The Chalkboard: What are the Tennessee Standards of Learning?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Have you heard your child or child's teacher talk about Tennessee Standards of Learning? Did you wonder what all the fuss was about? Why does your child learn certain things in each grade? Last month in The Chalkboard we outlined the mission of Marshall County School District. Today, we will focus on the standards movement in public education.

Until the 1960's, public schools were following an "industrial model." Their main goal was to educate a workforce that could power factories and farms. Schools chose what they wanted to teach students at each grade level. On international achievement tests, the United States fell steadily behind Japan and Europe, year after year.

So in 1983, the federal government set up a commission to look at public education. This commission published its findings titled, "A Nation at Risk." The commission's findings focused on four important aspects: What were schools teaching students? What were the nation's expectations of students? How much time was spent on instruction? And, how effective were our teachers? The study found that as a nation we had "watered-down" our curriculum (program of studies) over the years so that students did not have to work very hard to be successful. Expectations for everyone had been lowered. Academic time was being reduced each year to accommodate more entertaining things such as sports, art, music, etc. Teachers were not always being prepared properly, they were poorly paid, and there was a shortage of teachers in certain key areas such as math and science. Finally, the federal government challenged states to improve.

With this challenge, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics created the first set of national standards in 1987. These are goals that professionals in the field of math believe are important for our students to master at each grade level. Then, the National Science Foundation did the same and established national goals for all students. The U.S. Department of Education then funded a dozen other professional organizations to do the same. All the national standards from each group shared a common focus. Schools should be filled with challenging, authentic, and collaborative work for students who will live in the 21st century.

States took these national standards and created state standards that each would test. With 51 states and territories, we ended up with 51 versions of the national standards, some more challenging than others. Tennessee created their set of standards, which have recently been toughened up to be more in line with the national standards. Our students are assessed on how well they have learned these standards on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test (TCAP) at the K-8 level, or Gateway and End of Course tests for students in high school. These will be given this month. Is this starting to sound familiar?

With President Obama's lead, there is talk again of returning to just using the national standards for all states and territories receiving federal money. The National Governors Association adopted a policy statement in late February endorsing common national academic standards and testing for all students in US public schools. Research supports this move in two ways. Firstly, it shows us that rigorous standards lead to more students reaching higher levels of achievement. Take Massachusetts and Minnesota. They have made their standards tougher and now their students are scoring fifth in the world in reading and math. Secondly, countries that consistently outperform the United States on international tests such as Japan, China, and several European nations, all have national standards.

You will probably hear lots of talk in the future from Tennessee students who are working with harder standards. Basically, what a fourth grader used to learn will now be taught in third grade, second grader in first grade, etc. Another example of raising expectations is our high school students will now be required to take math each year of high school and take three lab sciences. We all know that educating our students so they can compete within a global economy is the most important thing that the United States can do to insure a strong future.

Next time in The Chalkboard, we will explain the No Child Left Behind Act, NCLB, and how our county is tied to that national legislation introduced by President Bush.