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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Parents Can't Get Answers to Questions

Every few months, Spokane Public Schools hosts an online “chat” where parents can “Ask the Superintendent” some questions. The questions and replies are posted on the district’s Web site. In October, a parent sent me his question and the district’s response (which actually came from the district’s secondary mathematics coordinator). His question and the emailed reply were not posted on the district’s Web site.

The parent wrote that his son was getting As in math “without even trying.” He was worried that the program wouldn’t get his son to college. He had spoken with math professors and other concerned parents, he said, and he asked the district to survey parents.

The mathematics coordinator, Rick Biggerstaff, didn’t address the request for a survey. The bolded comments below are drawn from his response; the comments in parentheses are mine:

Enrollment in Advanced Placement classes is increasing, and Spokane “statistically performs very well on the AP exam.”
(AP enrollment statewide is increasing, but lower percentages of students pass AP exams.)

“We do not see our high-achieving students leaving with ‘less’ math than before.”
(What does “before” mean? The current incarnation of reform mathematics was spawned in the 1980s.)

The math standards have “changed 3 times in 5 years.” Spokane’s current math curricula are still aligned with old state learning standards.
(Trying to align reform curricula with constantly changing reform-based standards is like pinning an expensive inadequate tail on a moving inadequate donkey. Who cares if they’re aligned?)

A review of whether current curricula align with the new math standards must wait until January.
(Translation: Don’t hold your breath waiting for better curricula.)

The “level of cognitive engagement in our classrooms” is more important than whether mathematics is presented with a traditional or reform method.
(How math is presented is critically important. Forcing children to reinvent math – as opposed to just teaching it to them – is illogical, time-consuming and ineffective. The children end up “cognitively engaging” about incorrect ideas.)

The district doesn’t plan to change its policy of “student-centered” classrooms, “regardless of content strands set in place by the state.”
(Regardless of what anyone says or does, the district will support constructivist “teaching” methods, where students work in groups to teach math to themselves. Apparently, it does matter which teaching method is used.)

Meanwhile, the parent’s concerns were not addressed.

The entire education establishment is adept at dismissing parent and teacher concerns. (in Maryland) posted an article called “Tactics Used to Maintain the Status Quo.” They generously allowed me to excerpt:

Tactic #1: Tell parents that “You are the only one who complained.”
Tactic #2: Claim that “The research shows that what we are doing is best.”
Tactic #3: “We are the experts. You should trust us to know better than you.”
Tactic #4: Claim that children will suffer if the budget is not significantly increased.
Tactic #5: Accuse critics and parents who ask too many questions of being “against public education.”
Tactic #6: Claim that (the district) is prevented from making changes by the No Child Left Behind Act.
Tactic #7: Avoid taking actions to change the system by ignoring good ideas.
(You can read the entire FrederickEducationReform article on their Web site. The link is noted at the bottom of this article.)

Here Are Other Things I’ve Actually Heard
From the Education Establishment in Spokane and Washington State

  • It’s “elitist” to say that children achieve at different levels, to have programs for the highly capable, or to form classes for similar types of learners.
  • Parents only want a traditional approach because it’s what they had as children. Students find it boring and would rather “discover” thousands of years of math in groups and by inventing their own concepts and methods.
  • Not all children can learn traditional math. Having everyone learn “alternative” methods first gives them “something to fall back on.”
  • People who complain about reform math just “don’t get it.” For example:
    • Parents aren't math smart. They’re obstructionist and stuck in the past.
    • Teachers have their own “issues.” They might not be all that talented.
    • Students have lousy upbringings, raging hormones, short attention spans and poor priorities. Math might not be their strongest subject.
    • Engineers don’t know how to communicate, and math professors don’t know how to teach to children.
    • Advocates are extremist and hypercritical. They have a “hidden” agenda.
  • Parents are not qualified to comment on curriculum choices, but curriculum coordinators who have an education degree and a minor in the specific subject are qualified.
  • Statistics show that things are getting better. We’re upping enrollment in “honors” classes, increasing the “rigor,” “raising the bar” and moving to “the next step.” We’re doing so well, other states look to us for guidance.
  • We don’t need to worry about the highly capable students because they’ll learn anyway. They can work in groups with the struggling students – not to “teach” them, but just to “show” them how to do things.
  • No one needs to learn algebra because not everyone will go to college.
  • Students can pick up any algebra they need in Grade 11 or 12.
  • 60% pass rates might be good depending on where the group began.
  • Children need “21st-century math.” Calculators and computers help them learn math and can even take the place of long division and other arithmetic.
  • We can fix everything with billions more dollars for incentives, technology, instructional coaches, teacher development and initiatives for the disadvantaged.
  • We listen to all feedback. Parents can:
    • present questions at board meetings. (The board doesn’t have to answer questions at board meetings.)
    • talk to administrators. (Administrators politely say everything is fine.)
    • talk with their child’s teacher. (Some teachers are afraid to be frank, or they’re politically careful, or they're too busy to see the whole picture.)
    • talk with principals. (Ditto.)

      I've been asking questions in this district for 22 months, and I have more questions now than when I began. I'd really like to start getting some answers.

      Please note: The information in this post (except for the FrederickEducationReform excerpt) is copyrighted to Laurie H. Rogers. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (October, 2008). "Parents can't get answers to questions." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

      A portion of this article has also been posted on at

      (You can enjoy the entire FrederickEducationReform article at: "Tactics Used To Maintain the Status Quo" If you wish to use the information in the excerpt or any other information from that Web site, please direct your permission request to the operators of that site.)


      Anonymous said...

      Why so adversarial? Can you help this way? I beleive there is enough blame to go around, but holding to a one-sided view and assuming that those in education are somehow out to squeeze the parents out of the process is not helpful and it is just not true. That being said, there is opinion and there is fact, avoid being one of those who doesn't let facts get in the way of their opinion.

      Laurie Rogers said...

      Thank you for your comments. If you continue to read through the blog, I think you will see that I didn't just wake up cranky one morning. I came to my views by being dragged there slowly and painfully over 28 months of intense research.

      I do not see myself as adversarial. I see myself as persistent. When administrators don't want to answer my perfectly reasonable questions, I ask my questions again. At that point, some people will call me adversarial - because it's easier to do that than it is to deal with the underlying issues represented in my questions. In logic, this is known as an ad hominem argument (the person is criticized as a way to deflect attention away from the issue). It happens all of the time in politics.

      I do not see myself as having a one-sided view. I acknowledge that students don't always come to school prepared, that some parents do not sufficiently help the learning process, that the federal NCLB Act has presented schools with unique problems, etc. But if schools did their part properly, many of these problems wouldn’t manifest themselves in the way they do. So, let's talk about one thing at a time - let's talk about what schools can do to improve the learning process. The truth is that some people in education would rather focus on societal and family issues as a way to deflect the conversation away from themselves.

      "Those in education" is a sweeping phrase that makes the statement "Those in education are somehow out to squeeze the parents out of the process" untrue. Of course not everyone in education tries to squeeze parents out. Teachers generally try to involve parents. Many principals welcome parent comment. But - as a whole - parents tend to be deliberately kept out of curriculum and policy decisions. I do believe that the majority of administrators don’t welcome a whole lot of parent involvement in those decisions. A Spokane administrator told me that parents don't have the background required to offer informed input. Ironically, she has a "minor" in the subject she manages, and many parents in this district have "majors" or PhDs in that subject.

      I try very hard to not let "opinion" get in the way of "fact." I have done my research, and I have four boxes of information – comprising some 40-odd pages of properly written references. I have taped interviews that have been transcribed and quoted. I have written a book-length summary. The wealth of fact, figures and proof of argument is definitely on my side. I defy the school districts to show me scientific, peer-reviewed research that supports a reform approach to mathematics as being better than a traditional approach. Administrators who support reform typically cite research that - on closer look - is not scientific, is not replicable, is not peer-reviewed, and sometimes is biased in nature, having been conducted by people with vested interests in promoting reform programs and approaches.

      I admire your determination to be agreeable, but I hope you won’t let that stand in the way of fact, either.