment to raising standards and expectations in Tennessee to become a leader in academic excellence and reform.

“It is a result of the appetite for excellence in academic rigor,” Woodson said.

Huffman also said that CCSS would propel Tennessee forward and improve academic standards in the state which ranks 46th in math and 41st in reading nationally.

“We can do better,” he said.

"One of goals for Tennessee is to be the fastest improving state in the country,” Woodson said. 

Huffman also explained the difference between standards and curriculum, which has risen as a point of contention among opponents to Common Core.

“Standards represent what a child should know by the end of the year,” he said. “Decisions about curriculum, or textbooks, used to meet those standards are made at the local school district level.”

Looney emphasized that Common Core standards are “the minimum or the floor set at the state level, not the ceiling.” WCS students are exposed to more advanced and rigorous academic expectations through the district’s scope and sequence, which reach beyond state standards Looney said.

The panelists also stressed that CCSC will help develop greater critical-thinking and reasoning skills in students.

“I want my children to be good citizens who are well rounded with critical thinking skills, who can defend their views with valid, logical reasoning, not ‘just because,’” McGrath said.

However, a growing buzz of dissension among a faction of the crowd overshadowed panelists’ discussion, eventually resulting in outbursts from the audience.

Dissenters yelled from the audience, interrupting Looney and other panelists repeatedly with angry protests requesting that the session be “open mic” so that those in opposition could express their views.

One voice rose above the crowd, “It’s parents’ job to create well-rounded citizens,” followed by cheers and applause from a boisterous segment of the audience.

The repeated interruptions led to J. Lee Douglas of 912 Project Tennessee, a conservative group that opposes Common Core, approaching the front of the sanctuary to address the crowd.

“We are having our talk tomorrow night,” Douglas said, referring to a sold-out event scheduled for April 30 to discuss concerns some have with Common Core. “We would be ashamed if they behaved like this at our talk. I know that there are better ways to express ourselves.”

“I am sorry, please forgive us,” Douglas said turning to the panelists.

“Your opinions do matter to me. However, we cannot address every concern and listen to hundreds of citizens in an organized way in this format,” said Looney in an effort to calm the vocal opponents in the crowd.

Looney left the meeting with about 500 questions scribbled on index cards collected from the crowd. He said that he plans to answer the questions to post on the district website.

Looney emphasized that the state’s adoption of CCSS led him to follow the directive the best that he can.

“We have no choice,” Looney said previously at a school board meeting.

Some parents argued that CCSS is a byproduct of what they view as the state’s hasty action to obtain federal money as part of Race to the Top program.

“I still think CCSS [is] about money even though [the state] said that they adopted the standards before Race to the Top. They knew it was coming down the pike,” said Dayna Walraven after the meeting, who is a parent of Independence High and Heritage students.

Some parents showed surprise by dissenting audience members’ reactions at the forum.

“Am I missing what I should be upset about?” Christy James said, a PTO member at Lipscomb Elementary. “I feel like I need to hear the other side and their position.”

Some of the underlying parent frustration arose from opposition to passages in textbooks that some argue contain antisemitic undertones and that promote some religions over others.

“I think that the panel should have addressed antisemitic tone of some texts that parents are so concerned about. How can standards be raised if it’s based on a questionable foundation,” said Jamie Gillette, PTO board member at Westwood Elementary.

“I am in the informational-gathering stage, listening to experts and gathering my own information, so that I can make educated decisions for my kids,” Shane Oakley said, parent of Lipscomb Elementary and Brentwood Middle School. “I don’t agree with how capitalism and religion is being portrayed. It seems that our kids are being funneled to serve a need rather than given knowledge to be innovative.”

WCS has gradually implemented programs to adhere to the state requirements. The district implemented common core math standards incrementally as follows: grades K-2, 2010-11; grades 3-8, 2012-13 and grades 9-12, 2013-14. The district will fully implement reading and math CCSC by 2015 as well as the PARCC online assessment, an interactive test-taking measure for students in place of TCAP for math and reading. Social studies and science standards will be developed by the state.

Looney also reported that current data points regarding the implemented CCSS show promising results.

“Change is difficult. We will get some things wrong. But if we look at the data after a full year of implementation, our students have made more gains than last year,” Looney said. He also reported that current embargoed junior ACT scores show great success and could represent the highest that the district has ever scored.

“Success in WCS is because of you and the level of engagement of citizens,” Looney said to parents at the meeting’s conclusion. “Thank you for being involved and caring.”

Posted on: 4/30/2013


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