Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Letters to the Editor

April 16, 2014

Common core standards not the problem

— — Mr. Smokey Shott would have done well to quit while he was ahead on the common core topic (Bluefield Daily Telegraph, April 1). When he quoted Mr. Jeb Bush as saying that standards are voluntary and that standards are not a national curriculum, he was correct. Indeed the common core standards have been developed by educators and adopted by many state boards of education as well as their governors upon the recommendation of state education agencies as Shott states, and are not mandated by any part of the federal government, which most of us will agree needs to be less involved in most everything.

It is when he goes on to speak of interpretations of the common core standards by policy makers at the state level and by local boards and educators that he gets a bit off the rail. The addition problem he cites in the math standards, grade one, is not used to teach addition specifically. It is used to introduce students to working with base 10 notation and to begin to understand the commutative and associative properties. That it can be used in an addition example is a way of making the concept more concrete. It does not seem to be to be a great way to teach addition. On this point I agree with Mr. Shott, but I believe that his comment misses the point I made earlier: the point is to begin to conceptualize the associative and commutative properties, concepts which I was not introduced to as a student until I was in eighth-ninth grade algebra one.

The grade one standard itself reads as follows: under Mathematics: Operations and Algebraic Thinking, “Understand and apply properties of operations and the relationship between addition and subtraction.” A second standard reads, “Add and subtract within 20.” A third states, “Work with addition and subtraction equations.” That one could teach addition and subtraction by the model Mr. Shott states is valid; that it is the prescribed only way open to the teacher in interpreting the standard is not necessarily valid.

Where the problem comes into the picture is when those state boards of education develop curricula in which it is mandated not by standard but by interpretation that one method is to be used over another. The same is true in Mr. Shott’s other example of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” which describes from the 8-year-old’s point of view rape by her father. This book is recommended reading for 11th graders; it is not required, it is on the recommended list in an appendix to the 11th grade standards. The key word here is recommended. As I reviewed the English/Language Arts 11th grade common core standards, this one seemed appropriate to the use of Morrison’s work: “Analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone ...” Now, I am not saying that I would use this text within my class; however, I am saying that it can be on the recommended list without being selected and that it is within the purview of a school board or local county school administrations to make those decisions.

I began my career as an English and math teacher. In 1973 I taught Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” to an advanced eighth-ninth grade class in McDowell County Schools. Mrs. Martha Rector and I jointly developed and taught the curriculum. The principal agreed; the county was informed. There are several suggestive sexual scenes where the killing of a female pig is compared to the rape of the pig by a group of boys with spears. This imagery is central to the novel in that the killing described as rape is symptomatic of a post apocalyptic world where boys marooned on an island revert to incivility turned into savagery. One parent indicated to me that he did not want his daughter reading this book. I allowed her to read a different book. This is a bit similar to all of those who oppose the reading of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” on racial word choice reasons. I have never agreed with those who prohibit or limit free speech on the basis of conservative or other ideological principles. An 11th grader ought to be able to read and understand within the context of the work.

I do understand that parents may object to certain books. That is their prerogative. I also understand that teachers may be required to teach curricula in a manner in which they are uncomfortable. And, I also understand that county and state school systems can and do often require teachers to conform. With the high stakes testing environment, this is much worse now than it has ever been, and it will only become more so in the future. There is a fine balancing act between the teacher having some freedom in what is taught in the classroom and what local school administrators, local school boards and state school boards of education require. Much of this is based upon state and local politics, not to mention federal education politics and policies.

In closing, I would urge Mr. Shott to research what influence such large book companies as Pearson Publishing, for example, have on what is taught and when and what influence these companies have on federal and state education policies and curricula. He may find that the larger problem is not in the standards but in the implementation of curricula. That then should lead him to look at the influence of high stakes testing in relation to adopted state standards (i.e. West Virginia State Standards or Virginia Standards of Learning) in relation to curriculum implementation, development and delivery. As Shakespeare said, the trouble may be “not in our stars, But in ourselves ...”

Dr. Tom Blevins


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