On Nov. 6, Ethan Young and his mother, Cheryl, were leaving the City County Building after a school board meeting. Young, a Farragut High School senior, had just brought hundreds of protesting teachers at a public forum to their feet with a passionate rendering of the history of the Common Core State Standards.
Detested by right-wingers who consider the standards, which set uniform national achievement markers for students in grades 3-12, a federal government takeover, Common Core is almost as unpopular with liberals who believe it serves corporate interests for whom public education is little more than an untapped profit point.
Ethan says he doesn't identify with either camp.
"We were walking out of the school board meeting and she and I kind of looked at each other. I had this weight off my chest. I'd finally had a chance to share some of these things I'd thought about a long, long time. I had closure," Young says. "She told me she was glad I had an opportunity to speak up, and the next day, it was back to homework again."
A day or so later, he posted a video clip of the speech on YouTube for his teachers to see and figured that would be the end of it. He was wrong. Not only did his speech electrify the Large Assembly Room in Knoxville, it resonated with a larger audience as well.
"A week later, it had 600,000 hits, and my phone was ringing off the hook," he says. "Nobody was more shocked than I was."
A month later, three other students—Adam Hasan of Bearden High and Thomas Mitchell of West, plus Young's Farragut classmate Kenneth Ye—spoke at the December board meeting. Ye warned that the exams that accompany Common Core's brand of "rigor" (a favorite word of the education reform movement) are remaking Knox County Schools in the image of oppressive education factories in his parents' native China. Mitchell delivered a deeply personal account of the ways teachers have impacted his life. Hasan protested treating students and teachers as statistics and said the testing system accompanying Common Core has been imposed too hastily, with little regard for its consequences.
The movement that Young, Ye, Hasan, and Mitchell joined had begun in October, when Halls High School third-grade teacher Lauren Hopson gave what has become known as the "tired teacher" speech. Her contentions were confirmed in a Knox County Schools survey that found 70 percent of teachers unhappy with the endless acronym soup of "assessments" imposed by state, federal, and local authorities and with Knox County's system of teacher evaluations. She'd taken these issues to the board before, but nobody much noticed. This time was different. Her colleagues put on the red T-shirts of the Tennessee chapter of the national Badass Teacher Association and started showing up at board meetings in large numbers. After the December meeting, the consensus was that four of Knox County's brightest students had kicked the badassery up several notches.
"They were hugely important in that early wave of teacher discontent/board disconnect," says South-Doyle Middle School science teacher Dave Gorman, co-chair of SPEAK (Students, Parents, Educators Across Knox County). "They weren't speaking out for their jobs or pay but rather the integrity of the teacher/student relationship that they recognized as being crucial in their learning and development."
Mitchell, Hasan, and Young all served as president of their schools' student governments. Ye was vice president (and class valedictorian, logging a 4.82 grade point average). The four met for the first time at the December board meeting and have since become good friends who compare notes, share insights, and offer advice and support. Hasan is an unabashed progressive. Mitchell is a social progressive who tends to be fiscally conservative. Young and Ye are reluctant to accept conventional political labels. All four are deeply concerned about the students who will follow behind them, and they all disagree so vehemently with the direction chosen by Knox County Schools, the Tennessee Department of Education, and the United States Department of Education that they were moved to protest at a time when Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman were taking victory laps around the state celebrating the news of Tennessee's high National Report Card scores.
So what are they up to next?
Ethan Young started writing letters to the school board when he was in the seventh grade because he thought they should know what was wrong with the TCAP test.
"I was in the middle of the test, and I was like, ‘This is so ridiculous!' Poorly worded questions, multiple correct answers, questions that didn't evaluate student knowledge or achievement, and also just the concept that we're going to give a seventh-grader a high-stakes exam that takes up two to three days of class time."
So he hustled through the exam and then sat there and memorized all the questions. When he got home, he wrote the school board a letter detailing the test's shortcomings. He didn't hear back from anyone.
The following year, he did the same thing with the eighth-grade TCAP and got the same result.
In the ninth grade, he wrote the board about the ACT assessments and got no response.
During his now-famous speech, he invited someone, anyone, to tell him why he was wrong. He was disappointed but not surprised that no one answered.
"When I saw I'd gotten almost 2 million (YouTube) hits, I thought, it's incredible that the people I was talking to haven't had anything to say. I want them to tell me where I'm wrong."
The conservative blogosphere didn't tell him he was wrong. He sidestepped overtures from Glenn Beck but accepted an invitation to go to New York and appear on Mike Huckabee's talk show. He made an appearance via video hookup on the Fox News morning talker Fox & Friends and was both hailed and derided as a bright new star in the right-wing firmament. Being reminded of that doesn't make him happy.
"I really debated going on the Mike Huckabee show," he says. "I know a lot of people watch it, so I e-mailed him back … but I didn't give myself to any particular party. I went on Fox & Friends because it's a news show. Generally, conservative candidates have been people I would support more than liberal candidates, but do I want to go out and die-hard support the Republican Party? No. Do I want to support the Democratic Party? No. And in terms of education, I don't think that at any stage this should be about politics."
But it's all about politics in Nashville, where most Democrats and many Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly agree with Young about Common Core, although his views are more nuanced than most of theirs, and he believes that the standards minus the constellation of high-pressure tests and evaluations could be a good thing.
"The process by which these standards were contrived was ridiculous, not democratic, and did not go through the Department of Education," he says. "The whole thing is really bizarre. We left out teachers in favor of testing executives: ‘Hey, we made the ACT. We know what we're doing.' Only two academic-content specialists were involved, and both refused to sign off on this."
Young, who will enter Yale University in the fall, believes there's no turning back the state's commitment to Common Core, which has been approved in 45 states, including Tennessee.
"The money's already been spent and they still think it's going to work," he says. "I don't regret what I said, but I was disappointed to find out how tangible the good ol' boy system of Knox County is. I've been shunted in a lot of different ways from people involved with Dr. [James] McIntyre [schools superintendent]. They just don't play nice. I would hope a bunch of grown men wouldn't be intimidated by a 17-year-old who pointed out flaws in their reasoning."
Young's mother, Cheryl, is a physical therapist. His father, Peter, is a neuropsychologist. His stepfather (or "bonus dad," as Young likes to call him) is John Smith. Young has an older brother, Adam Russell, who is a Knoxville attorney, and also 2-year-old nephew—"He's going to be the guinea pig for this whole system," Young says.
When Kenny Ye said he couldn't answer a Common Core-related question meant for a first-grader, he brought the house down:
"If you look towards the mathematics section of the PAARC [Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers] website, we see that it calls for written arguments, justifications, or precision in mathematical statements," he told the school board members. "As a student who has scored fives [the highest score possible] on AP Calculus and AP Statistics exams and is preparing to take Calculus 3 at a local college next semester, I can tell you that I am unable to answer or justify your first-grade Pearson math question, ‘What is a related subtraction sentence?'"
By May, he had it figured out, and explains it for us here:
"The term ‘related subtraction sentence' is actually used to explain a fairly simple concept. The issue is, they've overcomplicated the entire thing," he says. "Here's an example to demonstrate:
"9-0 = 9 is the statement that you are given. A related subtraction sentence would be 9-9 = 0. It's a mathematical statement that involves the same numerals and properties and is thus ‘related.' One simply needs to rearrange mathematical statements as to still hold true. I personally don't see the application in defining or teaching this concept … and the vague and unusual wording only further confuses me."
Ye, whose parents came to the U.S. from China, decided to follow Young's lead and speak out after talking to several of his teachers who oppose the direction the schools are taking. He agreed with them and decided the school board needed to hear more about testing and the way teachers are being restricted.
"Growing up, I went back to China every summer," he says. "My grandmother was on the school board there, and our parents sent my brother and me to school there for a couple of months at a time so we could experience Chinese school and lifestyle. This was in elementary school, and at that age, they were already focusing on testing and a lot of geared pathways. Students have to choose one of two pathways—math and science or humanities—right around middle school."
Last summer, Ye returned to China for a cultural exchange program called Ameson Chinese Elite, which takes 200 of the top Chinese-American students plus a few from Russia and sends them to school for cross-cultural learning. One thing he noticed was how many of the top Chinese students wanted to go overseas to school.
"I asked them why they were so interested in overseas education and they talked about how free and open it is in other countries," he says. "‘I really want to go to Stanford,' they'd say. They considered studying abroad so much more liberating. They were very smart kids, but you could definitely see a difference between how they work and how American students work. And the difference is our innovative thinking. We pride ourselves in being a nation of free thinkers."
Ye advocates pulling back from high-stakes testing and letting students think for themselves: "Teachers aren't happy, students aren't happy, and learning's not enjoyable. Let students be free thinkers."
Ye speaks fluent Chinese and attends Chinese church and Chinese school at the Knoxville Chinese Christian Church, but he considers himself first and foremost a proud Southerner (he nicknamed himself "Kenny Ye-Haw" last summer at Boys State, the highly competitive and selective leadership program sponsored by the American Legion) and worries about where he will find sweet tea when he goes off to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. He loves country music and is a fan of Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift.
His resume includes a long list of accomplishments, but he says his parents, Yingdong Gan and Chuntao Ye, never made it a practice to hover. "They simply said, ‘Just do your best.'"
Ye and his older brother Kevin both waited tables at Aubrey's during their high-school years, and Ye says his customers had a lot to say to him after he made his speech.
"Most people were very happy the subject was getting more attention and thought it was great to hear that students were getting more interested in their educations," he says. "Some asked me to explain it to them. What it comes down to is the pressure that comes down on children. What really gets to students is not walking in and taking the ACT, it's thinking about the implications—‘If I don't do well, this isn't going to happen for me.' Let's pull back the pressure on students and let them be more original and think for themselves."
Thomas Mitchell knows how to turn a phrase. Maybe too much so.
He delivered the best one-liner at the December school-board meeting, but he's come to believe that it overwhelmed his message, which was that teachers have greatly impacted his life in many positive ways, starting with the kindergarten teacher who forced him to tie his own shoes, the teachers who taught him to read, and the one who gave him the confidence to run for student government.
"That year I ran for student council and I won, that confidence has carried me to this day," Mitchell told the crowd.
He spoke of his first African-American teacher—"You have no idea how inspiring it was to me to see a person in my classroom that looked like me"—and the coach who consoled him when he confided that his parents were divorcing. He listed teachers all the way through high school who have impacted his life, and said he'd never thanked them—and then he turned around and thanked the teachers in the audience and mentioned the kindergarten teacher who had given him a "yellow card" warning for not listening. Then he addressed Superintendent Jim McIntyre.
"With the APEX evaluation standards, you are attacking my teachers," he said. "You have closed your eyes, covered your ears, and proceeded full steam ahead.
"You're not listening to us, Mr. Superintendent. And tonight I have a yellow card for you, too."
The room exploded. That night, his yellow card was the lead story on the 11 o'clock news. He checked Twitter and saw that someone had created an account called "Yellow Card Jim" with McIntyre's photo profile. And his message got lost in the hype, he says.
Overall, Mitchell's glad he spoke, and says he felt good when teachers started applauding him in the hall at school. He also thinks that his vocal defense of teachers may have cost him something he cared about. "I tried to get a program called RSVP started to give students a stronger voice," he says. "We met every week the entire semester, but after I spoke at school board, never another meeting."
And he doesn't want to leave the impression that he thinks having standards is a bad thing.
"The major issue is the way they're being implemented," Mitchell says. "They are taking apart the educational process and rather than letting teachers teach and letting students learn, they're just throwing it down and saying, get this done today."
He thinks that he, Hasan, Young, and Ye have been portrayed by some as "privileged kids from West Knoxville who have access to all the resources we would ever need." He wishes students from other parts of the county had become involved.
And he thinks there's work to be done on inclusiveness at his alma mater. Last year, his out-of-school experience involved working for the Knoxville Council for Racial and Cultural Awareness, and on his own he researched institutionalized racism. He is concerned that so few minority students participate in talented and gifted programs in the lower grades or advanced placement or the International Baccalaureate program at West, noting that he was usually the only African American in his TAG, AP, and IB classes. "You told one black kid he was smart and you're going to be shocked and surprised when there aren't any other black kids in those classes?" he asks.
Mitchell puts in a word for 9th District school-board member Pam Trainor, whose support for McIntyre's policies and vote to extend his contract probably contributed to her defeat in the recent county elections. Even though they were on different sides of those issues, he appreciates her involvement in the Student Summit held earlier this year—something for which he and Adam Hasan had pushed.
"Adam and I really liked her. Of all the people on the board, she's the only one who's been consistently there for students," he says.
Mitchell is the son of Drema Bowers and Antonio Mitchell. His mother, who worked for Project Grad and knows her way around the school system, had been nervous about allowing him to speak out but ended up being very proud of what he did. His sister, Donna Mitchell, is a junior at West and his brother, George Mitchell, is a sophomore at the L&N STEM Academy.
Next fall, Mitchell will attend Rhodes College in Memphis to study political science and urban economics. He is grateful to have received a scholarship and worries about students who must foot the higher-education bill themselves.
"I'm lucky," he says. "But there's no reason people should go into debt because they want to get an education, because they want to know more and learn more and be more."
Gov. Bill Haslam probably didn't expect hardball questions when he visited Boys State last week, but how could he know that he was about make the acquaintance of Adam Hasan, the youngest and funniest of the Gang of 4.0, and possibly the most relentless? Hasan's Boys State tweets—from reporting a wild boar loose on the streets of Cookeville to the pointed question he asked Haslam—were a must-read.
Adam Hasan @theadamhasan
Ready 2 c Bill Haslam
Adam Hasan @theadamhasan
Just asked governor Haslam what he plans to do to address statewide issues of teacher morale.
Adam Hasan @theadamhasan
My city's mascot at Boys State is a crip. As in, the gang.
(When asked how the governor responded, Hasan says, "Haslam told me that he takes the issues ‘seriously' but doesn't think that teacher morale issues are as pronounced as some say they are, which is contrary to the data provided by the recent KCS teacher survey, but I didn't bring that up. He dodged the question, mostly, and ended his response by reiterating his stance on the current path the state is taking on education reform. So if anything can improve the issues of teacher morale in some way in the short term, it needs to come from Knox County, since nothing seems to be coming from Nashville on this one.")
It's a good thing that Hasan, a rising senior at Bearden, worked so hard in his first three years of high school, because he plans to devote a lot of energy to being the student representative to the school board next year. He'll be the guy in the bow tie. (He has 11 of them.) And he wants you to follow him on twitter: @KnoxStudentRep.
It is his intention to visit every high school in the county and to go to as many middle schools as he can to find out about students' concerns.
"I'd like to be vocal and really represent student issues," Hasan says. "I'd really like to get a feel for what schools in Knox County besides Bearden are like. I want to be an active part of the school board. Even though I don't have voting power, I can bring student issues to the forefront," he says.
Regarding the current controversy, he sees teachers' issues and students' issues as pretty much indivisible.
"I had been reading about Common Core and looking at issues of teacher morale," he says. "It made me realize that teachers' issues are directly involved in how things are going in school. I wanted to voice my support and create a better environment for teachers and students."
Hasan says that listening to Young's speech inspired him into action:
"I really like public policy, and at first wasn't too interested in education policy," he says. "I'd heard about teacher evaluations in middle school, but Ethan's speech made me realize that students have a real role to play in this."
Hasan has interests outside academics and politics—like curling. His older brother, Shaddi, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, curls, and got Hasan interested in the sport. Hasan found a curling league in Knoxville, so he and a friend from school started a curling team and recruited six others. They've had some difficulties because no other schools have teams, but he's hearing that Webb and the Christian Academy of Knoxville may field teams next year.
His other outside interest is coffee. He's got a roaster at home, and he's planning to start a business tentatively named Marble City Coffee Co., by the end of the summer. He buys beans from an importer in Oakland whom he met while he was visiting Shaddi, and he's hoping to sell his product through his employer, Butler & Bailey Market.
"I really like coffee and since I was little, I've been interested in the coffee culture," he says. "I've been fascinated with roasting and brewing since I was in the eighth grade. I usually roast single-origin and blends."
He doesn't know if his parents, Sherri and Husein Hasan, will be big customers, since they prefer flavored coffees. ("Weak stuff," Hasan says.)
Despite their differences over coffee preferences, Hasan says his mother, who was a teaching assistant when he was in elementary school, and his father, a civil engineer, have given him good advice and counsel about his foray into the politics of education.
"My dad always said, if you can't provide a positive solution, don't criticize," Hasan says. "That's something he kind of lives by in his line of work. In my first speech [given at a workshop meeting], I listed off problems. I felt kind of uneasy about that since I didn't really list any solutions. That's what I tried to do in my second speech. I praised the board for creating the teacher working group and said we could judge the success of that in the next few months."
In between roasting coffee and curling and planning for next year, Hasan is making a trip to California to visit his brother and nail down his coffee deal.
And maybe shop for ties.
"I generally try to wear bow ties when I speak at school-board meetings," he says. "It's kind of my look. I hope to buy more this summer."
The students had a purpose. Simply stated, they wanted to make the point that teachers deserve to be treated with respect. They didn't speak out of anger, and they didn't do it just to get noticed. Do they think they accomplished their goal?
They aren't sure. And, with the exception of Hasan, who will be in the thick of these issues come fall, they are ready to move on to Wharton and Yale and Rhodes. But they won't stop caring.
Buzz Thomas, president of the Great Schools Partnership, supports McIntyre and Haslam and has been to all the meetings and heard all the speeches. He admires the four students but considers them a bit wet behind the ears.
"I have heard these young men speak on several occasions and love what they are trying to do, which is basically be good citizens and stand up for their teachers," he says. "Bravo for that! But while I applaud their civic engagement and advocacy for teachers and their academic freedom, I cringe when I hear them criticize Gov. Haslam and our state's more rigorous new educational standards."
He says Tennessee's old educational standards were among the nation's worst, as were the tests used to measure teacher proficiency. He praises governors Phil Bredesen and Haslam for deciding to change that.
"That's why I cringe when I hear these kids speak, incredible though they are," he says. "They just don't have the historic perspective to realize how far we have come. But God bless 'em. They're going to be tremendous assets to our community if we're lucky enough to hold on to them after they graduate from college."
School-board member Indya Kincannon says that just because she hasn't contacted any of the students (with the exception of Hasan, whom she follows on Twitter) doesn't mean she hasn't heard them, that she agrees there's a need to have less "top-down" leadership and more collaboration, that teacher evaluations should be developmental instead of punitive and that the amount of time students spend taking tests should be reduced. She encourages them to keep speaking out, but also disagrees with some of what they said.
"I disagree that American schools are becoming like the factory model in China," she says. "I am in our schools quite a bit and have two of my own kids in school. They are not treated like widgets. Their teachers encourage creativity and individuality.
"I agree that top-down leadership is ineffective and counterproductive and we have to get better at shared leadership and collaboration.
"For the record, I support Common Core State Standards and wish it had been in place sooner. Tennessee's low academic standards have been holding our kids back. I've seen my own kids much more challenged since we started implementing Common Core. Does that mean it's perfect? No. We've had implementation challenges and it's absurd that our assessments are not aligned to CCSS. I don't think CCSS is a left-wing conspiracy or a corporate takeover of public schools."
And finally, this, from McIntyre:
"I'm proud of our students expressing their opinions so eloquently. These bright and talented students are the beneficiaries of an excellent public education which has clearly taught them to think critically and communicate effectively—exactly the skills that Common Core State Standards seek to ensure for all students."
(Note: While these four students are quick to credit their teachers for helping them achieve high levels of academic success, the Common Core State Standards for high school students have only been in effect in Tennessee for one school year.)
Corrected: A previous version of the concluding note on this story stated that Common Core State Standards had only been in effect for lower grades for the past school year; actually, this was the first year for high school students—lower grades were phased in beginning in 2011-12.