By John Crowder
The January 21, 2015 meeting of the Antioch School Board included two administrative appointments, a presentation by representatives of the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s (DA’s) Office, a review of financial statements, and the adoption of a new, Common Core, language curriculum for grades six through 12.
Early in the meeting, board President Claire Smith announced that, in closed session, the board had appointed Jason Murphy to the position of Director of Educational Services. He had previously been a Vice Principal at Antioch High School. She also announced that Joe Horacek had been appointed to the position of Vice Principal at Dozier Libbey Medical High School (DLMHS). With this latter appointment, the board addressed one of the key concerns expressed by the teaching staff at DLMHS a year ago, when a majority of them had put forward a proposal to convert to a charter school in order to address, among other issues, what they considered a lack of sufficient administrative personnel at the site.
After hearing Superintendent Donald Gill speak about an Emergency Preparedness Simulation, conducted at the District Office, and hearing Student Delegate Reports, the board listened to a presentation from the DA’s office. Assistant District Attorney Laura Delehunt, along with probation officers LaTasha Jones and A.J. Lawrence, spoke about current programs their office provides to AUSD at no charge to the district. They explained how they work with students on issues of drug awareness, gang violence, attendance, and truancy. They noted that cyberbullying is increasingly a topic of conversation with the students.
Tim Forrester, Associate Superintendent, Business and Operations, along with Mia Cancio, Director, Fiscal Services, and a representative from Crowe Horwath, LLP, AUSD’s auditors, discussed the district’s financial condition. The auditor’s report said that spending related to both Measure B and Measure C bonds had been done in accordance with requirements. Forrester also discussed the district’s revenue situation, noting, among other things, that the number of students attending AUSD schools continues to decline, and that, over the course of a fiscal year, the amount of money the state projects it will be providing to the district can vary by millions of dollars.
Later in the meeting, the adoption of new language arts textbooks for grades 6-12, a Common Core curriculum, was considered by the board. Antioch resident Julie Young, who frequently speaks in opposition to Common Core, voiced concern about the amount of money that was to be spent, about $1.2 million, on the textbooks. Young said that the district had only recently purchased language arts textbooks, and questioned the cost of now doing so again. She also expressed concern about whether or not the requirements for informing the public about their right to review the books had been properly carried out.
When it came time for board member comments, Smith, who has, over the past year, questioned the reduction in literary content in textbooks purchased by the district, once again voiced her concerns. Saying that the books, “don’t meet my expectations,” she complained that [the curriculum] “doesn’t meet the needs of our students for literature.”
In an email exchange following the meeting, Smith explained her concerns in more detail. “Several years ago I was able to chat with a university professor of English,” she said. “I have spoken to several others since that time. The one thing they all said they wished that k-12 schools would do is have students read and be educated in the classics of literature. When I review books for our students, I keep that thought in mind. Are we really preparing them for community college or university when we choose a series of books.”
Board Trustees Debra Vinson and Walter Ruehlig also expressed “reservations” about the proposed purchase, but for different reasons.
Vinson, in an email exchange clarifying her remarks, said, “I was not in opposition of the books. I was concerned that the parents had not received adequate notice so that they could review the books. It is not clear since no other parents came forth. I voted in favor of the books because the teachers like the books and feel confident that they can teach with them.”
Ruehlig, also in an email exchange, said that he had concerns that were similar to those expressed by Smith. Referring to the new federal standards for teaching English, he said, “The jury is obviously out on Common Core, but if New York, ahead of other states on implementation, is any indication, caution is necessary. To date, some 50% of New Yorkers disagree with the Common Core roll-out.
With America ranking 27th on international student testing, we can’t just sit and do nothing. Unarguably, rigorous and consistent standards are needed. Furthermore, the push toward critical thinking skills is a good thing.
There is, though, a fear of a runaway train repeat of No Child Left Behind, with common sense losing out, and top-heavy becoming the norm. We don’t benefit by a dogmatic entrenched elite and the publishing industry dictating material.
There is a reason why the classics of literature are defined as such. As timeless art, they cannot be accused of being messengers of current political currency. We need, then, to be balanced in keeping them as integral, for they have withstood the test of time for good reason.
I also fear that the direction toward facilitated discussion, though holding merit, might get unbridled and excessively time-draining. This is especially true in math, where there is long-standing evidence supporting the learning value of continued practice, memorization of basic math facts, and the mastery of algorithms.
Haven’t we seen the effects of stress and of imbalanced measures of competency fed by high-stakes testing? For good measure, throw into the mix the number of disgruntled teachers who will fight this mandate. Then add the expense we face as AUSD recently bought $1.2 million in new books.
I realize, though, that Common Core is the reality in California. It is futile to deny that fact. Certainly, we don’t want to ignore the positives of consistent standards and the goal of workplace readiness.
Nevertheless, we must be vigilant in the delivery of this program and not repeat the mistakes of the past. If we don’t continually question, we will find ourselves, years from now, back at square one, 27th, or worse, in international scores. That doesn’t cut it.”
Board Trustee Cowan, though, expressed an opposing view during board deliberation. “Common Core is high-level thinking,” she said. “It is really what we need, it is in-depth thinking.”
Also in a later email, Cowan said, “After 39 years serving as a teacher and administrator, I have observed the progression of the implementation of curriculum and instruction. At the beginning of my career there was virtually no consistency in the delivery of content and concepts throughout the grade levels and subject areas. Then basic standards were developed that required all students receive and master these standards. Now our state, along with the majority of our nation, has implemented and required an in depth, comprehensive, and rigorous pedagogy for all students. It also requires that students think critically and creatively, which will better prepare them for college, the workforce, and to be more competitive nationally and internationally.”
Cowan continued, “This evolvement has arrived over the decades. The ‘Common Core’ is not at all common. It consists of standards and standards demand accountability. Common Core compares favorably to the standards of International Baccalaureate which are utilized by the most prestigious and successful international and national schools. Common Core is a great equalizer in that all students regardless of background can succeed.”
In spite of the debate regarding the materials, and reservations expressed, the board none-the-less voted in favor of the new curriculum, on a 4-1 vote, with only Smith voting against.
The next regular board meeting is scheduled for February 11. Meetings are held at the AUSD office located at 510 G Street. Meetings typically begin at 7:00 p.m.