Kami Cotler aka Elizabeth from ‘The Waltons’: Common Core and American education

By Lynn R. Mitchell

Just about everyone remembers Kami Cotler, better known as Elizabeth from the beloved Virginia-based “The Waltons” television series from the 1970s that centered on Depression-era life and World War II in Nelson County’s Rockfish Valley. She was the youngest, the red-headed little sister who grew up in front of our eyes.

Ms. Cotler has a public Facebook page made up of more than 76,000 “Waltons” fans where she answers questions and chats with admirers. Now 49 years old and married with two children, she left acting after “The Waltons” and became an educator who has taught math in middle and high school.

Recently on her Facebook page, she posted a video (see above) and left this comment about the math program, Common Core:

Here’s a pretty sweet explanation of the idea behind the new math standards. The trick is you need to have math teachers with real, profound number sense. It’s hard to find good math teachers who teach math the old way…

Even though she got a thumbs-up from 1,000 followers and had 492 shares, she also received plenty of push-back, some in the form of rude comments from those opposed to Common Core. Wading through the hundreds of comments, Ms. Cotler patiently responded to the nay-sayers, some who turned the discussion political by posting links to various pundits who has expressed disapproval of the math program.

One commenter posted a link to libertarian radio host Glenn Beck who was putting down the program. Ms. Cotler responded:

Looking at the California Common Core– Informational texts are biographies, articles on economics or politics– basically non-fiction. The stuff you need to be able to read to be informed and vote. Sample texts for middle school include works by Winston Churchill and John Adams, neither of whom would have wanted folks to be mindlessly dependent on their government. I don’t know if Glen Beck has read the Common Core.”

Another commenter wrote, “Common Core is just a move to dumb down America. Math facts are facts. Do not fix what is not broken,” to which Ms. Cotler noted:

80% of the 6th graders who arrive at my middle school can’t do 3rd grade math. They have been taught the steps to multiplication, fractions, decimals hundreds and hundreds of times. They misapply the steps. They are completely confused and have become passive because they have been confused for years. We need to slow down, take time with fundamental math concepts and make sure kids understand the ideas. I don’t see that as dumbing down and I do see the system as broken.

She expanded on that:

All I know is this– I watch teachers attempt to teach the “old” way– they repeat the steps over and over. They have students repeat them over and over. Then they move to the next topic and the students forget them. I want students to understand how and why the steps work. I want them to understand their own process for solving the problem. If they can explain why their answer is right, then they have a deeper understanding and, I believe, are more likely to remember what they have learned.

One of the milder comments was that Common Core was junk while another person said it was a useless program. A number of the commenters basically said that the old math was good enough for them so why not for today’s generation. Still others were sure it was a conspiracy by the government to control America’s children.

After answering and responding to numerous comments, Ms. Cotler next posted a status that reflected what had happened with the previous post:

Wow. So Common Core is clearly a hot button issue for many of you. #1 Remember the Tribes Agreements– “It sucks” is not an OK response to a post. It’s just a put down. Tell me what you think and why, because this stuff is REALLY interesting to me. I’m an educator, remember? Also, I am not 100% behind any set of standards. However, I do think the way we teach needs to improve and I believe math instruction could be amazing, but rarely is.

Once again she received 1,000 thumbs-ups along with plenty of comments.

This comment was indicative of those against government involvement:

Federal government should never be in our education. Bill and Melinda gates fund this and eventually will replace truth with lie and the dummbing down of our students. The STEM program which is part of cc will pick and choose children starting at 7th grade and determine who they think can get a job in science, tech, engine, and math. You will be required to pick a career by 10th grade. Michigan is first to start STEM..and they figure it by collecting data…our children will be walking data instead of kids.

Then someone posted a link to a libertarian-leaning blog that was negative toward the creator of Common Core, David Coleman. Ms. Cotler responded after doing her own research:

So I looked him up. He’s a Yale grade. He heads the College Board (not that I’m a huge fan of the SAT), but he is leading a reform effort to make the SAT less biased against kids from working class backgrounds. The article you [linked to] does infer that attempts to collect and use data are nefarious. However, California was compelled to create statewide data because it literally lost thousands of kids each year– not knowing if they moved out of state or dropped out or changed districts. The state couldn’t come close to calculating a drop out rate, so it could hide how poorly many schools were doing. In education easy access to data helps teachers figure out how effective their instruction is. And the Gates foundation supports charter schools because, like most of the tech industry, it’s desperate for better trained folks who can work for Microsoft. I think there are better explanations for these things than massive conspiracy.

So her third Facebook status was this:

Do we learn better when someone just tells us something or when we have an experience that we deeply understand? Would you understand how an engine worked better if I just told you about the parts, or if you took an engine apart and put it back together? Math instruction is better when students can make meaning in the math classroom. Learning is better when students expect to understand and are willing to “fight” until they do understand.

With 1,200 thumbs-ups and more shares, Ms. Cotler again, as she did with the previous posts, patiently responded to commenters. One had this to say:

I don’t believe this debate is about mathmatics, or hands on experiences. It’s about teaching todays youth about problem solving and learning to solve problems on their own with the tools they have at their desposal. People don’t have to think any more, they have technology to do it for them. In todays society where instant gratifaction is expected from everyone for everything they do, shortcuts are often created and problems get solved without knowing why or how it was solved. It seems today that knowing the answer to a problem is all that’s required, and it doesn’t matter how we find it as long as it’s found quickly. I don’t believe that we as educators, or parents or religious leaders are doing enough to teach our youth how to think for themselves, and make sound decisions, and that makes me sad. For all of you who are about to rip me apart for my coments,just know that I wasn’t talking about you, i’m refering to the hundreds of million other people on the planet.

To which Ms. Cotler wrote:

Fascinating. The new Smarter Balanced tests in California ask students to explain how they got their answers in math. It’s going to be really interesting seeing how students manage this expectations and how teachers try and prepare them to explain their thinking.

For anyone interested in this subject — and obviously it is indeed a hot-button issue for many — reading through the hundreds of comments is an eye-opener about something that was meant to help students.

For an explanation of Common Core, see here. Below is a brief explanation of how and why:

Two big, complex problems. First, American students are middle-of-the-road at best on academic skills when compared to other countries on international tests. Policymakers and business leaders hope that tougher standards will help the US catch up globally.

Second, under the old system, it was hard to compare students in different states. Until now, each state set its own standards for what students should understand at each grade level, and each state had a different definition for what it meant to be “proficient” in math and reading.

The US Education Department’s statisticians found a lot of variation when they mapped state standards onto scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That test is called the “Nation’s Report Card” — a standardized test students take nationally every few years. They also found that even students who met state goals might not actually be doing all that well, since the national exam set the bar higher than states did. In the federal government’s eyes, all states had standards that were too low, and there was too much variation on how low they were.

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