State education officials face curriculum, textbook fight1:41 pm | December 28, 2013
NASHVILLE — Tennessee education officials trying to implement the federal government’s new Common Core academic standards face opposition from a tea party-linked group that also objects to what it considers biased passages in some state-approved textbooks.
In September, the Senate Education Committee held hearings to discuss concerns about the standards that are designed to prepare students for college or a job by the time they graduate from high school. Two months later, the same committee called hearings to review the role of the Tennessee Textbook Commission, which recommends its selection of books to the State Board of Education.
At just about all the hearings were representatives of the Tennessee Eagle Forum, a conservative group that shares many tea party beliefs. It seems to have the strongest influence on Republican lawmakers proposing measures for the upcoming session that seek to change the standards and the textbook commission.
“There will be legislation in January, because we’ve been working on that,” said Eagle Forum president Bobbie Patray. “There are going to be major changes.”
At a recent news conference, House Republican leaders told reporters there will be discussion about Common Core and the textbook commission in the upcoming Legislature. They didn’t specify any legislation, but said they welcome the input of tea partyers.
“They should have the same rights as anyone else to have their views known, and we need to consider them seriously,” said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga. “We actually agree with most of what they’re advocating anyway.”
In the case of the textbook commission, Patray said there will likely be legislation that seeks to involve more public input in the selection of books, particularly from parents, whom she’s been rallying for months.
Earlier this year, parents in Williamson County raised concerns about a question in a world geography textbook that asked students to consider whether a suicide bomber attacking civilians in a cafe in Israel was terrorism or retaliation for military actions against Palestinians.
Critics say the question is among passages that display bias.
Emily Barton, assistant commissioner of curriculum and instruction for the state Department of Education, acknowledged during one of the hearings that more public input is needed and suggested instituting online reviews “so that all citizens can have equal access to reviewing these materials and sharing their comments and feedback.”
Michelle Farnham was at the hearing and said that’s something she’d like to see.
“My daughter will be in public schools at some point and I want to make sure they (books) are up to standard,” Farnham said.
As for the Common Core standards, Patray was more vague about legislation. She did cite concerns echoed by other opponents: costly implementation, untested, and data gathering believed to infringe on students’ privacy rights.
However, supporters of the new set of standards being implemented in 45 states and the District of Columbia for reading and math say they’re needed to equip students with the critical thinking, problem-solving and writing skills needed to prepare them for college and the workforce — as well as global competition.
“For years, Tennessee has shown a commitment to raising standards for students,” said Education Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier. “Implementing the Common Core state standards is the next step of that journey, and one we believe will ensure that all of our students graduate high school prepared for college or careers.”
Whether it’s Common Core or the textbook commission, Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said tea partyers and groups linked to them seem to have a “distrust of anything government designs.”
“Their initial assumption is there must be something wrong with it,” he said. “In some cases it’s conspiratorial, but in other cases just an immediate distrust.”