What Are Core Values? We Face a Battle Over the Future of Education in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Haslam's education reforms hit a couple of speed bumps this past legislative session, but his reforms may hit a brick wall come next session. A major battle is brewing over the direction of the state's schools pitting Haslam, Bill Frist, Bill and Melinda Gates, and the state's business establishment against conservative groups and the legislators who listen to them.

It's about the Common Core Curriculum, a term you may not have run across. But it has begun to rank with Obamacare as a program reviled by conservative groups.

Since the nation began universal testing and compiling test scores, problems have become apparent in the validity of the data. With state and local governments in charge of schools and curricula, test results varied widely from state to state. When 90 percent of the students in Mississippi pass the math exam it makes you want to say: Really?

That's where the Common Core Curriculum comes from, a set of subjects and a curriculum that will be uniform across the country, and testing will be based on the same material. The program was initiated by the nation's governors and it was funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. At least 45 states have signed on. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan let it be known that if states didn't adopt the Common Core Curriculum, they could forget getting any Race to the Top funds. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and the state Board of Education adopted the Common Core Curriculum and Tennessee got millions in Race to the Top funds. Some Tennessee educators (like those in Knox County) are in training at present, so the program has yet to be implemented fully statewide.

The most basic criticism is that local schools are being taken over by the federal government. Traditionally state and local governments have run the schools and decided what would be taught, even when receiving federal grants. We have never had a national education policy that dictated what every child in the country should know.

State Sen. Dolores Gresham, chair of the Senate Education Committee, has announced that she will hold hearings in late summer or fall on the Common Core Curriculum and allow all sides to present their views. Gresham is a conservative Republican and any education bill has to go through her committee.

Conservatives aren't the only ones raising questions. Two New York college professors raised some questions in a New York Times piece on Sunday. They suggest that the move to have the federal government's first-ever foray into a national education policy was quick and involved little discussion. The introduction of more rigorous standards will take some adjustment from teachers and students.

When Kentucky adopted the new tests based on the Core Curriculum, math and science scores dropped by a third. What do you think the new standards will do to test scores in Tennessee? Recall that teacher evaluations now take test scores into account. Also recall that a reform already passed disallows teacher bargaining rights.

But aside from the federalism issue, try and imagine coming up with subjects and tests for all the states without generating controversy. Provocative questions encourage critical thinking. But such questions are also ammunition for critics.

I have hundreds of pages of a report introducing the Common Core Curriculum. So far it just makes my head hurt. I suspect the debate in the Legislature will be based on political positions and alliances with different groups rather than on legislators actually studying those hundreds of pages.

The business community and Haslam are determined to raise educational standards. It is entirely possible for the educational reform effort in the state to get derailed over arguments about "liberal ideas" replacing traditional "American values."

The hearings will be important. The business establishment had better be ready to handle the questions raised. Both sides of the issue need to have "truth squads" to separate fact from fiction. It is the most important issue facing our state at the moment. Let's don't screw it up.

Corrected: A previous version of this column stated that the curriculum hadn't been implemented yet; however, several districts have started using it, though some (like Knox County) are still training its educators.