A report by Adam Friedman in the Tennessee Lookout suggests that Hillsdale College’s charter school network, American Classical Education, relies on curriculum closely tied to the Common Core.
Interestingly, Common Core has been banned in Tennessee and Gov. Bill Lee – who recruited Hillsdale to the state – has bragged about eradicating any traces of the curriculum from Tennessee public schools.
Public School Partners, a nonprofit organization I have been involved with, released a briefing today for Tennessee school superintendents and school boards designed to provide insight and analysis relative to the Hillsdale-Common Core Connection.
Here is that briefing:
American Classical Education (ACE), a charter-school operator affiliated with Michigan-based Hillsdale College, is proposing to create five American Classical Academy charters based on virtually identical 500-page (+/-) applications submitted to local school boards in Madison, Maury, Montgomery, Robertson, and Rutherford counties.
ACE’s charter applications invoke the “Core Knowledge” educational theory as a key driver of curriculum and instruction for the proposed taxpayer-funded, privately run schools. Core Knowledge — a teaching method developed by theorist E. D. Hirsch, founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation — is connected to the complex and politically controversial Common Core academic standards, which are banned in Tennessee along with aligned curriculum and materials.
This briefing memo examines how ACE seeks to circumvent Tennessee law and implement Common Core-aligned curriculum and materials. Specifically, this memo explains:
- How Core Knowledge, the preferred curriculum and instructional approach for Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools, is connected to Common Core;
- How the Hillsdale-affiliated charter operator’s board chair in Tennessee is a longtime Common Core advocate;
- How the Hillsdale-affiliated charter applications in Tennessee are seeking a waiver of state law that bans Common Core-aligned curriculum and materials; and
- How Hillsdale-affiliated charter schools in other states routinely invoke Common Core alongside Core Knowledge in the fine print of their applications.
CORE KNOWLEDGE, COMMON CORE ARE ‘INTERCONNECTED’
For more than a decade, Core Knowledge and Common Core have been synonymous. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation engineered the rapid creation of Common Core standards nationwide during the late-2000s. Alongside the Gates Foundation, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation unveiled plans in Education Week to link his curriculum to Common Core — and Hirsch personally endorsed the standards in a Washington Post op-ed entitled, “Common Core Standards could revolutionize reading instruction.”
According to a 2013 profile in the New York Times, Hirsch — whose earlier work was criticized as “elitist, antiquated and narrow-minded” — found vindication in the wake of Common Core’s adoption in dozens of states. Similarly, a 2014 article published by the conservative Fordham Institute celebrated a growing recognition of the “connective tissue” between Core Knowledge and Common Core.
More recently, J.C. Bowman, executive director and CEO of Professional Educators of Tennessee, observed the deep ties between Core Knowledge and Common Core in a report by the Tennessee Lookout: “You can’t say you’re against Common Core, but for Core Knowledge. They’re both ideologically from the same place. They’re very interconnected.”
ACE BOARD CHAIR IS LONGTIME COMMON CORE ADVOCATE
Former State Senate Education Committee Chair and now ACE Board Chair Dolores Gresham is a longtime champion for Common Core.
In a 2013 op-ed published in the Tennessean, Gresham touted Common Core as promoting “critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity.” While barnstorming the state in 2014, Gresham declared during a public meeting in Memphis: “We will be using Common Core standards in public education in Tennessee.” (video 3m10s). In a heated exchange with a parent, Gresham dismissed a child’s stress over Common Core as an “isolated incident” (video 4m30s).
Despite Gresham’s efforts to sell Tennesseans on Common Core, the tide turned against the standards with critics across the political spectrum ramping up attacks. Conservative Tea Party activists, especially, opposed what they saw as federally incentivized overreach by the Obama Administration — even deriding the standards as “Obamacore.”
By late 2014, Gresham responded to the political pressure by introducing legislation to repeal Common Core in Tennessee. Soon after, she switched positions, telling the Associated Press in early 2015 that she reconsidered and thought Common Core was the right approach. Then, she changed her mind again. Education Week chronicled Gresham’s back-and-forth policy shifts in an article with the headline: “Common Core Flip-Flop Times Two: One Tenn. Senator’s Changing Positions.”
Policymakers representing conservative suburbs in Middle Tennessee — where ACE is now seeking to open charter schools — blasted Common Core in public statements and legislation.
For example, then-State Representative Joe Carr, who now serves as Rutherford County mayor, issued a statement to Breitbart News saying that Common Core amounted to “centralized education.” Similarly, then-State Representative Sheila Butt, who now serves as Maury County mayor, penned an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Herald pledging to eliminate Common Core and in 2015 co-sponsored a bill to repeal the standards. (More recently, however, Butt reversed course with public statements voicing support for ACE’s Common Core-aligned “classical school curriculum.”)
DESPITE PUSHBACK, CORE KNOWLEDGE DOUBLED DOWN ON COMMON CORE
Ignoring the growing political furor in Tennessee and across the nation, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation doubled down on support of Common Core.
In a 2016 blog post in Achieve the Core (published by Common Core advocacy group Student Achievement Partners), Core Knowledge Foundation President Linda Bevilacqua wrote that the instructional design of the foundation’s language arts curriculum is not only aligned to the Common Core but “embodies the spirit and intent of the standards.”
Similarly, in a 2016 research paper, the Core Knowledge Foundation noted: “The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) establish an ambitious vision for the K-12 education system.” Moreover, the paper stated: “The Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program meets the CCSS in ways that are consistent with the research on how children learn and on effective pedagogy.”
In a 34-page compendium of “Frequently Asked Questions” published in 2017, the Core Knowledge Foundation noted that the organization’s language arts materials, known as CKLA, are “fully, and explicitly, aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).” The document repeatedly emphasized a deep and intentional connection with statements such as: “CKLA is 100% aligned to both the knowledge-building spirit of the standards and to each of the individual standards. At the individual standard level, the alignment is explicit: It is present at the domain level and unit level, as well as the lesson level; this explicit alignment is detailed in the teacher materials for the given domain or unit.”
TENNESSEE OFFICIALLY BANS COMMON CORE STANDARDS, MATERIALS
According to Chalkbeat, Tennessee officially repealed Common Core standards in 2015 and transitioned in 2017 to revised academic standards that were billed as homegrown. Legislative efforts to purge the Volunteer State of all vestiges of Common Core persisted for several more years.
During the pandemic in 2021, Governor Bill Lee sought to close what he called a lingering “Common Core loophole” with legislation banning teachers from using educational resources “marketed or otherwise identified as Common Core textbooks or materials.” Lee even pushed to allow the state to withhold funds from school districts caught using Common Core materials. Upon signing the Common Core materials ban into law, Lee stated in a tweet: “I promised that we would root out Common Core in TN public schools, and we’ve made tackling this issue a key legislative initiative.”
In follow-up guidance to school districts, the Tennessee Department of Education and State Board of Education explicitly noted: “When evaluating charter school applications for approval, local boards of education and other charter school authorizers will ensure that textbooks and instructional materials proposed by a charter school applicant comply with the law.” Put differently: Privately run charters, in addition to public schools, cannot utilize Common Core-aligned curriculum and materials.
ACE SEEKS WAIVER OF COMMON CORE BAN
Despite the state ban, ACE is now seeking waivers of the state law that prohibits the use of Common Core instructional materials, according to the Tennessee Lookout.
All of ACE’s charter applications in Tennessee — each signed by Gresham, the ACE board chair — include a list of 16 requested waivers from state law and policies. Near the bottom of the waiver list is an item described as “use of unapproved textbooks.” Specifically, the item requests relief from Tennessee Code Annotated 49-6-2206 — which is a statute entitled, “Use of Common Core textbooks or materials prohibited.”
ACE’s waiver requests don’t specifically mention Common Core, but instead note that the proposed schools’ “curriculum and instructional approaches will be linked to [each] school’s mission and philosophy” as well as curricular materials detailed in the applications. ACE’s curricular materials are based on Core Knowledge — which, again, is connected to Common Core.
According to ACE’s charter applications in Tennessee, the proposed schools’ K-12 Program Guide was “developed from the foundational tenets” of Core Knowledge. Further, ACE states that administrators, teachers, and staff will undergo intensive Core Knowledge training through workshops and summer programs.
Again, contrary to Tennessee law, Common Core is front-and-center in the Core Knowledge Foundation’s marketing. According to the foundation’s website, free downloadable materials include teacher guides, activity books, and other resources “aligned to the Common Core State Standards.” For example, the foundation notes that Core Knowledge history objectives are “correlated with the Common Core English Language Arts standards.”
In a lengthy 2023 publication entitled “Core Knowledge Sequence: Content and Skill Guidelines for Grades K-8,” the foundation repeatedly notes that the Core Knowledge academic objectives “embed all of the skills and concepts within the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.”
OTHER HILLSDALE-AFFILIATED CHARTER OPERATORS PUSH COMMON CORE
Across the country, other Hillsdale-affiliated charter operators routinely invoke Common Core alongside Core Knowledge in the fine print of their applications. For example:
- A 2014 application for the proposed Seven Oaks Classical charter school in rural Indiana noted the school’s Core Knowledge curriculum would be aligned with state academic standards “as well as the Common Core Standards.”
- In neighboring Illinois, the 2017 application for Chicago Classical Academy pledged that student achievement would be measured against standardized tests that are “valid, reliable, and appropriately aligned with curricula and Common Core State Standards (CCSS).”
- In Montgomery, Ala., the 2020 application for Ivy Classical Academy touted Core Knowledge’s alignment with “internationally benchmarked Common Core State Standards.”
Meanwhile, Texas education officials in 2020 blasted the Hillsdale-affiliated Heritage Classical Academy over trying to slip the Common Core into the Lone Star State. In written comments, reviewers for the state education agency and state board of education noted: “The charter intends to use the Common Core aligned Core Knowledge materials, which are not aligned to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and have not been reviewed by Texas educators nor the SBOE.”
The evidence is clear: ACE is seeking to implement Common Core in Tennessee — with an initial focus on Madison, Maury, Montgomery, Robertson, and Rutherford counties. Core Knowledge, the preferred curriculum and instructional approach for ACE, is connected to Common Core. ACE is led by longtime Common Core advocate Dolores Gresham. Additionally, ACE is seeking a waiver from state law prohibiting the use of Common Core materials. Finally: ACE is part of a nationwide pattern in which other Hillsdale-affiliated charter operators tout Common Core-aligned materials and assessments.
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