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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Social-Promotion Policy Fails Students

In a school system with inadequate curricula, a dependence on constructivist teaching and insufficient focus on academics – some children won’t pick up the concepts before the end of the year. They’ll flunk the tests, they won’t complete their schoolwork, maybe they won’t learn how to multiply or divide – whatever it is – they won’t be ready for the next grade.

They’re probably going there anyway.

Many school districts have policies that students can’t be held back. In Spokane Public Schools, Procedure 4425, written in 1988, says, “No student shall be retained more than once during K-8 grades except in special cases” (“Policies,” 1988). The Procedure says it’s because “research demonstrates that retention does not help students who do not succeed because they have low potential; have social, emotional, or behavioral problems; or lack motivation.” The actual research is not cited.

I’ll cite a research report, then. A 2006 study (Greene & Winter, 2006) assessed the effects of a “test-based promotion policy.” The study found that two years after Florida students had been retained, they had “made significant reading gains relative to the control group of socially promoted students.” The socially promoted students, meanwhile, continued to fall farther behind.

In a January 2007 meeting, I asked (then Spokane Superintendent) Brian Benzel about the district’s policy. He said, “The research around retention shows a very negative correlation between retention and subsequent difficulties.” I asked him in what way, and he said: “It usually makes the learning problems worse rather than better. And so our practice is to differentiate instruction and to be, and to work with, we know that students come in all different sizes, shapes, and degrees of readiness to learn. The old system, if you will, kind of said, ‘We’re going to give you 6 hours a day for 180 days, for 12 ½ years, and we’re going to let the outcome vary. We’ll hold all the time constant, we’ll have managed inputs, and whatever happens, happens.’ In a world where we had Kaiser and farms and mining and timber, that worked fine. But now, as we move to more technology and knowledge, and information management, that isn’t working so well, so we’re in the midst of a big shift from holding our inputs constant to looking at the results being what we want to be constant, or, and we know that a student who starts out here compared to one who starts out here are going to need different things.”

It went on like that. He didn’t cite the actual research.

Being held back probably isn’t good for a child’s self-esteem at that moment, but that doesn’t mean the better thing to do is socially promote the child. Failing at something is a normal, natural part of life. It doesn’t feel good at the time, but it can be instructive – to the student, the family and the school’s accountability system.

I’m not advocating that schools hold back every child who doesn’t meet a standard. I’m pointing out a truth: If students don’t have the skills for the next grade, then some sort of intervention must take place. Procedure 4425 only makes sense if struggling students have a tutor and/or mandatory remedial work so they can get caught up before the next grade. (And this work should probably come with a different approach than it did the first time.)

For most students, there are no tutors. No spring or summer remedial work. Unless parents or teachers make a special effort to find out what’s missing and to get that information into the child’s head, the child is passed to the next grade without the skills needed to be successful there.

Robert Archer, a high-school teacher, said he’s frustrated that students are coming to his class unprepared:

“… many of my ninth-grade students … are thoroughly unprepared for high school in terms of both skills proficiency and work ethic. … What exactly is going on in grades 1-8 in the Spokane Public Schools? If the students are so lacking in basic academic and work skills, how are they even making it to ninth grade?” (2008).

Those students make it to ninth grade in that condition because they weren’t failed and they weren’t sufficiently helped.

I don’t want students to feel badly or stand out because they’re taller and older than everyone else. But things are what they are. How good can it be for their self-esteem to struggle all year and then be promoted to the next grade where they’ll continue to struggle and where the gap in skills is even wider? Do you suppose they’ll eventually get the idea that no one’s ever going to fail them, that maybe they don’t ever have to learn, that maybe there aren’t any real consequences for not trying?

“What are they going to do about it? Fail me? They can’t fail me,” one 4th-grader said to me. What that 4th grader doesn’t realize is that the district is failing him – not in the legitimate, honest way he’s imagining, but in a dishonest, illegitimate way, by passing him through and then blaming him for failing to learn, which it will continue to do until he either graduates or drops out, in either case totally unprepared for the workforce. Meanwhile, teachers wind up with evermore challenging classrooms that are stuffed with 28-30 students of widely varying degrees of ability. As everyone laments the situation, many of the students sadly (and falsely) come to believe they’re incapable of learning. How can such a policy possibly be about self-esteem?

(Pass them through, mind you, and the district doesn’t have to pay to educate them twice.)

Don’t you feel angry when you think about how the children are passed through, like so many defective toys, while the plant managers stand around, nodding their heads, saying how wonderful the production lines are, refusing to pluck any toys off, passing out plaques, winning awards and congratulating each other? The toys get to the end of the line, and there they are – not ready for the marketplace. Doesn’t it make you angry?

If I were a teacher, I’d be angry as I surveyed my students, knowing that half of them don’t have the skills to do the work I’m about to assign. I’d be angry knowing I might get into trouble for telling parents how it is. I’d be angry knowing administrators called it a sign of progress that last year’s WASL pass rate stood at 60% or less and that many of them say nothing at all is wrong. I’m not a teacher, but I’m angry. Doing my research, I spent more than a year angry. Then, I turned that anger into resolve.

I resolve to no longer accept the things that don’t make sense. I resolve to speak up, to advocate for change, to vote with my feet. I resolve to either make the public-school system work for my child – or find a different program that will. I resolve that – regardless of what happens in public school – my child will always be ready for the next grade. She will also become ready for postsecondary life, whatever she wants that to look like.

I’m asking parents to join me. Turn your anger into resolve. Attend board meetings. Contact the district. Ask questions. Find out where your children are in skill. Make sure your children have the skills they need to move forward. If you can, work for systemic change. Together, perhaps we can turn this thing around.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (November, 2008). "Social-promotion policy fails students." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Dec. 2, 2008 at at

Friday, November 21, 2008

Opt Out of Math, Science WASLs

Over 23 months of research, I’ve spoken with administrators, board members, parents, teachers, principals, math professors, math advocates, businesspeople and a few students. I don’t consider myself to be an expert, but I’m knowledgeable enough now to converse somewhat intelligently about the problems and our options.

I’m asking Washington parents to opt out of the math and science WASLs.
  1. Administrators acknowledge that the WASL is the “floor” of expectations. Why waste time, money and resources testing for the floor?
  2. The math WASL is based on standards that are no longer in force. The science standards are being revised right now. Just 40-60% of students typically pass the math WASL. Few students pass the science WASL. Students don't have to pass the math or science WASLs in order to graduate.
  3. The 10th-grade math WASL is being eliminated and replaced by end-of-course tests. The new superintendent has said his goal is to "replace the WASL with a simpler, fairer test."
  4. The math and science WASLs are inadequate indicators of what students have learned. They also don’t show us what isn't being taught (such as algebra, for just one glaring example). No specific feedback about those tests goes back to students or parents.

I ask you: What is the point? Students are spending days, hours and months practicing for tests that aren’t based on the standards, that aren’t accurate measures of what they need to know, and that are likely on their way out.

Just say no. If you’re in Spokane, you can also say no to the SASL (Spokane’s WASLette). Say no to this lame-duck testing process. Say no, say no. Keep your children home those days and teach them there. Or, send them to school with some work you’ve given them. You have the right to say no.

When you opt out, you might be advised that your child’s WASLs will be counted as zeros for the school. You might be told that not taking the WASLs can affect scores and funding for the school, district or state. You might be told that the teacher or principal will be affected by your decision. I say, “Express your sympathy and continue to say no.” The system is broken. What opting out does is acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Right now, you can test your children with something that will give you an idea of the skills they’re missing. If you do this, I suspect you will be shocked. For mathematics, Singapore Math (my personal preference) and Saxon Math are free assessments. Of the assessments listed below, I have personal experience with Singapore Math, Saxon Math and Sylvan Learning.

Saying no to the WASL won’t fix the problems, but it will send a message to the education establishment. Parents in Washington have already tried to send messages – by phone, by letter, by email, and by voting with their feet. Much of the establishment seems to think parents don’t know what they’re talking about. See "Education Establishment Rebuffs Concerns" for more on that.

The Nov. 4 election was just another example of voter preferences being ignored. Before the election, Washington State Superintendent Terry Bergeson was aware that the WASL is a contentious issue. She knew Randy Dorn was campaigning on a platform of WASL opposition. On Nov. 4, voters selected Randy Dorn as the next superintendent of public instruction. On Nov. 5, I received an email from the Public Records Office at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) that answered questions I’d been asking since September. The Nov. 5 email confirmed that new contracts had been signed for several more years of the WASL and alternate tests. What will Randy Dorn be able to do about these contracts?

It must be said that I haven’t seen the contracts. They run thousands of pages, and it would cost me hundreds of dollars to have them copied. A Public Records person has agreed to send copies to me on a CD at a cost of $20.

It must also be said that I’m not a lawyer. In thousands of pages of legalese, what can I say about how binding they’ll be? According to the Nov. 5 email, however, the contracts are done and they total $164.5 million. Here’s the breakdown:

$ 374,861 to Assessment and Evaluation Services for the period 8/1/2008 to 12/31/2010. The scope of work includes coordination of quality control work efforts.
$131,193,205 to Data Recognition Corporation for the period 10/20/2008 – 12/31/2012. The scope of work includes testing operations, scoring and reporting, translations, teacher development.
$ 8,388,699 to Educational Service District 113 for the period 10/20/2008 – 12/31/2012. The scope of work includes the Collection of Evidence (alternative to the WASL).
$ 18,275,563 to Educational Testing Service for the period 7/21/2008 – 12/31/2012. The scope of work includes assisting with work efforts associated with item and test development, and coordination of professional development.
$ 6,592,350 to Measured Progress for the period 10/20/2008 – 12/31/2012. The scope of work includes the Washington Alternate Assessment System Portfolio.

I’ve looked for this information on the OSPI Web site. I’ve waited for it to be disseminated in the Washington media. It wasn't in Terry Bergeson's Nov. 21 State of Education address. I found out about the contracts because I gave OSPI a formal request for public information.

Essentially, OSPI signed away $164.5 million in taxpayer money on contracts the public has repeatedly said it doesn’t want. This might have been hubris. They might have felt locked into doing it. Or, it might have been a final, poisonous pill. Regardless, the contracts are signed. The money is committed. Unless the contracts can be broken, say goodbye to that money, folks.

I’m asking you to say no to the madness. When it comes time for your child to take these lame-duck tests, refuse to participate. You are allowed to say no. Your vote at the ballot might not be respected and your money might be spent on tests that no one has to pass, but you can still vote with your feet. We get to do that in America, and by golly, we should.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (November, 2008). "Opt out of the WASL." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

Links to sample opt-out letters:

    Thursday, November 13, 2008

    Education Establishment Rebuffs Concerns

    A November 2008 headline caught my eye: “Media bias a form of arrogance.” In this article, columnist Cal Thomas criticizes the media: “Journalism is the only profession I know that ignores the wishes of its consumers. If a department store found that most of its customers preferred over-the-calf socks to ankle-length socks, would that store ignore customer preferences for the longer socks because the president of the company preferred the ankle-length style? … Yet journalists have this attitude: ‘we know what’s good for you, so shut up and take it’ … In only the rarest of cases are they confronted with their biases and held accountable” (Thomas, 2008).

    Thomas must not have any school-age children. Members of the public-school establishment tend to ignore the wishes of their consumers, too.

    • For decades, mathematicians, math professors and advocates have complained about “discovery” teaching styles – yet here we are, awash in discovery teaching styles.
    • For decades, they’ve refuted the effectiveness of reform mathematics – yet here we are, awash in reform curricula.
    • For decades, parents have tried to address their concerns with administrators and board members – yet they’ve been repeatedly and consistently rejected as being uninformed, uneducated, unknowledgeable and alone in their complaints.

    On Nov. 5, I went to a Spokane school-board meeting and I asked for five things, including a more traditional track in mathematics. I noted that Spokane’s curricula – all reform – have been heavily criticized by mathematicians, parents, math professors and math advocates; that the state and state’s advisory panel are unlikely to recommend these curricula; that it’s unlikely the curricula are aligned with the revised state math standards; and that clearly, Spokane’s students are having serious problems with basic math skills.

    The board president asked a Spokane principal for his reaction to my comments about reform curriculum Investigations in Number, Data, and Space. The principal replied that as soon as the state stopped revising its math standards, teachers would be able to get more deeply into Investigations and then everything would be fine.

    Parents … Please don’t wait for the district to get it together. Find out what your children should know in mathematics, and then either teach it to them or find someone who will. Rise up, speak your mind, demand accountability, insist on respect for your viewpoints, and – failing all else – vote with your feet. Don’t be dissuaded by the false reassurances, non-answers and argument fallacies you’re likely to receive.

    Nationwide, parents have said:Nationwide, the establishment has replied:
    This approach to mathematics is illogical and counterproductive. Research shows this approach is best. Math might not be your child’s (or your) best subject.
    No one seems able to pass the science tests. We were successful in raising reading scores. We’re working on math. Soon, we’ll get to science.
    A lot of parents are frustrated.You’re the only one who’s ever complained.
    My children need a more direct teaching style.The district is committed to a student-centered approach. Research shows that it builds enthusiasm, cooperation and deeper understanding.
    We want more traditional math. That’s only because it’s what you had as a child. Today’s children need 21st-century math. Research shows they get more from “discovery” approaches.
    We want more phonics. The students who need phonics are able to get that.
    The math curricula aren’t teaching algebra. Students aren’t learning what they need for college. Research says the curricula are fine. Not everyone needs algebra. Not everyone will go to college. The problem is the (money, standards, teachers, students).
    We don’t want our young children using calculators or computers in the classroom. They seem to interfere with learning basic skills. Research shows that technology is helpful and exciting to the students. We’re bringing the latest technological advances into our classrooms to prepare our students for jobs in the 21st century.
    Teachers are reluctant to speak frankly with me about the curricula. They might have issues or be adverse to change. They might not be successful teachers. They might be insubordinate.
    My children need a textbook so they have continuity. We chose programs that align with the standards. The students have the materials they need.
    I want my children to have a textbook so I can help them. Today’s curricula use a hands-on, exploratory approach. Textbooks are boring and expensive, and they’re no longer necessary.
    The teacher seems to be away a lot. Teachers need professional training in order to be truly excellent.
    The constant rotation of substitutes and student teachers confuses the students.
    We work hard to choose the best teaching personnel. They do a fine job, and we’re proud of them.
    The classroom is constantly being distracted by non-academic events. We want to enrich the environment and teach the whole child. We work hard to choose activities that add to the learning experience.
    My child can’t concentrate in these big, noisy classrooms. Has your child ever been tested for ADHD?
    My child knows this material because we taught him at home. He’s bored and beginning to resist coming here. Your child’s teacher works hard to find ways to challenge your child in the classroom. We love our teachers, and we appreciate them.
    My children are frustrated. They’re beginning to act out a bit. Have you spoken with their teachers? Perhaps they need an IEP (Individualized Education Program).
    Fewer than half of the students pass math tests and almost no one passes science.
    Those scores might actually be good, depending on where those groups began.
    Since 1999, the number of students in Advanced Placement classes has tripled, but only half of them pass the exams. We continue to increase AP enrollment and statistically perform well on the AP exam. Students must have learned something while they were there.
    The SAT scores dropped. They didn’t drop here as much as they dropped elsewhere. Overall trends show we’re doing well.
    But the SAT is also taken by private-school students, homeschooled students and students in alternative programs. Yes, but studies show that our students are heading into college well prepared for success.
    Large numbers of students are dropping out or requiring remedial help before beginning their postsecondary life. It’s a national problem, but students who need remedial help can get it. Our teachers are very good, and we appreciate the hard work they do.
    My neighbors have all left the district. They’re suggesting we leave, too.
    We haven’t heard that. People who leave us tend to leave because of jobs, lower-cost housing or a normal demographic ebb and flow.
    We want regular public conversations with policy-makers.You can send us a letter, call us on the phone or set up a private meeting.
    I’m worried about my children’s future in (middle school, high school, college). Your children will be fine because they have you for a parent.

    Parents, you see how it is. The best way to know how your children are doing is to look at what they know versus what they could and should know at their age. Have them tested by outside sources that emphasize more traditional approaches. Find out what the gaps are (I believe you will be shocked).

    All students need phonics. All students need to know long division, multiplication in a vertical format, exponents, fractions, decimals and algebra. They need to know how to show their thinking – not in writing but in mathematical processes. They need to practice basic skills. They need to be able to do arithmetic without a calculator.

    Please don’t wait for the establishment to get it right. Who knows when that will be? As education policy continues to shift under our feet, we must demand the education that our children require and deserve. I’m afraid we’re going to have to fight for it.

    Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (November, 2008). "Education establishment rebuffs concerns." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

    This article has also been posted at at this address:

    Monday, November 10, 2008

    So Many Distractions; So Little Time

    “… those who torment us for our own good, will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
    -- C.S. Lewis

    Several motivational posters are affixed to the wall of the women’s bathroom at an elementary school in Spokane, WA. One of them says: “The aim of education is the knowledge not of facts but of values.”

    That’s an idiotic statement – one that I doubt many teachers actually believe. The first time I noticed the poster, in the spring of 2007, I was running the school’s chess club with my husband, grading much of the math homework for our daughter’s 4th-grade class, and volunteering to tutor 4th graders in math. In math facts.

    In my view, the people who are supposed to teach values are the parents, along with any other support systems the parents feel are helpful. Values should be taught in the schools only insofar as they’re an intrinsic part of the academic environment. As in: Don’t cheat. Do your best work every day. Speak up when you have a problem. Treat your classmates, teacher, desk, school, and textbook with respect. Don’t talk back.

    This is a small, perhaps insignificant poster, yet the concept behind it is real and endemic to the nation’s approach to education. It appears that, rather than turning out competitors, the education establishment wants to turn out its particular vision of moral people. This talk about values is ironic because the values that could be emphasized in public school include building a work ethic and learning to be patient, honest, polite and respectful, learning to work together, to have integrity and to show self-restraint. Other than as it relates to academics, the “values” movement is a complete distraction from the job at hand. It helped create schools in which the focus is not on learning.

    Many perfectly capable 4th, 5th and 6th graders can’t do basic arithmetic or work with fractions. They turn in schoolwork every week that’s a small, silent tragedy. With all of this talk about values and self-esteem, no one seems to question the devastation wreaked on the self-esteem of students who aren’t being taught basic skills.

    In 2006/2007, that devastation appeared to have little effect on how this elementary school organized its schedule. Despite low pass rates on the state tests:

    • At the end of the college basketball season, students were allowed to watch basketball on television in the classroom.
    • The students attended an assembly in which a tape of American Idol contestants exhorted them to sell a product to raise money for the school.
    • Students celebrated Dr. Seuss’s birthday by spending an entire morning listening to a local author talk about his new book.

    I went in the week of Dr. Seuss’s birthday to tutor 4th graders in math, and the teacher told me there was no time for math tutoring. She had to take her class to two huge assemblies that week, and she couldn’t fit the tutoring in. I stood there, staring dismally at the piles of math homework I’d graded the previous weekend. What could I do? I went home. Another day, the children were having a birthday party for the student teacher. I went home. Another day, they were having a party for the teacher of the class they partnered with. I went home. Another day, they were having a party for their own teacher. I went home.

    • In 2006/2007, there were computer classes, character classes, assemblies, class parties, fun events, a field trip, days off and late starts.
    • Children got to play games on the computer during “free time.” As I collected them to help them with their math homework, I had to peel them away from the computer, and some of them Did Not Want to Come.
    • At a PTA meeting, the principal rejected a parent’s request for a school spelling bee, saying that teachers had time for just 15 minutes of spelling per day.
    • There was also little time for science, geography, civics, interpersonal communication or math basics. There was barely enough time for lunch.

    I’m not a Scrooge. I like fun. I want students to be happy. But in the quest for fun and happiness, the time left for actual learning is relatively tiny. And yet every day (except for late starts, holidays, long weekends and teacher training days), students spend approximately six hours a day at school. What are they doing?

    In April 2008, Washington legislators decided they should be talking about people with disabilities. Legislators passed a bill called “Disability History Month” which requires schools to spend October recognizing the disabled. The signed bill says in part:

    “Annually, during the month of October, each public school shall conduct or promote educational activities that provide instruction, awareness, and understanding of disability history and people with disabilities. The activities may include, but not be limited to, school assemblies or guest speaker presentations” (“Certification,” 2008).

    Robert Crabb, a retired assistant principal, wrote a column about Disability History Month, saying:

    “It’s very simple math. Start with six hours of instruction. Subtract however much time you want schools to spend on Disability History. Subtract the time you want them to spend indoctrinating students on moral issues or values. Take away the time needed for any other special agenda that sounds good. What’s left over is the time the school has to teach reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, health and all the rest. It’s a finite number of minutes” (2008).

    Those few precious minutes are slipping away, leaving our children unaware of how uneducated they are. As legislators force schoolchildren to spend time acknowledging various groups of people, they’re interfering with the very process that would allow those groups to succeed in life.

    This week, I wandered over to the elementary school to take a photograph of the poster in the bathroom. As I turned around, I noticed a poster on the opposite wall. This poster purports to quote Mark Twain, and it says, “Knowledge without experience is just information.”

    I agree in principle with that statement, but I would add this as a corollary: “Experience without knowledge can be dangerous.”

    Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:Rogers, L. (November, 2008). "So many distractions; so little time." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

    Tuesday, November 4, 2008

    Constructivism and lack of practice

    Here are two of the clues to America’s current mathematics problem:

    1. “Student-centered” learning (or “constructivism”)
    2. Insufficient practice of basic skills
    “Student-centered” Learning (or “Constructivism”)

    In an October email, Spokane’s secondary mathematics coordinator reaffirmed this district’s commitment to a “student-centered” approach to teaching (also sometimes called “discovery learning” or “constructivism”). In this approach, students often work as partners or in groups, and teachers act as “facilitators” rather than as “instructors.” Students are encouraged to come up with their own multiple solutions to problems and to ask fellow students for help before asking the teacher.

    This is how Spokane Public Schools defines constructivism (“Parent’s,” n.d.):

    “This is an historically used method where skillful teachers personalize teaching to support learning for all students. A productive classroom is learner-centered and includes active instruction. Teachers provide students with experiences that allow them to hypothesize, predict, manipulate objects, pose questions, research, investigate, imagine, and invent. The teacher's role is to structure and lead this process with questions, ongoing assessment and attention to students’ progress toward defined learning objectives.”

    Reform math curricula are typically built around a constructivist approach, probably because the 1989 Standards document from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics calls for it (Stiff, 2001c; “Curriculum,” 2004). Proponents say the approach leads to “deeper understanding,” helpful collaboration and better student enjoyment of the process. Others say a dependence on it can hinder the learning process and frustrate students.

    A local parent told me this story about when his daughter took a math class that used reform math curriculum Connected Mathematics:

    Students were told that “Juan” was mowing a lawn in a right-angle triangle. He wanted to figure out the length of the diagonal. The term “Pythagorean Theorem” (a2 + b2 = c2) wasn’t presented. The students were to work in groups and figure out a way to get the answer. Finally, one student who knew the theorem provided it to her group. (Her group was the only one to get the right answer.) Incredibly, the teacher “chastised” the student for using the formula.

    “A lot of parents don’t believe it at first,” the parent said to me. “Like, their kids are younger, they don’t know, and they feel that parents are exaggerating, but it is the honest-to-God truth, and these stories get worse.”

    In small doses, constructivism can provide flavor to classrooms, but some math professors have told me the approach seems to work better in subjects other than math. That sounds reasonable. The learning of mathematics depends on a logical progression of basic skills. Sixth-graders are not Pythagorus, nor are they math teachers.

    Meanwhile, anti-reform advocacy group Mathematically Correct provides an amusing take on constructivism (“What Is,” 1996):

    “This notion holds that students will learn math better if they are left to discover the rules and methods of mathematics for themselves, rather than being taught by teachers or textbooks. This is not unlike the Socratic method, minus Socrates.”

    Insufficient Practice of Basic Skills

    Another problem in math classrooms is the lack of practice. Instead of insisting that students practice math skills until they’re second nature, educators have labeled this practice “drill and kill” and thrown it under a bus.

    I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase. It’s a strange, flippant way to dismiss a logical process for learning. Drilling is how anyone learns a skill. Removing drilling from the learning process is like saying, “We’ll just remove this gravity. Now stay put.” Everyone drills – athletes, pianists, soldiers, plumbers and doctors. Drilling is necessary. It isn’t good or bad – it’s simply what must be done.

    Imagine if I told chess players they had to figure out the rules of chess on their own, in fits and starts, by trial and error and by asking their fellow players. Imagine if I expected them to win games when they hadn’t had a chance to practice.

    In American education, the “worm” is not yet turning, but it might be looking over its shoulder. In its March 2008 report, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel reintroduced the notion of practicing the basics:

    “Practice allows students to achieve automaticity of basic skills – the fast, accurate, and effortless processing of content information – which frees up working memory for more complex aspects of problem solving” (“Foundations,” 2008, p. 30).

    But children in the system now are stuck with a process that asks them to work in diverse groups to reinvent thousands of years of math procedures which they then don't get to practice.

    Some people enjoy puzzles on logic and process, where things might not be what they seem and where they've got to figure out subtle differences and new ways of thinking. But this esoteric, conceptual approach to math, with a constant struggle to understand the process, doesn't seem like a logical approach for children. Children are concrete thinkers who tend to appreciate concrete ideas. Children want instructions, direction and things that make sense. Many don’t appreciate the daily grind of writing about math, of having to figure out what they're doing, of having to count on classmates for guidance, of trying to remember things they’ve done just once or twice and several weeks ago.

    It’s ironic that proponents of reform math criticize traditionalists for supposedly not knowing “how to teach math to children.” The reform method seems completely oppositional to how children learn best.

    I asked a Spokane student if she prefers the Connected Mathematics she gets in school over the Singapore Math she gets at home. She said, “In a way, Connected Mathematics is easier because you don’t have to know as much math, but in a way, it’s harder because you have to know more. You have to know exactly what they want.”

    She gave me an example of the classroom approach: Students are to gather in groups to discuss a problem. The problem might be a complicated twist on simplistic math, or it might be a concept they’ve never seen before. As the groups muddle around, they don’t always agree on what’s required. Sometimes, they don’t have the necessary underlying skills. Some students become frustrated or bored. Trying to help each other, some confuse the others. They might come up with the right answer, or they might not, but – without practicing the new concepts – the class moves on to something new.

    Singapore Math, on the other hand, “might be harder as far as the math goes," she said, "but at least you know what they want."

    I told her I thought her answer was articulate and enlightening. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people now,” I said, “and you explained things very well.”

    “That’s because they teach it,” she replied, “but I’m the one who has to learn it.”

    Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
    Rogers, L. (November, 2008). "Constructivism and lack of practice." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

    This article was also posted Nov. 9 on at