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Teachers begin sifting through Common Core comments

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Teachers begin sifting through Common Core comments
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia K-12 teachers, faculty members who teach teachers and others in the education field have begun analyzing online comments submitted as part of the state’s Common Core-based standards review, which was launched after many lawmakers tried to eliminate the learning requirements earlier this year.

In July, the state Department of Education, in partnership with West Virginia University and other entities, launched its Academic Spotlight comment website. Kristin Anderson, spokeswoman for the department, said the site received more than 251,400 comments from over 4,100 individuals before it closed Sept. 30.

Officials have said the review effort is expected to cost $300,000, including $100,000 from the education department and another $100,000 from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, which supports education and economic development in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, different “content review teams” — there were 32 total educators involved in different teams — met at WVU’s Erickson Alumni Center from about 10 a.m. to past 4 p.m. to review the comments for grades six through 12 standards and submit recommended changes. There were breaks, although the discussion of the standards continued at at least one table over lunch.

Those teams, some looking at math standards and others at the English/language arts requirements, are supposed to finish up their analysis today. More teams are set to meet Thursday and Friday at Marshall University to review the comments for kindergarten through the fifth grade.

Anderson has said the department will release a “full statistical analysis” of the comments at this month’s West Virginia Board of Education meeting, which starts today. The state school board is expected to vote on any proposed standards changes before the end of this calendar year — and the start of next year’s Legislative session. The standards will have to go on another 30-day public comment period before that board ultimately approves them.

The education department and its partners have been tight-lipped about the review process.

Gypsy Denzine, the dean of WVU’s College of Education and Human Services and a coordinator’s of Tuesday’s meeting, originally told the Gazette-Mail the content review team meetings would not be open to the news media. She eventually said a Gazette-Mail reporter was allowed but told him mid-meeting to turn off his recorder during the teachers’ discussions and to not report on specific comments, so as not to interfere with the review process.

The reporter, after turning the recorder off, asked the eight educators at the table he was sitting at if they’d allow him to quote them on specific comments. They said yes, although the reporter agreed to keep certain discussions off the record.

“You can write down anything I say,” said Melissa Farley, with a note of exasperation. Farley teaches several math courses at Monongalia County’s University High School.

Another teacher at Farley’s table in a conference room — where the educators reviewing the math standards met, sprawling their information out amid glasses of water and coffee from the food table outside — asked a reporter why he didn’t have a binder showing the standards and the comments to follow along with, and the reporter replied that Denzine declined to give him one. The teacher then got up and got one for him, but meeting organizers asked for the binders back from the educators at the end of the meeting.

Gregory Epps, a consultant who works primarily for WVU and helped organize Tuesday’s meeting, also asked for the Gazette-Mail’s copy as the reporter was leaving the building. Denzine also declined Tuesday to provide a list of the 32 individuals involved in the Tuesday’s meeting, saying the list contained personally identifiable information.

The math folder contained the top five most positively received standards and the top five most negatively received standards in each course, from sixth grade through 12th. From a brief look, some standards had very few comments, and even for some standards flagged as the top five most disagreeable, the percentage of actual commenters disagreeing was low. The back of the folder contained a list of all the comments without identifying information.

Many of the comments didn’t contain specifics on why they disagreed with the standards, something state education department officials asked the commenters for. The Academic Spotlight website also said that “only the comments directed at specific standards will be considered.”

Joanna Burt-Kinderman, a district math coach in Pocahontas County who led the table Farley was at, said early at the meeting that it seemed a lot of people just went through and put a thumbs down on standards they didn’t like, without explaining why.

“When you just say, ‘This is bad,’ nothing productive comes from that,” Farley said. “What is your issue?”

By the end of the day, though, the group — tasked with looking at standards not only in the integrated math courses of Math I, II and III that came alongside the state’s adoption of Common Core standards but also the traditionally structured math courses of Algebra, Geometry and Algebra II that the state school board voted in February to allow counties to return to teaching after some math instructors complained — was wondering if it could address issues beyond the five most disagreed-with standards in each course.

Others have criticized a perceived restrictiveness with how the education department’s standards review has focused on specific standards. Burt-Kinderman said the type of standards review was a first and said it’s “cool that it’s happening” but noted that the website required addressing the standards one by one.

“Some of those issues are kind of overarching so, if you address them standard by standard, you’re kind of missing the boat,” she said.

Denzine — who said she’ll send the educators’ written sheets recommending changes alongside an executive summary of the recommendations to Clayton Burch, the state education department’s chief academic officer, for him to draw up a proposed policy change for the state school board to vote on — said the educators will be allowed to give more broad recommendations on the standards, as long as they also address the top five most disagreed with.

She also said she’ll include in her executive summary information, like the questions asked and the numbers of attendees, from the eight physical town halls held on the standards at colleges across the state last month. Educators didn’t address the physical town hall feedback Tuesday.

In contrast to the math teachers’ many standards and far-ranging discussion, a group of six individuals who met on the sixth- through eighth-grade English/language arts standards finished early in their analysis Tuesday, deciding to recommend modifications to six standards, but only in trying to make them more clear and changing the difficulty, or “intensity.” The sixth- through 12th-grade educators will make their final recommendations to Denzine today.

Among issues the educators in the math teams discussed were a perceived confusion in how West Virginia’s Common Core-based standards are numbered compared to Common Core standards elsewhere, and a confusion about why the Legislature has become so opposed to the standards.

Farley and Burt-Kinderman took issue with Delegate Amanda Pasdon, R-Monongalia, and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, who passed through her committee a failed bill to repeal the standards earlier this year. Burt-Kinderman said Pasdon never replied to her emails or phone calls about the standards while the lawmaker was moving to repeal them, despite Pasdon saying she was committed to helping teachers.

“I’m ashamed that I voted for her,” Farley said.