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Arne Duncan Talks K-12 Policy in Tennessee, Where It's Somewhat Stalled

Well, this might be awkward.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is speaking on Tuesday at the Tennessee Educational Leadership Conference, the state education department's annual summit, where he's slated to tout the academic progress in Tennessee and the importance of strong school leadership in the transition to new standards and assessments.

The Volunteer State has been Duncan's education reform darling since it first won a $500 million Race to the Top grant back in 2010, and even more so since last November when Tennessee turned out to be the fastest academically improving state in the county, according to the National Assessment on Education Progress test, or NAEP.

So what makes the timing of Duncan's address a little messy?

For one thing, the state punted on the new assessments it was slated to begin using this school year. Back in April, the legislature passed a bill that delayed the implementation of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and re-opened the bidding process for the state tests entirely.

And just last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced that the state will soon begin a public vetting of the Common Core State Standards, which most teachers in Tennessee have been using now for two years. While Haslam, a Republican, still publicly supports the standards, the move comes amidst growing backlash toward the common core, especially among conservatives who increasingly see them as a federal initiative.

The governor's announcement also comes about a month before the state legislature gears up for a new session, one in which many educators expect its GOP members to push through legislation to repeal the standards entirely.

What makes Haslam's semi-about face particularly striking is that Tennessee tackled one of the most extensive and expensive common-core training efforts in the country, directing $40 million from its Race to the Top war chest to standards training alone.

All of this is to say that Duncan's speech may sound more like a call to arms to defend mounting attempts to roll back education policy overhauls put in place over the last few years, rather than a glowing salute to the progress Tennessee has made thus far.

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