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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:


Anonymous said...

If it helps a little, there are two types of reasoning: 'a priori' and 'a posterior'. A priori is couch science, or knowledge without experience, so I'm justified in saying all bachelors are single. Standards is about a priori knowledge or what every child should know before they turn 18.

Taking public schools further so students learn that other type of knowledge, which most people call experience, is sort of a reach, especially for public schools. But the best example I can think of are vocational programs, like auto shops.

One of the difficulties is when you analyze the learning of mathematics, in which some knowledge is learned and some is inspired and how do you distinguish between the two types of knowledge.

Why in blazes, for instance, would you teach something that is inspired, when it was 'obvious' that eventually students would learn it anyway in their own time?

Of course, the answer is simple, some will be inspired and others won't. Should it still be taught is another matter?

The elementary math programs teach non-standard algorithms, it looks like discovery learning, but it isn't. These algorithms are exercises in regrouping and one strategy used for problem-solving. They have no value in society, in higher learning, or in the work place. So why teach them?

To further complicate matters, students (humans) learn better when they are inspired. They stay motivated longer. Imagine the response, counselors get from studentts - "Guess what? You get to take the WASL prep class and learn a priori knowledge all over again and in addition you have to take this other math class that you've never passed either."

This is not good science. I know from experience what happens.

The Math Wars overflowed into the standards debate, which is about content, not experience. The greatest objection to 'whole math' content are the use of non-standard algorithms for doing whole number operations.

As a result of poor curriculum, students are leaving elementary school without an appropriate foundation in fractions or whole number operations, like 'traditional' long division.

EDM does not introduce long division until sixth grade and children in lower tracks are rarely taught it. Children in private schools start learning this algorithm in the third grade and therefore they have more experience (practice) using it.

Schools start a different set of textbooks (Connected Math) which has less skills practice, yet depends on students already having 'a priori' or content knowledge. The authors envisioned this math to be more 'experiential'. They overlooked the fact that most of their audience are not even of a sufficient reading level to understand the textbook. One of the worst programs to have ever been implemented in a public school.

This is why Milgram and many others have argued that educational research is routinely ignoring established standards. In other words, there are standards, they are just being conveniently not followed.

Opening a textbook and trying to understand the author is sufficient proof - Core plus is a blatant example of how excruciating learning is, in a math classroom. The worst case, I observed was a high school that made Core 1 a requirement for all students.

An elementary feeder school had used Core 1 'without calculators' and these students were forced to take it again. No use, none of these kids were able to pass the WASL, much less go beyond Core 2 by the end of their senior year - WASL Prep and a Senior Math Elective. Did this school care if 40% of their students were leaving for unknown parts of the state? I doubt it, they were deluded by test scores. This principal was a close supporter of Bergeson's - and in good time -there will be, intended or not, consequences.

Surabhi said...

I think it's the culture itself that is not laying enough emphasis on critical skills like learning basic math. Math is not treated as a subject that children do need to master. They somehow get by and pass the tests but their foundation becomes so weak that they just don't get it as they get to middle school or high school.

This issue is something that educationists, teachers, parents and society should take up collectively. Students should know that it's NOT OK to be not good at basic math. Math is more important than soccer, baseball or basketball and should not be ignored!

At, our job is to tutor students of all ages in different grades and those preparing for all sorts of entrance exams; however, it's really sad to learn that a student in his/her 20s is struggling with basic ratio proportion and percentage problems.

Anonymous said...

Blaming 'culture' is the same argument used by 19th century racists to measure one group's intelligence against another. The problem is more complex. Most people equate culture with nationalism and that is an incorrect assumption.

At what point do you define a culture - is it a neighborhood, city, region, state,...etc?

China, India, and Russia are multilingual nations yet they are able to graduate at least 3 times the number of engineers compared to the US. This is the result of their government's efforts to educate their children, not a cultural issue.

Put Russians or Chinese into an American school versus a school in Quebec learning French and English for the first time and you will get a better student from Quebec (similiar classrooms in all three communities) - and that is because the academic programs (textbooks) are better.

Look at the TIMSS data for Ontario and Quebec and compare it with US data. French speaking Quebec does much better. So much better, it was decided to separate Canadians. Clearly, Quebec was doing something much better.

The reason Singapore Math was not a part of the curriculum reviewed in the last round of grants, was it was not reviewed in the first round. While there may be better curriculum available world-wide, it is not here in the US. California put Singapore on its list of approved materials for elementary schools. Why can't other states do the same thing.

I prefer warning school board members first that if they don't open up the math textbooks and read them first before approval, then they are making a big mistake and not really serving kids. At this point, anything is better than Everyday, Core Plus, Connected Math, and Integrated Math.

Niki Hayes said...

As a Seattle principal (2000-2004), we had to do a "time analysis" of how much actual "learning" time actually existed in our elementary school each day. (Middle and high schools did the same analysis.)

First, we took away the "passing times" in every single day--to the students' classrooms each morning (from outside lineup), to and from music, to and from PE, to and from 2 recesses, to and from lunch, lunch, and from their rooms to buses at the end of the day--then we counted traveling to and from sites for field trips, fire drills, earthquake drills, lockdown drills, assemblies, health checkups, FLASH curriculum (sex ed for 5th grade), at least 10test days, class meetings, and a spring activity to raise funds. (We also allowed two parties a year within the school (after lunch)--Halloween and Valentine's Day because they weren't "religious." [Yes, I argued they were based on religious ideas, but I lost the argument.]) Needless to say, I jealously guarded every other minute of the day for our teachers and students. (Our parents were supportive of efforts to keep interruptions at a minimum.)

It turned out we had about 4.5 hours a day, out of the 6.5 hours that we had the kids, to teach academics. That meant reading, writing, math, history, science, art, music, Spanish and character education (with a mandated curriculum from the district).

What would I do? Maybe lengthening the day by 30 minutes would help, but I would get rid of many unnecessary assemblies and mandated minutes in character education, plus tighten test days with cleanly designed tests that measure content knowledge in reading, math, science and history. Writing skills would be measured in the writing test.

Sudhakar said...

I agree with most of what anonymous at 5:31 pm on Nov. 11 said. But I do have to disagree on the topic of culture.

In my opinion, one needs to go through the education system in two different cultures to understand the cultural differences. I may have been fortunate enough experience both. And I can emphatically say that there is a HUGE difference in cultural outlook towards education. Here are only a few areas where they differ:'

1. Priority on academics versus athletics: The American culture is primarily predisposed to athletics. Majority of the parents here tend to get upset if their kids don't do well in sports. In most Asian countries, majority of the parents get upset if their kids don't do well in academics. The government programs have nothing to do with this. To wit: Children of first generation immigrants from Asian countries do well in academics in the US, in spite of being in the same schools as the whites, hispanics and African Americans. My take is that they carry over the same value system from their past, and compensate at home for what is not being taught at school. An American businessman named Bob Compton has amplified this trait in his video "2 Million Minutes", and also in the posts on his blog.

2. Social respect for the teaching profession: Both the teachers and the rest of the society in most Asian countries hold the teaching profession in the highest regard. Teachers understand that they have a heavy burden of educating their nation's youth, so they do their utmost to fulfill that expectation. Parents and students respect teachers more than they do in the US. According to a state senator who is familiar with education issues, the teachers here are always afraid of being perceived as harsh. They instead try to be popular - which usually means handing out good grades for mere passing performance.

3. Perception that achievement depends on talent rather than effort: Most Asian parents believe that if a student falls short on achievement, then he/she is not working hard enough. In the US, the perception tends to be they "ain't got talent". Academic achievement therefore becomes hit or miss, unless the parents intervene. As someone said, success is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration. This is recognized in sports in the US culture, but not in academics.

I strongly believe that the government programs can only lead the horse to the water, culture makes it drink.

Anonymous said...

Culture is something schools cannot change easily. The two values that American schools are good at instilling into children are sports and patriotism.

The function of schools is to educate children and prepare them for work, not preach.

Take a look at a reform math textbook. Despite its appearances these 'exemplary' textbooks are poor substitutes for traditional or 'structural' methods.

If you are a student in a low performing academic track, then you probably don't play sports.

American schools separate students into tracks where each track treats academics differently.

It is far easier to drop to a lower track, then it is to cross up. It helps if your parents are college-educated, employed, and white.

Some schools go to great lengths to separate students by language, ability, and ethnicity. There are even tracks for potential dropouts.

At-risk students get less direct teaching and the 'curriculum' is less rigorous. Very few schools bother to do intervention strategies with students that are 'far below basic'.

Sports helps define mainstream culture at least in schools, but has little influence in motivating at-risk students.

As for immigrants, you cannot generalize - student success is more predicated upon which wave of immigrant parents you arrived with and if you had a formal education in your birthplace. Mathematics taken in your mother tongue at least up to 8th grade will pretty much cover the basic skills needed for success in a US school.

High school students from Mexico City do very well in the US, even while learning English. On the other hand, Chollos (multi-generational immigrant families) are easily identified in low track classrooms.

A teacher college-educated in El Salvador has far less in common with Mexican Americans, than with mainstream white middle class Americans.

Anonymous said...

Talent vs Effort

This is an interesting belief system, but once again far more complex than what it appears. Religion has more of a role than it might seem. The belief in talent or inspiration parallels Protestantism or Orthodox religions, even within Catholicism (although much less so) -- if you research this stuff long enough, you find that religious beliefs, like feminist ideas are also multi-generational.

Bergeson attended a liberal Catholic College in the 60's gives you an idea of why she was attracted to merging Tantric ideas with school policies. Add to this framework, people like McCune and Carkhuff (Spiritualists); Dutch Calvinists; Orthodox; Presbyterians; and UUs. And you have a framework for rigidity that is highly unsuited for working with diverse groups of children.

The truth is that children define more of what culture is than adults do. Children are the language innovators, not adults.

Sudhakar said...

Anonymous on Nov. 11, 9:15 am

"The function of schools is to educate children and prepare them for work, not preach."

I agree completely. But it has not stopped some from trying, and I believe in the wrong direction. I would run away from any school that claims to be a cultural educator. But this wasn't what I was leading to.

My goal was to stress the enormity of the task ahead of a parent who has to make decisions about his/her child's education. I define culture to be something that goes beyond school, and has its sources in the parents' values, what the TV and the internet broadcast, the religious background and influence, the social circle of the student, and the general environment beyond the school. Public schools, I assert, have done enough damage by trying to perpetuate what they believe the student's mindset should be. I do not think this should be the focus of schools.

I would be happy if the schools stuck to their basic charter of teaching the 3"R"s. When the WASL math and science scores are hovering below 50%, I feel the focus needs to go back to what is missing in teaching the basics. But what I think it takes to compete in the global economy is beyond even this simple charter. I think it takes the whole society and culture to get involved.

In short, I believe schools alone cannot (and should not try to) overcome the cultural pressures outside the classroom. But to compete and gain our past #1 spot in the global economy, I believe a cultural shift MUST happen in the society. It has not happened in the recent history, so what will bring it about? I think the source will be the gut wrenching crises happening in our economy. Either that, or we should be content with wherever we fall in the global economic order. And it will not be very pleasant.

A comment on schools and ideologies. Sadly, our public schools have been a battleground for competing ideologies. My take on this is that schools should not be about ideologies. When schools cannot do a good job of teaching the 3 "R"s, preaching ideologies is the last thing I want them to do. I would be happy if the kids can pass a simple community college math placement test.

For more thoughts along these lines, please visit

Anonymous said...

By cultural shift, I presume you mean paradigm shift.

An important part of school culture is athletics, since sports events provide a means of connecting with communities. Sports is also considered 'a posterior' knowledge and a discipline which was valued by the Greeks over 2000 years ago as preparation for fighting their enemies. Music, art, and theater are all considered 'a posterior' knowledge, so public education in the US is only a shameful skeleton of what it once was thirty years ago. To boil it all down to a 'couch' science tells us more about our leaders then it does about education in general.

Liberal arts is one of the foundations of our public school system which is originally derived from the French system of education. So ASL is French, not English. American Standard English (deep structure) is deductive and this is derived from the French, not British (inductive). Public schools were orginally modeled on French Catholic schools - good examples were from Baltimore around 1820 from Jesuit missionaries.

Schools are a significant part of 'child' culture and teachers spend a great deal of time trying to overcome 'casual' behavior. An excellent paper written about social registers describes why teachers feel so much anxiety when children are operating in casual registers and the teacher is using 'formal' register (lecturing to students or giving directions) - Joos (1961) look up sociolinguistics and that will explain more.

The malaise in US education is willful, deliberate neglect that has resulted in billions wasted on soothsayers posing as educators. A government that separates people into two groups based on a test, by definition is Fascist. Culture has nothing to do with it, this is greed and US Grade A bigotry.

Anonymous said...

im a kid and im not good at math and i need a personal online tutor

Laurie Rogers said...

Anonymous said...
"im a kid and im not good at math and i need a personal online tutor"

Anonymous, if you live in the Spokane, Washington area, your parent or guardian can contact Andrew Holguin at 998-7752 regarding free math tutoring at Gonzaga University. (Or you can call John Dacquisto at Gonzaga University regarding the free tutoring.)

If you don't live in the Spokane area, you can ask your parent or guardian to email me at and I will try to help you.

I'll bet you can be much stronger in math than you think.

Sudhakar said...

Dear Anonymous on Jan. 19 at 6:53 pm

Your request did not have many details, so I will try to add a few more options to Ms. Rodger's response.

If you have access to internet and can afford to spend about $100 and have a parent or guardian assist you, you have a couple of on line options:


Both of them use a combination of concept building and practice, followed by frequent tests. The tests are only to see how you are progressing, and won't be reported to your school. Heymath has more US specific curricula, but don't be afraid to try the Singapore version. Many people think it is the best.

If you have more money to spend, like $100 per month, then you can get unlimited math tutoring with your own personal tutor, at:

Getting good at math takes determination and practice, practice, and more practice. Nothing more.

Best of luck!

john said...

I've been thinking about the state of the human mind - specifically about how the human mind directs itself - via signals to correct centers that help create physical motion.

To me the awareness of the individual at any level which gives them the ability to convert mental information about the world into sequences of physical activities is apart of an "Education", the question remains, what do we want people to do (in general, at a minimum?)

I believe there will be breakouts, where some people will learn how to build computers and software, and some will learn how to build entire cities that fit in the palm of your hand.

The wonderful thing though about mathematics is that it gives you a framework for dealing with the domain of information and transformation of ideas. A more general area of study that includes Math should be introduced.

It is my opinion that we as a society need to move to the next level and be realistic with how mind's create constructs internally and focus on the ability of the student's rather on ideologies that fail them.

Students need to not accept failure. I allowed myself to leave school in 7th grade, and get a GED, I'm now 25 and just last year I started studying math again, and I'm now building my own graphics engine and studying Linear Algebra and Multi-Variable Calculus.