Are Children Learning

Superintendents to General Assembly: Please do not ‘derail’ standards

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Flanked by several school district superintendents and directors, spokesman Wayne Miller addresses media at the State Capitol in January. Miller is executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

School superintendents across Tennessee urged state lawmakers Tuesday not to “derail” the state’s educational momentum by repealing the Common Core State Standards during the current legislative session.

In a letter signed by 114 of the state’s 141 superintendents, district administrators asked lawmakers instead to maintain the state’s current academic standards, at least until Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and the state Board of Education completes their review of the standards this fall.

The superintendents also asked that the planned 2015-16 implementation of Tennessee’s new standardized test, which is under development to align with the current standards, be allowed to proceed without delay.

“Teachers have been working hard and preparing for this assessment,” the letter says. “It would be a huge blow to the morale of educators if the General Assembly passes legislation that puts Tennessee on a path to change standards once again or alters the timeline for the new assessment.”

Common Core State Standards are benchmarks in English language arts and math that clarify the skills each child should have at each grade level. In 2010, Tennessee joined most other states in implementing the standards and has been developing a test to align with them to accurately measure students’ academic progress. However, the standards have come under fire from many state legislators who view them as federal overreach because of their ties to education grant programs under President Obama’s administration. Two bills before the Tennessee General Assembly would repeal the standards, including one scheduled to go before a House subcommittee on Wednesday.

The superintendents’ letter was released by the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS), which represents local superintendents and school directors, to interject the voices of educators in the debate.

“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.”

Among those signing the letter were the superintendents of all four of Tennessee’s largest school districts.

In his 2015 State of the State address on Monday, Haslam called for more stability in the state’s education policy and urged lawmakers to stick with the current standards, at least for now. Last October, Haslam announced that the standards would undergo a period of intense review and, a month later, his administration established a website seeking comments and feedback. The site has received 82,000 comments so far.

“There has been unprecedented participation in the review process, especially by Tennessee teachers,” the superintendents’ 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.”

If lawmakers vote to replace the standards, it will be the third time in seven years that Tennessee has done so. In 2008, Tennessee adopted the Tennessee Diploma standards and, two years later, began to implement Common Core and a bevy of other reforms tied to winning $500 million in federal money through Race to the Top.

“Teachers have worked for years learning through the professional learning opportunities through the state and districts, countless hours, and funds,” said Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of Kingsport City Schools, during a TOSS news conference outside of the Senate chambers in Nashville. “They’ve created curriculums that will go along with these standards that will be challenging and engaging for our students.”

Ailshie acknowledged concern that the current standards weren’t developed by the state for the state. However, he said they are a good foundation to build on. “I’ve maintained these are our standards, and we could even make them more our standards if we maintain the course the governor has set out for us,” he said.

The superintendents say that switching standards this year — just months before the state switches to a new assessment, TNReady — will cause confusion and stress for teachers whose evaluations are tied to student achievement.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the state’s largest teacher union, also supports the current review process and urges teachers to participate. “It’s time we settled down and utilize the things we have now,” said TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye.

TOSS executive director Wayne Miller said much of the standards controversy stems from misinformation. For instance, he said, assertions are untrue that Common Core was created by the federal government, or that they are a set of prescriptive tasks teachers must undergo in the classroom. He said participating in the review process, which involves reading each standard and offering suggestions to improve them, would help allay concerns.

Creation of Common Core was sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Before they were adopted by most states, state standards varied widely across the nation.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Despite pleas from Haslam and education advocacy groups, key lawmakers expect the legislature to continue with its own assessment of the standards and possibly to repeal them. “I think it’s a given: Common Core is dead in the state of Tennessee, and everybody knows it,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) told The Tennessean following Haslam’s address.

Miller said TOSS is ready to talk with standards naysayers such as Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and sponsor of a bill to replace Common Core before the review is complete.

“[Gresham] understands there needs to be a balance between what she’s hearing from her constituents, and what she knows to be happening in classrooms,” Miller said.

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Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.