Hillsdale President’s Remarks Roil Tennessee Educators

Fallout continued in Tennessee this week after the president of a small, conservative college in Michigan last month criticized the intelligence and credibility of teachers and the programs that train them.

“The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” said Larry P. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, in a conversation with Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee at a private reception. NewsChannel 5, a television station in Nashville, published hidden-camera footage of the event on June 30, sparking a backlash against Arnn — and against Lee, who did not dispute the comments at the time and this week declined to reject or criticize them. Earlier this year Tennessee and Hillsdale announced a formal partnership involving plans for dozens of new charter schools that would use Hillsdale-approved curricula.

College presidents, teacher-education programs, and education organizations in Tennessee have released statements criticizing Arnn’s remarks. The Tennessee Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which represents all teacher-education providers in the state, urged the governor in a public letter to “speak out now in defense of teachers and professional educators.”

“I think the words ‘disappointed,’ ‘uninformed,’ ‘misguided,’ ‘irresponsible’ — those are consistent terms in all of my emails and statements by university presidents, as well as deans across the state,” William Estes, dean of the Helen DeVos College of Education at Lee University, told The Chronicle.

Critics were quick to defend the reputation of teacher-education programs in Tennessee. Ellen McIntyre, dean of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, said in an interview that the standards for educators who train teachers in Tennessee are “the highest I’ve ever seen.” McIntyre has previously taught at three other universities.

According to Estes, students are not allowed into a teacher-education program in Tennessee unless they have a score of 21 or higher (out of 36) on the ACT. Once a student is admitted into a state-approved program, “we have 110 clinical hours minimum before any student-teaching, you’ve got GPA requirements, and even for licensure on the content and pedagogy tests … we have some of the highest requirement scores in the nation.”

Implying that Tennessee’s teacher-education programs are not rigorous, Estes said, is “patently false,” and Lee’s silence is “disappointing.”

McIntyre said she worried about the effects of the controversy on students who plan to become teachers — especially as Tennessee faces a teacher shortage. “It’s a time when our state needs more people to come into the profession and stay in the profession, and these comments will likely deter some from joining the profession,” she said.

‘A Real Stretch’

Lee was not available for comment on the remarks, according to a spokesperson in his office. Emily Stack Davis, a spokesperson for Hillsdale College, wrote in an emailed statement that Arnn had meant no disrespect to teachers — he was “criticizing the educational bureaucracy that has done a great disservice to both teachers and students by depriving them of the high-quality, content-rich education that makes for excellent teaching,” she said.

“To colleges and education programs, Dr. Arnn’s comments should instigate some self-reflection,” Davis wrote. “The poor track record of education programs and certifications is well documented. There’s no denying that something needs to change.”

But Estes said “it’s a real stretch” to interpret Arnn’s comments as not a direct criticism of Tennessee teachers and programs.

Hillsdale’s influence in Tennessee education is deeper than Arnn’s appearance with Lee. In January the Republican governor announced a formal partnership with the conservative college — bolstered by a proposed $32-million budget to fund the opening of 50 “classical charter schools.” Under the arrangement, Hillsdale provides the curriculum and training for those schools, though it doesn’t own or operate them, The New York Times has reported.

After the controversy surrounding Arnn’s remarks, one charter school in Chattanooga cut ties with Hillsdale — despite planning to use its materials to shape teacher curricula — because the school’s leaders “do not wish to participate in media frenzies.”

“We received no indication of dissatisfaction from the school in regard to either Hillsdale’s support or the curriculum and teacher training that was provided,” Davis wrote in response.

Hillsdale has long been a conservative darling. It does not accept federal funding and thus isn’t subject to federal regulations such as the gender-equity law known as Title IX. Hillsdale released the “1776 Curriculum” in July 2021 as a rebuttal to the Times’s “1619 Project,” which aimed to center the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans in the country’s history. Hillsdale’s version offers “a more patriotic approach to American history,” college officials said.

According to Davis, the curriculum was created in response to a lack of primary-source documents in many history classes. “Insofar as it may be viewed ‘controversial’ by some, it is only because it goes against modern ideological narratives that portray the United States as inherently racist from its origins to today,” Davis wrote in an email.

The Michigan college’s influence stretches beyond Tennessee. In Florida, Hillsdale has helped rewrite civics-education standards and opened charter schools. This month the Miami Herald reported that a student and an employee at the college had played roles in the rejection of dozens of math textbooks for “references to critical race theory.”

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