On Tuesday, leaders from across Tennessee gathered in Nashville to engage in a broad-ranging discussion about better preparing Tennessee’s students through the Common Core State Standards. Governor Bill Haslam, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, and SCORE’s Founder and Chairman, Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, all led portions of the program. SCORE hosted the event, and we designed the agenda to address questions many policymakers, educators, parents, and community leaders have about the standards:

  • What is Common Core, and what is Tennessee’s timeline for implementation?
  • What can Common Core look like in the classroom?
  • Why is Common Core important for Tennessee?
  • What can business, community, and education organizations do to support this work and ensure Tennessee’s students are prepared for college and the workforce?

The Common Core State Standards are a state-led effort to raise academic standards, and the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers have facilitated the development of the Common Core in mathematics and English/Language Arts (ELA). These standards draw from internationally recognized best practices and seek to move instruction away from “teaching to the test” and toward an approach that encourages more conceptual understanding and critical thinking. As local journalist Cara Kumari put it, students will be more likely to address the question, “Suzie gave 6 apples to each of her 6 friends—how many apples did Suzie give away?” than “What is 6 x 6?” In ELA, nonfiction texts will represent 75 percent of the materials students are asked to analyze under Common Core standards, and they will be challenged to make evidence-based arguments in response to those texts. There will be fewer “What I did over the summer” essays and more “Explain why you support or disagree with the argument in this piece.” The ultimate goal of Common Core standards is to better prepare high school graduates with the critical thinking and analytical skills they will need to achieve in college and the workforce.

Governor Bill Haslam (second from left) moderates a SCORE Institute panel with business leader and philanthropist Scott Niswonger, Dean Candice McQueen of the Lipscomb University College of Education, Margaret Horn of Achieve, and math coach John Prince from the Trenton Special School District discussing the importance of Common Core standards for Tennessee.

Tennessee schools began implementation of Common Core standards in both math and ELA for grades K-2 in the 2011-12 school year. This summer, grade 3-8 math teachers across the state will receive training in Common Core standards-based instruction in preparation to begin implementation in 2012-13. By the 2013-14 school year, Common Core standards will be fully implemented across all grades in math and ELA. This implementation schedule will prepare the state to participate in the online common assessments Tennessee will share with other member states of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers beginning in 2014-15.

Dr. Sandra Alberti of Student Achievement Partners demonstrated for the SCORE Institute audience how teachers under Common Core must shift their instructional approach, which all too often now revolves around test-taking strategies. Instead of teaching how to identify the correct answer from a set of multiple choice options, teachers will lead students toward more in-depth understanding of key concepts and how to apply those concepts in problem-solving activities. This paradigm shift in instruction likely represents the most challenging work of Common Core implementation. Under these standards, according to Dr. Alberti, students will learn to “read like a detective and write like a reporter,” rather than only relating opinions and experiences without grounding their arguments in evidence.

The need for standards that build the problem-solving and critical thinking skill of students is self-evident. Although Tennessee has taken needed steps toward improving public education, according to their ACT results, only 15 percent of our state’s high school students are ready for college-level work in all subject areas by their junior year of high school. We can do better, and Common Core standards present the chance to improve the likelihood of success for students in this state and across the country.

We have to do better if employers are to find qualified employees in Tennessee. As Volkswagen searches nationally for highly skilled technicians at its Chattanooga plant, we are reminded of the necessity of equipping Tennessee students with the skills they will need to be successful in college and in life. As leaders from across the state continue to consider the changes needed to make Common Core standards a reality in Tennessee, we must all remain focused on improving the skills of today’s students to ensure they are ready to serve as leaders for the future.

To find out more about Common Core State Standards Implementation, read SCORE’s recently released Taking Note Issue Brief. The Tennessee Department of Education has also established an online set of Common Core resources at http://tncore.org/.