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Parents, teachers join pockets of rebellion against Common Core

Teresa Hartsfield homeschools her son Bailey, 10, in Leoma, Tenn., on Wednesday, Oct. 2. She pulled her son out of public school in objection to Common Core standards. Hollis Bennett / Getty Images for NBC News

Editor's note: This story is one in a series on education issues featured at the 2013 Education Nation summit in New York City on Oct. 6-8. To learn more, please visit EducationNation.com.

The Common Core has been billed as the future of education across America, but in small-town Tennessee, Teresa Hartsfield has traded it in for a century-old text.

The Lawrenceburg mom pulled her 10-year-old son Bailey out of public school in protest over the new national academic standards that are being voluntarily implemented in 45 states and Washington, D.C. She is now 11 weeks into a home-schooling program.

"I saw a train wreck coming," Hartsfield said, reeling off a list of complaints about the Common Core — it's backed by the federal government, the standards are too tough, it abandons old-school rote learning for show-your-work models.

"We're teaching out of 1920 spelling books," she said proudly of her efforts at home. "Yes, it's memorization. You can't do this without memorization."

While Bailey is tackling fourth-grade vocabulary, state lawmakers in Nashville are still grappling with the ABCs of the Common Core.

Three years after the Legislature adopted the standards with little hand-wringing — and a check from the federal Race to the Top program — growing controversy has the politicians taking a second look. Two days of hearings were held last month, even though 35,000 educators have already been trained.

Opposition to the standards covers a spectrum of mistrust: accusations that new tests will be used to mine data on students, complaints that Bill Gates and other corporate interests are in control, rumors that kids will no longer be allowed to read "Moby Dick."

Wisconsin, Florida, other states also rethink Core

In Tennessee and elsewhere, the anti-Core movement also has spawned some unexpected bedfellows.

Critics include not just members of the conservative Tea Party, who cast it as a instance of the federal government trampling on state rights, but also the progressive Badass Teacher Association, which gripes that teachers will be micro-managed and blamed for inevitable failures in a system that hinges on high-stakes testing.

"There are people in this fight fighting for different reasons, but the objective is the same," said Karen Bracken, a founder of Tennessee Against the Common Core.

"Some people are concerned about the data. Some are concerned about the textbooks. Some are concerned about the constitutionality. Some people are concerned about the union issues."

Backers say the Common Core replaces a crazy-quilt of too-low standards with streamlined benchmarks that emphasize problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to help students compete globally — and that critics are twisting the principles to score political points.

"We have heard teachers say, 'This is why I got into teaching,'" said Jamie Woodson, president of SCORE, a non-profit advocacy group that supports the Common Core in Tennessee.

Tennessee isn't the only state reviewing the Common Core at the 11th hour. Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker last month called for a new round of hearings, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican, recently joined a cluster of states that have pulled out of the multi-state consortium in charge of creating new assessment tests.

The Hartsfield family says the Pledge of Allegiance before homeschooling begins. Hollis Bennett / Getty Images for NBC News

Although the debate has been heated, during the hearings in Nashville last month, there were no fireworks. A committee gave the state education commissioner a list of questions and suggested that legislation could be coming when the new session begins in January.

The head of Tennessee's Senate Education Committee, Dolores Gresham, declined an interview, but committee member Stacey Campfield, a very conservative Republican, suggested there could be a push-back despite Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's staunch support of the new standards.

Like Florida, Campfield said, Tennessee could pull out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the consortium creating the national tests slated to replace state ones in 2014-2015, or delay statewide implementation of the standards which is now scheduled to be completed by the end of the school year.

Taking issue with 'unfunded mandates' and Toni Morrison 

Campfield's problems with the Common Core range from philosophical — "We don't like when the federal government hands down unfunded mandates" — to practical.

A slower progression of math courses means Algebra 1 doesn't start until high school, making it tougher to squeeze in calculus before college, he said, although some researchers argue that much of the algebra material is covered in eighth-grade math under a different name.

Campfield also takes issue with some of the recommended reading material, singling out the Toni Morrison novel "The Bluest Eye," with its theme of incest.

"That reads out of Penthouse Forum or something like that," Campfield said. "That's not something an 11th grader needs to be reading in school."

Tennessee's Core advocates stress that the standards are just that and not a curriculum. State and local school districts can select their own textbooks and other materials, although there is a decided emphasis on reading and analyzing original non-fiction materials, like the Gettysburg Address.

"I think there is a lot of misinformation that has come into our state," Woodson said.

She noted that five out of seven anti-Core speakers at the hearings were from out of state. "There was very much a national playbook feel to the strategy around that hearing," she said.

Tennessee was already in the process of toughening up its standards when it signed onto the Common Core. A 2007 report found state assessments listed 87 percent of kids at grade level for math and reading — a number that dropped to 21 percent by national standards, Woodson said.

'Students are not ready for increased rigor'

Susan Norwood, a Badass Teachers member who works in a Nashville high school, said making the standards uniform won't necessarily raise academic achievement.

"They want to increase the rigor but a lot of students are not ready for increased rigor," she said. "If you have sophomores who are reading at an elementary level, how is increasing the rigor going to help them?"

Bailey Hartsfield's mom said her son's classmates were not mastering third-grade math under the old standards last year. She was worried what would happen when the Core hit fourth grade this year.

"You're gonna kill them is what you're gonna do," she said.

But at the hearing, Trousdale County Schools Director Clint Satterfield said the Common Core has already boosted test scores among poor students and choked up as he spoke about students who never get to college because of low expectations.

"These may not be the best standards," he said. "But they're a heck of a lot better than what we have."