Research & Commentary: Tennessee Common Core

Published September 30, 2013

The Tennessee legislature is holding hearings on Common Core, national education standards and tests in math and English that 46 states, including Tennessee, have adopted.

In 2012, approximately 16 states reconsidered Common Core. Some lawmakers, professors, consultants, and teachers argue this would take states a step backward, because, they say, Common Core is rigorous and internationally benchmarked. Pairing these standards with national tests funded exclusively by the federal government as enforcement, they say, will improve student achievement and accelerate innovation by creating a national market for education materials.

Those concerned about the Common Core point out no state, school district, or even school has ever used it. The standards are entirely experimental. Because those on Common Core’s own validation committee were never given research demonstrating student achievement will indeed be improved by what Common Core demands of students, several refused to sign off on the project. The international benchmarking claim essentially consists of two sentences saying a handful of countries also require students to use evidence in their writing, rather than a thoughtful comparison of Common Core and its major points to international bests. Education standards experts say Common Core is at best mediocre, making it a massive waste of time and money for teachers and schools.

One of the central objections to Common Core is loss of state and local control and flexibility over what children will learn, even in private and home schools, since all major tests including college entrance exams are aligning to Common Core and these will feed into national student databases states are constructing. One set of national learning models cannot possibly accommodate 50 million children’s diverse learning needs.

The following documents offer more information about Common Core in Tennessee.

Common Core: Higher Standard or Government Overreach?
The Shelbyville Times-Gazette covers the Tennessee debate over Common Core, which has some praising better academics for kids and others criticizing increases in federal intervention. As parents, teachers, and lawmakers have learned more about the strings attached to the standards, they have begun to raise questions, prompting a September 19 and 20 hearing in Nashville. 

Common Core Critics Call for Timeout on Tougher Standards
Democrats and Republicans in Tennessee seem to agree they’d like to at least pause Common Core, reports The Tennessean. Democrats are concerned about the strings tied to testing, and Republicans express concerns about federal overreach tied to the standards. A number of states have dropped the national Common Core tests, largely over cost concerns. Common Core tests are currently slated to add $2 million to Tennessee’s testing costs, not including the technology required. The state already has significantly upgraded its own tests in the past two years, says Harvard fellow Paul Peterson.  

Tip Sheet: Common Core Standards
This one-page tip sheet summarizes the background of and arguments regarding Common Core. It concludes, “States should replace Common Core with higher-quality, state-controlled academic standards and tests not funded by the federal government. They should secure student data privacy and ensure national testing mandates do not affect instruction in private and home schools.” 

Common Core in Tennessee: A Race to the Middle?
Large special-interest groups and the federal government created and pushed states into Common Core education standards, explains Tennessee Rep. Scott Desjarlais. Tennessee’s previous academic standards were of similar quality to Common Core, making this massive change for little improvement a waste of tax funds. And no one in the states has authority to amend or improve Common Core, making it a mire of good intentions. 

The Hidden Cost of Common Core Testing in Tennessee: Computers
State officials are just now beginning to survey schools on whether they have the technology in place to issue online Common Core tests in 2014–2015, reports Nashville Public Radio. School leaders are concerned about where they’ll find the money for those computers and how they’ll make kids familiar with testing online so they’re not at a disadvantage when they take the tests. 

Were Tennessee Poll Participants Asked About Common Core Data Mining?
A poll showing general support in Tennessee for Common Core did not release what information poll respondents were given, but other polls show heavily leading language, writes Kyle Olson on The poll also did not ask about the student data-mining associated with Common Core, which many people find highly objectionable. 

Education Dept. Helps Leak Students’ Personal Data
States and schools are signing over private data from millions of students to companies and researchers who hope to glean secrets of the human mind, writes Joy Pullmann in the Washington Examiner. Standardized tests are beginning to incorporate psychological and behavioral assessment. Every state is also building databases to collect and share such information among agencies and companies, and the U.S. Department of Education has recently reinterpreted federal privacy laws so that schools and governments don’t have to tell parents their kids’ information has been shared. This leads to great danger for student privacy. Pullmann recommends states take three actions: Ensure all student records are anonymous when sent outside their schools, give parents and students full access to their information and ability to correct it, and evaluate and reinforce security against hacking and data loss. 

National Cost of Aligning States and Localities to the Common Core Standards
Implementation of the Common Core standards is likely to represent substantial additional expense for most states, concludes this analysis by AccountabilityWorks. Although a handful of states have begun to analyze these costs, most have signed on to the initiative without a thorough, public vetting of the costs and benefits. In particular, there has been very little attention to the potential technology infrastructure costs that currently cash-strapped districts may face in order to implement the Common Core assessments within a reasonable testing window. The analysts estimate Common Core will cost taxpayers $16 billion to implement nationwide. 

Following the Money: A Tennessee Education Spending Primer
The amount that Tennessee taxpayers already spend on public education is significantly underreported, finds this report from the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Although the average stated amount spent per pupil is $9,123 per year, the true figure is about 11 percent more, or $10,088 per student. Of that funding, less than 54 percent is directed at classroom instruction, such as teacher salaries, textbooks, and other instructional spending. And that figure is in constant decline, whereas administrative spending is on the upswing. Since 2000, the number of administrators in Tennessee’s education system has grown by 34.5 percent, while the number of teachers has increased by less than 17 percent, and the number of students has grown by just 7 percent. Administrators’ salaries also have outpaced those of teachers during that time period. 

Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core
There is strong evidence that instructional materials play a pivotal role in student learning and, compared to more popular reforms like merit pay and school turnarounds, changing them for the better is easy, inexpensive, and quick, conclude Matthew Chingos and Grover Whitehurst in a report for the Brookings Institution. Very little research has been done on available curriculum to determine its effectiveness, and it’s practically impossible to determine what curriculum is the most widely used, because no one keeps such statistics. Without more information on what curriculum schools use and how well it instructs students, initiatives like the Common Core will not improve learning and the core of student learning will continue to be ignored, to students’ detriment. 

The Common Core Math Standards
Common Core math standards are longer, less demanding, more confusing, and repetitive, says former U.S. Department of Education official Ze’ev Wurman in an interview for the journal EducationNext. In short, they are mediocre nationally and internationally. The standards also drop essential math content such as converting fractions to decimals, and they delay algebra until high school, although high-achieving countries and states expect students to do algebra in grade 8. The authors of Common Core math standards had little experience constructing standards, he notes, and it shows. The standards consistently put students behind international bests by a grade or two in the elementary years, and a full two years behind in high school. 

How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk
Common Core’s standards for English language arts, their organization, and their division make it unlikely American students will study a meaningful range of significant literary works in high school and learn something about their own literary tradition before graduation, conclude Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein in this Pioneer Institute paper. The Core’s diminishing emphasis on literary study will also prevent students from acquiring a rich understanding and use of the English language. Its stress on more informational reading also will likely lead to a decrease in students’ capacity for analytical thinking. The paper recommends ways for states and schools to make the best of and improve these deficiencies in Common Core’s English language arts requirements. 

The Road to a National Curriculum
In three short years, the Obama administration has placed the nation on the road to a national curriculum. Through Race to the Top grants, the U.S. Department of Education has accelerated the implementation of common standards in English language arts and mathematics and the development of common tests based on those standards. By the admission of these two federally funded Common Core testing consortia, Common Core standards and assessments will create content for state K-12 curriculum and instructional materials. Three federal laws expressly prohibit this, note two former top U.S. Department of Education lawyers in this policy brief for the Pioneer Institute. 

How Well Are American Students Learning?
A series of data analyses from the Brookings Institution find no link between high state standards and high student achievement. “Every state already has standards placing all districts and schools within its borders under a common regime. And despite that, every state has tremendous within-state variation in achievement,” says the latest such report. Based on every state’s experience with standards and corresponding tests over the past 30 years, the study authors see no evidence to believe Common Core will improve student achievement. 

The Common Core: A Poor Choice For States
In this Heartland Institute Policy Brief, Heartland Research Fellow Joy Pullmann reveals some major weaknesses of the Common Core, using a host of footnoted evidence. The program represents a major centralization of control over curriculum, contrary to the American tradition of decentralized control and funding. Instead of being “world class,” the standards represent a significant step back from what experts say are the standards America really needs. And they are tied to large expansions of data collection on students and erosion of privacy rights.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at 

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].