Who Is In Charge

‘Religious indoctrination’ bill could restrict teacher autonomy beyond social studies

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Indianapolis Public Schools has long struggled to find substitute teachers, but a new program has nearly solved the problem.

A Tennessee bill aimed at addressing concerns about “religious indoctrination” in seventh-grade social studies classes also could impact the teaching of all core academic subjects in grades 6-12.

The measure, prompted by concerns from activists and parents that students are being “indoctrinated” into Islam while studying world geography and history, would require that any inclusion of religion in textbooks, instructional materials and curriculum “be for educational purposes only and not be used to promote any religion.” In addition, each district must “make publicly available a syllabus” for math, science and English language arts subjects in middle and high school that includes major assignments and field trips.

It’s the second part of the bill, which doesn’t have to do with religion, that concerns teachers who view the legislation as a license to impede their creativity in the classroom.

The bill is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor on Wednesday after sailing through the House 83-2 last week. Debate thus far has focused on whether the bill would remove mentions of religion. (It would not, according to the sponsor.) However, little has been discussed by lawmakers about how it might limit teachers’ ability to teach.

Currently, all Tennessee public school teachers use the same academic standards, which prescribe what students at each grade level should know. But districts do not create a syllabus for each subject and grade level to dictate to teachers how to teach to those standards — for instance, what to read or assign and which field trips to take.

It’s unclear if, by mandating districts to post “a syllabus” for each core academic course in grades 6-12, every teacher would be able to design their own syllabus, as they do now. Teachers say they value making their own lesson plans and crafting their own assignments.

“I follow the standards to a T, but I can maneuver within them according to what my students need,” said Nashville teacher Nick Rossi, who teaches seventh-grade social studies at Apollo Middle Prep School. “I know my students. I want to make the decisions on what I teach.”

Rossi noted that teachers have an outline of what they’ll teach throughout the year, but it’s not set in stone and allows for flexibility. Assignments can get scrapped, or ideas for new engaging assignments can emerge from conversations with other teachers. “No one knows what March will be like in July,” he said. “You don’t know what the kids are like yet.”

Nationally, teachers’ freedom to be creative in the classroom is closely associated with their job satisfaction, according to a 2015 report from the National Center on Education Statistics.

Others say that a districtwide syllabus could be helpful — if thoughtfully done.

Robert Pondisco, a senior fellow for the Thomas Fordham Institute, points to the Core Knowledge Curriculum, which briefly set the curriculum in Nashville elementary schools in the mid-2000s, as an example of a strong shared curriculum. “It needn’t be an affront to the profession,” he said. “It could be an opportunity to share best pracitices.”


Rep. Matthew Hill of Jonesborough, who is sponsoring the bill in the House, said the measure ultimately is about lessening the influence of religion — any religion — in classrooms. “This is a direct response to concerns across the state about the way religion is taught in Tennessee public schools,” he told colleagues last week.

In part due to concerns about the issue, the State Board of Education launched a review of the state’s social studies standards in January, two years ahead of schedule.

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.

full board

Adams 14 votes to appoint Sen. Dominick Moreno to fill board vacancy

State Sen. Dominick Moreno being sworn in Monday evening. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A state senator will be the newest member of the Adams 14 school board.

Sen. Dominick Moreno, a graduate of the district, was appointed Monday night on a 3-to-1 vote to fill a vacancy on the district’s school board.

“He has always, since I have known him, cared about this community,” said board member David Rolla, who recalled knowing Moreno since grade school.

Moreno will continue to serve in his position in the state legislature.

The vacancy on the five-member board was created last month, when the then-president, Timio Archuleta, resigned with more than a year left on his term.

Colorado law says when a vacancy is created, school board must appoint a new board member to serve out the remainder of the term.

In this case, Moreno will serve until the next election for that seat in November 2019.

The five member board will see the continued rollout of the district’s improvement efforts as it tries to avoid further state intervention.

Prior to Monday’s vote, the board interviewed four candidates including Joseph Dreiling, a former board member; Angela Vizzi; Andrew LaCrue; and Moreno. One woman, Cynthia Meyers, withdrew her application just as her interview was to begin. Candidate, Vizzi, a district parent and member of the district’s accountability committee, told the board she didn’t think she had been a registered voter for the last 12 months, which would make her ineligible for the position.

The board provided each candidate with eight general questions — each board member picked two from a predetermined list — about the reason the candidates wanted to serve on the board and what they saw as their role with relation to the superintendent. Board members and the public were barred from asking other questions during the interviews.

Moreno said during his interview that he was not coming to the board to spy for the state Department of Education, which is evaluating whether or not the district is improving. Nor, he added, was he applying for the seat because the district needs rescuing.

“I’m here because I think I have something to contribute,” Moreno said. “I got a good education in college and I came home. Education is the single most important issue in my life.”

The 7,500-student district has struggled in the past year. The state required the district to make significant improvement in 2017-18, but Adams 14 appears to be falling short of expectations..

Many community members and parents have protested district initiatives this year, including cancelling parent-teacher conferences, (which will be restored by fall), and postponing the roll out of a biliteracy program for elementary school students.

Rolla, in nominating Moreno, said the board has been accused of not communicating well, and said he thought Moreno would help improve those relationships with the community.

Board member Harvest Thomas was the one vote against Moreno’s appointment. He did not discuss his reason for his vote.

If the state’s new ratings this fall fail to show sufficient academic progress, the State Board of Education may direct additional or different actions to turn the district around.