One of the key components of Tennessee’s academic standards is asking the question “why.” Students are no longer required to simply select the correct answer to a straight-forward problem, but must also explain and justify their reasoning.

For example, it is important that math students know that 5 to the negative fifth power is 1/25, but it is more important that students understand the reasoning and logic behind negative exponents. It’s important for students to know that World War II started in 1939, but it’s far more important that they understand what sparked and escalated this international conflict. It’s only when you dig into the “why” behind the “what” that this information becomes interesting and useful to students’ lives.

I was thinking about this idea as I read the results of a Vanderbilt University survey on the level of teacher support for Tennessee’s standards. According to the news headlines generated by this survey, 56 percent of teachers now want to either drop or delay implementation of the standards.

If we were still operating under Tennessee’s old standards, this one statistic would likely be all we needed to know. But since we are now requiring our students to dig for the “why” in their lessons every day, I think we should hold ourselves to the same standard. I think we should look past the headlines, and ask why the standards that have been in place for the past three years are losing support among Tennessee teachers.

Lucky for us, the Vanderbilt survey thought to ask for the “why” as well. According to the results, the teachers who indicated that the standards should be eliminated or delayed did so for a variety of reasons, most of which had nothing to do with the quality of the standards themselves. Among these reasons were the lack of support provided during implementation, the impact of the new standards on teacher evaluation, and the lack of alignment between the standards and the state exams.

In fact, the teacher opinions quoted in the survey report demonstrate that the standards themselves are a positive change for students:

  • “I am personally ‘on board’ with [the standards]. I think they reflect a step in the right direction for students, who will be asked to gain fewer, more complex understandings, in contrast to the past standards’ ‘“broad and shallow’” scope. However, there are several serious issues with the implementation.”
  • “I believe teaching [the standards] will be of great benefit to students, as it allows for a deeper understanding of the concept … This is something we may not see the improvements in for a few years to come … but what effect will it have on MY OWN scores?”
  • “I think [the standards are] a good thing if it starts from the bottom and SLOWLY continues toward the top.”


As Tennessee moves forward in pursuit of academic success for all students, it is vitally important that we listen to and heed the voices of our teachers. It is equally important that we listen to everything they have to say, and not simply skin the headlines for the basic facts. We must ask for the “why” behind the “what.”

One upcoming opportunity to gather this detailed feedback will be through the standards review process announced by Governor Haslam last month. Through this process, Tennessee educators will have the chance to review each standard, comment on what they do or don’t like, and make suggestions via a website run by the governor’s office. This review process is a chance for the state to gather the nuanced feedback it needs – not simply “I support” or “I do not support,” but rather “I would make this specific change because…”

With all this in mind, the Vanderbilt survey does not, in fact, show that Tennessee’s academic standards should be eliminated, but rather illuminates issues of implementation and accountability that need to be addressed – and I believe the governor’s online standards review process will reflect this as well. To shy away from these issues and lose the standards altogether would be an unfortunate misinterpretation of the consideration and support that our teachers truly need.