DANVILLE -- Amid a chorus of parents' voices opposing the adoption of federally-driven educational standards into their local classrooms, the San Ramon Valley United School District Board of Education last week unanimously approved a plan to do exactly that.

According to the $6.2 million proposal to incorporate Common Core standards into their classrooms, the district will spend nearly $3.2 million in professional development. It plans to spend another $2.2 million on technology to adopt these nationwide standards at their schools and $800,000 for instructional materials.

Forty-five states, including California, and the District of Columbia have adopted Common Core standards. They are aimed at providing more relevant and practical instruction and engaging students' collaborative and critical thinking skills rather than rote memorization skills.

Board members, including Denise Jennison, Ken Mintz and Mark Jewett, expressed enthusiasm and support for Common Core's perceived ability to better engage students and teach critical thinking in the classroom.

"I think we would be crazy not do to this," said new board President Rachel Hurd. "The best teachers in the district have been teaching this way for years."

Yet, about seven people in the audience argued that the district's decision to adopt Common Core would lower academic standards and discourage independent teaching and thinking.

Anne Blake, of Alamo, said that it would give the federal government too much control -- only serving "to control the minds of the next generation," tethering them to "the edu-crats in Washington, D.C."

"America is supposed to be a free republic -- not a budding socialist state," she said.

Funding reminder

Board member Greg Marvel, however, said he supported the change because the district risks having all of its state funding withheld over time if it does not meet the state-adopted standards.

"Thus, I don't believe this is the venue to try to get Common Core rescinded," he said. "This issue is really with Sacramento -- not us."

For that reason, he suggested that opponents, if they feel so strongly, turn to a different forum to halt Common Core -- the state's initiative process.

But Sarah Boatwright, of Danville, said that she was disturbed that Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye was a Common Core-recommended book. Alarmed by what she described as "its explicit pedophilia, rape and incest," she demanded: "Why is this on our list, and how did it get there?"

Her son, Daniel, a high schooler, added that he worried that students wouldn't be able to fit in Advanced Placement Calculus BC under the new standards.

And her husband, Daniel Boatwright, said he feared teachers -- some of whom offered sample Common Core lessons to show their effectiveness at engaging students -- were only doing so because they felt pressure as district employees.

"I would like to see you have a healthy skepticism, and I'd like to see you use your critical thinking skills," he said, asking for a delay of the vote.

However, Kimberley Gilles, an award-winning English teacher at Monte Vista High School in Danville, countered: "we are not docile; we are not sheep."

"No one is going to force us to do what is not in the best interests of our students," she said, adding she has used similar innovative teaching methods for years.

Gregory Duran, a Dougherty Valley High School math teacher, said that he'd spent 18 years in the high-tech business world before becoming a teacher -- and he was dismayed by how much the memorization of formulas and steps dominated instruction.

But Common Core teaches students "how to think like mathematicians," he said. "It's teaching kids to think conceptually. It's teaching kids to think beyond just turning the crank."

Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.

Sample Common Core lessons for fifth- to eighth-graders in writing from district educator Nicole Padoan:
  • In the past, students would be asked to write a report on the Westward Expansion by researching the topic and assembling stacks of index cards with notes on it, writing an outline and then, a report.
    Under Common Core, students would be told to research and gather information on the topic for a more imaginative assignment. They'd be told, for instance: "Pretend you are a pioneer. Write a letter to a loved one explaining why in the early 1800s you've decided to go west. Make sure you include what your new home and living conditions are like, as well as information about the expedition of Lewis and Clark, the Louisiana Purchase and Sacagawea.
  • To teach organizational and critical thinking skills for writing, students will be asked to work on a brainstorming exercise:
    "Working in pairs and using a stack of post-its, write down quickly everything you know about the Westward Expansion, using brief terms such as 'Gold Rush,' 'Lewis and Clark' and 'Louisiana Purchase.' Then organize them into categories, asking yourself, 'Which terms belong together? Which belong by themselves?' Then, turn to your partners and explain why and how you each chose your categories.
    The results of this exercise will help lay an organizational foundation.