As voters have begun choosing which candidates could represent them in the Tennessee House of Representatives, the candidates running to serve the people of Bradley County have been mulling over the issues important to voters, including those related to the education of the state’s children.
State Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, who is unopposed in his bid for re-election to the 24th Legis-lative District, and 22nd Legis-lative District candidates Dan Howell and J. Adam Lowe, both of whom are also Cleve-land Repub-licans, recently shared their views on a much-talked-about issue in education — Common Core.
“Of the 60,000 constituents in my district, I have probably heard from more on this issue than just about any other since I’ve been elected,” Brooks said.
“Of the 200 [primarily educators] that I heard from [saying], ‘Keep Common Core, don’t vote no against the [Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers] assessment,’ there were 2,000 parents [saying], ‘Don’t make us do Common Core. Don’t make us do PARCC testing. We are not ready.’”
Arguments from both sides of the Common Core debate sparked Tennessee’s House of Representatives’ decision to postpone the implementation of the standards and assessment for two years. The vote impacted the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years. The measure was approved by an 82-11 vote.
Brooks said he heard a lot on the issue from both his constituents and as a part of the House Education Committee. Friends and neighbors approached Brooks at Cooke’s Food Store, Cracker Barrel, church and other locations to make their opinion on Common Core known. He said the individuals rarely gave him a firm reason for their dislike of the standards and assessment.
“There was this gray nebulous [sic], but there wasn’t anyone saying, ‘Paragraph 2, section 4, line 1 is wrong.’ People weren’t able to articulate to me a verse and a page they didn’t like,” he said. “But enough parents commented to me, ‘I just don’t feel good about it.’ These [constituents] are my bosses.”
The state representative said he does not believe people disagree with the basis of Common Core or the “theory of academic excellence.”
He suggested voters seemed more concerned with the possibility of federal intervention. Many did not want the federal government to dictate what was taught to their children.
Brooks said the brand name “Common Core” is messed up.
“I don’t think Tennesseans want less for their kids. I don’t think they want to dumb down the system. I don’t think they want to do away with testing,” he said. “I do think it is important to keep these standards in place whether we call them Tennessee CORE or Values. I just don’t think the word Common Core is ever going to pass in Tennessee.
“There is too much of a tainted impression with that.”
He described the decision made by the state’s House to postpone the standards and assessments by two years as an opportunity to “take a deep breath.”
Brooks referred to the House’s decision to sign and vote for the Race to the Top severals years ago. The decision provided Tennessee with $500 million for education. He said the House did not do a “good enough job” delving into the parameters of the program.
The current questions concerning education programs feel like deja vu.
“Now that we see the contract, now that we see the PARCC assessment, now that we see Common Core, I have some [city and county] people saying, ‘Can we do it? Sure. Are we ready? Not exactly,’” Brooks said.
He said he looks forward to going back in January to explore the subject further.
Howell, one of the two 22nd Legislative District candidates in the GOP Primary, expressed a similar interest in learning more about Common Core. He said his views on the matter are not 100 percent certain.
“That’s been a real struggle for me,” Howell said.
Several factors continue to influence Howell as he forms an opinion on Common Core.
Born in “a sharecropper’s shack in the middle of a cotton patch” in West Tennessee, he said education was what allowed him the opportunities he has had over the years, including being a business owner, a broadcast journalist and the role as assistant to the Bradley County mayor.
His wife, Beverlee, is a special education teacher at Southeast Whitfield High School in Dalton, Ga. The two have had “many” discussions on Common Core and other issues related to education.
“What it boils down to for me is who’s going to control our local education system,” Howell said. “I have heard it argued both ways. One, that it’s just a system of standards. And I’ve heard others who are opposed to it say it’s a mandate from the federal government that could lead us to a federal board of education.”
Howell said he believed local control of the academic standards in public education is needed because the people in Washington “do not have a clue” about the concerns facing families in Tennessee. He said state legislators’ proximity makes them more aware of those concerns.
“I’m taking a good, hard look at Common Core, but I can tell you this: I’m glad that the Legislature delayed the PARCC test, went back to the TCAP for next year and issued a — I think — request for a proposal for the new test.”
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a test aligned with the Common Core standards, was originally slated to be used in determining students’ grades for the first time at the end of the 2013-14 school year. However, the scores of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, the test had been in place before, were used instead.
Howell reiterated that he was still looking into the claims of both those in favor and those against Common Core, noting his journalism career taught him there are “two sides to every issue.”
He continued to stress that local control of school systems is “vital” for ensuring children get the education and opportunities they need.
“I would adamantly oppose any program that would threaten to take away the local control of our education system. If Common Core does that, I oppose it. I’d wholeheartedly oppose it.”
Howell also said any changes made to educational standards and testing in the future must be made with more input from teachers and other educational experts.
“It’s essential,” Howell said. “You have to listen.”
Lowe, who is Howell’s opponent in the 22nd Legislative District Republican Primary, said he is not in favor of continually “tinkering” with public school standards because he believes the act of making such changes for the sake of change has not been proven to be effective.
Currently the vice chairman of the Bradley County Commission, he explained he has often been “on the record” about Common Core.
“We passed a resolution opposing Common Core,” Lowe said. “We also encouraged our school board members to be wise about the costs of implementing both Common Core and PARCC.”
Lowe is also currently employed as the director of institutional advancement at Cleveland State Community College and the executive director of the college’s foundation.
Like Howell, Lowe has the benefit of having an educator to discuss such matters with every day. Lowe’s wife, Rachel, is a counselor at Polk County High School in Benton.
Lowe said the problem with Common Core is that it does not represent a truly new idea in education. Instead, it focuses a lot on standards and scores.
“This issue is not just a political question for me; it’s a professional one,” he said. “I’m academically published on this issue. I spent the past two, three years studying the history of educational reform, which has been predominantly the manipulation and revitalization of standards.
“The data is very, very clear that tinkering with standards does nothing for the good of the student. It does not increase academic performance. Whether it is ‘Common Core,’ ‘common sense’ or ‘apple core,’ at the end of the day, if we continue to just address education reform in how we judge the product, we never improve the product.”
Lowe further suggested changes to assessments and standards do not necessarily address what may be keeping students at low-performing schools from succeeding.
He pointed out many people use Massachusetts as an example of a state with schools known for their rigorous standards.
However, he stressed that even Massachusetts’ lowest performing schools still have the same challenges seen in lower performing schools in other states.
Lowe said the “variance” in standards and a desire to change them with Common Core does not change how students learn.
“It is an empty reform,” Lowe said.
He said there has been too much focus on “social equity” in education, which has led to less of a focus on individual achievement. A student with an advanced understanding of what he or she is learning may not be able to progress at their level due to the restraints of equality.
“If your vision is to focus on academic performance, we’ve got to focus on other things,” Lowe said.
He said he liked the idea of the “pace curriculum” sometimes used in private schools. Under that concept, a student follows curriculum that allows him or her to move on once they grasp a section of it, while students who do need more time on a certain concept are able to get that extra time.
If state legislators decide to change how students in Tennessee are taught, Lowe suggested they focus on making changes that will impact student learning by changing how those students progress through their schools’ curricula.
Lowe said changing the standards alone does not necessarily impact whether or not a student is able to meet those standards.
Early voting has begun and will continue through Saturday, Aug. 2. The traditional Election Day will be Aug. 7.
No Democrats are listed on the primary ballots for either the 22nd or 24th Legislative districts.