While a grassroots band of school board members, teachers and parents marked their first attack on the state’s education system, an establishment with the ear of state lawmakers urged leaders to stay the course.
Under the soft glow of chandeliers before some 200 guests at the Hermitage Hotel, former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist called on policymakers to keep pushing on existing goals — like holding the line on Common Core, focusing energy on quality teachers and principals, investing in technology and using data — as part of an annual report by the State Coalition on Reforming Education. (See the full report here.)
“Now is not the time to lose that sense of urgency,” said Frist, SCORE’s founder, speaking to powerful stakeholders in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, including Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, the governor’s chief of staff and some legislators — all but one a Republican.
With education the burning issue driving policy on the local, state and federal level, the presentation across the street inside Legislative Plaza was a horse of a different color.
Tennesseans Reclaiming Education Excellence, TREE, held its first-ever press conference in a packed small legislative committee room Monday, examining how the state’s approach to addressing achievement gaps drive policies that are hurting public schools.
“The state of education for Tennessee is it has a lot of potential to do the right things and is not doing them,” said Elaine Weiss, a TREE presenter and national coordinator for Washington, D.C.-based Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Nearby, Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart bumped his fists together like a boxer, congratulating her for taking on the state.
“It is sort of chasing the tail end of education," she continued. "It’s focused entirely on remediation instead of prevention and it’s focused entirely on the symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself.”
That problem is poverty, she said. While the two groups of radically different sizes and influence appear to share some of the same values — like investment in quality teachers — they don't share the same priorities. For example, TREE would rather the state focus less on data and more on the “opportunity gaps” between poor children who lack regular access to books and healthcare and their peers who are introduced to mounds of information they can absorb like a sponge. More pre-K seats could be part of the answer, she said, along with wraparound services for needy families.
The two groups could be at odds about Common Core as some parents and teachers who associate with TREE say they worry about the amount of testing children face now. It heightens stress and weighs too much on the evaluations of teachers, some say, especially in light of changes in testing that will begin in 2015 with the new PARCC exams. However, TREE lacks a specific position on Common Core.
The two groups will be met by a third interest on Tuesday, when school choice advocates plan to gather at Legislative Plaza to celebrate options. They call privately run public schools and school vouchers the best ways to address Tennessee’s educational woes. They're not all — a fourth group, namely those who challenge the state's commitment to Common Core are also expected to be in play this legislative session pushing for change, although they've been quiet so far this legislative session.