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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Birth of "reform" = demise of math skills

Curiosity, questions and a tape recorder: That's what I had in January 2007 when I met with the superintendent and the curriculum director of Spokane Public Schools. I thought I'd write an article about why my daughter's 4th-grade class wasn't working. I brought my recorder because I'm a former journalist, and that's what journalists do.

The responses I got that day drove me to ask more questions. By October, my curiosity had become a calling, and in January, it became a book. This book wasn't what I'd planned to do; it became something I had to do.

My book is called "Betrayed." It articulates the lies, ego and blatant opportunism that have turned public education into a public disgrace. School districts across America have betrayed millions of families. Self-serving, self-important "educators" have tortured the process to death with off-the-wall theories as they grasp for billions of taxpayer dollars. Despite being filled with the nicest, most caring teachers and principals you'd ever want to meet, Spokane Public Schools is nearly a "perfect storm" of what's wrong.

Based as it is on lies, ego and greed, public education is failing, and our children pay the price with their futures.

There isn't room here to tell you everything I've discovered, so for now, I'll focus on mathematics. Mathematics is straightforward, and its mishandling is crystal clear. Indeed, it's the proverbial "canary" in the mine.

Spokane, like many districts across the country, uses three reform curricula: "Investigations in Number, Data and Space"; "Connected Mathematics"; and "Core-Plus Mathematics." "Reform mathematics" is the current education fad. It's less about mathematics and more about how educators want to teach math. Reform is heavy on problem solving, estimation, calculators, computers, group work and constructivist approaches (where children figure out things for themselves). It's typically light on basic arithmetic, practice and direct teaching.

Sadly, students whose teachers depend on reform curricula are less likely to know how to multiply vertically, do long division, manage fractions and exponents, or handle much algebra beyond the basics. They're likely to add on their fingers, become dependent on calculators and be confounded by the simplest arithmetic. They're likely to estimate and "think outside of the box," but less likely to know whether their estimations are in the right galaxy. The most capable are likely to get As in school, pass honors classes and standardized tests, yet require remediation before they begin college, learn a trade or enter the workforce.

Reform curricula are popular, but not because they work best or because scientific research supports their efficacy. (They don't, and it doesn't.) They're popular because they've been promoted around the country as being "exemplary."

Here's how that happened.

In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published new standards that focused on problem solving, estimation and calculators, and downplayed "rote use of symbols and operations," "rote practice" and "teaching by telling."

Several of those same authors then developed (or helped develop) curricula based on the standards.

The National Science Foundation financed several of the curricula, including "Investigations," "Connected Mathematics" and "Core-Plus," and it paid to disseminate them around the country.
(The NCTM has denied to me that it advises school districts, uses the word "reform" or is supported by government funding.)

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Education solicited commercial mathematics curricula. Proposals were to be based on NCTM Standards. Despite public protestations from 200+ professionals, the final list of 10 (which included "Connected Mathematics" and "Core-Plus") were endorsed by Secretary Richard Riley and widely promoted as being "promising" or "exemplary."

Later, the NSF called 13 NSF-supported reform curricula "exemplary," including at least five of the DoE's list of 10. It continued to promote and financially support them.

Which came first: the NCTM Standards or colleges of education that promote reform philosophy? I don't know, but they're in sync now.

As this money, ego and flawed philosophy scuttled around the country, the children's math skills fell through the floor.

Ironically, the more children struggled, the harder reform advocates pushed. If it didn't work, it wasn't because "reform" is flawed; it was because teachers needed more "professional development." Calculators and computers were pushed on schools to take the place of basic skills. Standards were revised, pass scores were lowered and assessments became easier. Critical math skills, including long division and multiplication, were deemed "unnecessary." Ninth-grade math class became a game with molding clay and pipe cleaners.

In 2007, Washington's K-12 math standards (which were guided in part by the NCTM Standards) were found to be inadequate and unclear.

No one will tell you that billions of dollars and children's futures were willfully sacrificed on ineffective philosophies.

Meanwhile, despite pitifully low WASL scores (especially in math and science), struggling schools in our district have won state awards for how well they're doing.

That's known as "spin."

In July, The Spokesman-Review commented on the state superintendent's "tendency to gloss over bad news, such as spinning the high school dropout rate." Then it glossed over that bad news by endorsing her re-election bid.

At what point does "spinning" become deceit? I say it's when the intent is to deceive. Estimates of costs for Washington's standardized tests are typically partial figures, covering just state costs and just the actual tests. Estimated dropout figures and graduation rates typically exclude groups of students whose performance would depress the numbers. Statistics that place Washington at first in this or at the top of that are typically extracted from reports that put Washington in the middle of a nation whose performance is generally abysmal.

Administrators can pluck, parse and work the statistics until they say something positive, but the actual data tell a gloomy tale. Ethnic groups and lower-income families suffer, it's true, but don't kid yourself. The gifted and talented are some of the most neglected students in the state and country.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (August, 2008). "Birth of 'reform' = demise of math skills." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

Portions of this article were published August 28, 2008, in The Inlander at
The entire article was published September 6, 2008, in at


Anonymous said...

"As this money, ego and flawed philosophy scuttled around the country, the children's math skills fell through the floor."

Overgeneralizing and polarizing...

concerned said...

If you're wondering how NSF orchestrated this "math reform" mess, you should read David Klein's "Chapter 13" on his website. Very disturbing...

Anonymous said...

Honestly!! When was the last time you used "long division" for work, around home, for citizenship, etc. I can admit that sometimes the "basics" are useful, but so to is an understanding of how math works. Students math skills "fell through the floor" when more kids needed to stay in school to compete in the workplace after school. Kids can no longer leave after 7th or 8th grade and get a good job. This does NOT mean that schools did a better job in the "good old days" when drill and kill was the norm for math education. Lower scores are a result of a broader population being measured.

concerned said...


"Drill and Kill"

has been rightly renamed the

"Thrill of Skill"

Our children will get to experience this thrill when we get the "math junk" out of our public schools.

Fight the Good Fight!

United We Stand!!

Anonymous said...

As a business owner I cannot believe what I am reading on your site. I applaud your passion for helping our public school system, but your thoughts are misguided. I own a business with over 200 full-time employees, all of which are over the age of 25, meaning they went to school when we were teaching memorization and "basics." Every person in my office has a calculator on their desks. This doesn't make them lessor people or employees, it makes them more efficient. Students should be encouraged to think "outside the box" when they are problem solving. I would much rather have students and employees think critically about a problem than be able to do long division.

Laurie Rogers said...

I would much rather have students and employees think critically about a problem than be able to do long division.

Thank you for your comments.
I don't have a problem with calculators. I have several calculators and use them regularly. But I also understand why I'm plugging in certain numbers. When I make a mistake, I can see it right away because I have a sense of the result I should be getting.

You are comparing your workers against children. Your workers have those skills and understanding, whereas the children do not.

I suspect when you try to replace your workers, you will find your younger hires struggling to understand the math you're asking them to do.

I'm in a college math class right now, and TI84 calculators are required. This does not save the students who don't understand the underlying mathematics. They are dropping like flies out of the class, at which point the education establishment is quick to blame their failure on them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply. I am not comparing students with my workers, I am saying I hope and believe that students going through "reform" math will enter the work place with a better understanding because they are given the basics and the underlying concepts as they relate to the real world. My older employees hate math, they think they were never good at it. They have been working with real world problems for years now, that is why they have the understanding, not because the "traditional" math system laid any ground work, it made them not like math and pursue a field they thought had nothing to do with it. The problem is, you use math everywhere, and that is what "reform" math is trying to show students, that math is every where, you don't have to be afraid of it.

Teaching students the same old way by having teachers write problems on the black board doesn't work. It is like trying to teach a baby how to walk by sitting them in a chair and walking in front of them. They have to try it. They have to be able to fall down, try again, understand why they didn't get the right answer, not just have someone tell them, "No...that's wrong."

Laurie Rogers said...

I hope and believe that students going through "reform" math will enter the work place with a better understanding because they are given the basics and the underlying concepts as they relate to the real world.

Unfortunately, our students are NOT getting the basics, Anonymous, and that’s a direct consequence of the reform curricula. The basics are deliberately downplayed, and practice is de-emphasized. Reformers derisively call practice of skills "drill and kill."
I think all good teachers do put information in context so that students have a framework for understanding. But reform is full of context, with very little basic information.
To continue your analogy about the baby, it's like refusing to show the baby how to walk, refusing to allow the baby to practice walking, and then expecting a baby to run a marathon. When the baby asks questions, we tell the baby to go ask his friends. When his friends don’t get it either, we offer them all a motorized walker. And when it’s time for the marathon, and all the babies still haven’t learned to walk, we blame the babies for this failure – saying maybe walking just isn’t their best subject.
I understand what you’re saying. I agree with your basic premise, which is that students should understand WHY they’re doing what they’re doing. I’m certain that most traditionalists would agree with you. But first – students must learn HOW to do what they’re doing. It’s inefficient and ineffective to have them muddle around in herds trying to figure it out. Practice and context then help to cement that understanding.

Reformers expect the babies to run a marathon, while refusing to properly teach them how to walk.

Anonymous said...

"Ethnic groups and lower-income families suffer, it's true, but don't kid yourself. The gifted and talented are some of the most neglected students in the state and country."
Some of the most talented ARE from ethnic groups, you moron!

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Ha, ha. "Some of the most talented ARE from ethnic groups, you moron!"

Yes, of course, and thank you for the rap on the linguistic knuckles. I realize this. You have pointed out the problem with how public education splits children into particular groups. The nearly complete focus of public education is on skin color, ethnicity, income and gender. There is very little money going toward gifted and talented education, and almost none federally. Compare this against the flood of money, time and resources going toward the disadvantaged. As you rightly pointed out, this is a false dichotomy, but it is the dichotomy on which public education insists. In many school districts, the gifted and talented who come from disadvantaged groups are more likely to be helped BECAUSE of their skin color, ethnic background, gender or income status than they are to be helped because of their academic prowess.
Many school administrators are unwilling to accommodate (or in some cases even to acknowledge) their abilities.
As I said, the gifted and talented are some of the most neglected students in the country, and that's true regardless of their skin color, ethnicity, gender or income status.
Thank you for prompting me to clarify this. The next time I say it, I will include this clarification.
I appreciate it.