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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Board meeting yields few answers

[Edited Oct. 11, 2011, to correct spelling of a name.]

By Laurie H. Rogers

On Nov. 5, 2008, I went to a Spokane Public Schools board meeting and asked for five things – three having to do with accountability and communication, and two having to do with mathematics.

I left written copies of my requests with board members and the secretary who keeps the minutes. Knowing that board meetings are considered to be “business meetings,” I suspected that board members wouldn’t discuss my requests with me that night. I was right. Board President Rocco Treppiedi told me the board would respond to my requests in writing.

Later, Treppiedi asked an area principal for his reaction to my comments about reform mathematics curriculum Investigations in Number, Data, and Space. The principal said he was confident that things would improve once teachers had a chance to delve more deeply into the curriculum.

When the minutes from that Nov. 5 meeting were approved and posted on the school board Web site at, my entire presentation was winnowed down to exactly this:

“Ms. Laurie Rogers commented on her research of public education over the past two years and distributed a list of items she would like to see changed in Spokane Public Schools. She noted that the list is given in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. President Treppiedi noted that the staff can get back to Ms. Rogers with a response in writing” (“Regular,” 2008). There is nothing in the minutes to tell the public what I requested or why. (Treppiedi’s aforementioned exchange with the principal isn’t in the minutes either.) It’s ironic, considering that the first item on my list had to do with providing opportunities for the community to have regular two-way public dialogue with the school board. In brief, here’s what I requested:

1. Dialogue.Currently, parents can’t initiate open, two-way public dialogue on topics of our choosing with the entire District 81 school board. I asked the board to offer regular opportunities to do that. 2. Inclusion.A District 81 curriculum coordinator told me that parents are not invited into curriculum discussions or decisions because we don’t have the background to offer informed feedback. Recognizing that many parents have a stronger background in math than that curriculum coordinator – and that parents who have no background in math still have valuable things to say – I asked the board to include parents in curriculum discussions and decisions. 3. Details.According to former board President Christine Querna, the board debates the issues in “work sessions.” Regular board meetings are where members vote on items they’ve already discussed. Currently, notice of the work sessions is briefly given at the very bottom of board meeting agendas, but no details are provided of planned topics or guests. I asked the board to post details of the work sessions in a prominent, easy-to-find place on the district and school board Web sites so that parents can determine if they wish to attend. 4. Choice of a traditional track in mathematics.The National Mathematics Advisory Panel has recommended more traditional mathematics in K-12 schools. Washington State’s revised mathematics standards include more traditional mathematics. Recent curriculum reviews have indicated that Spokane’s mathematics curricula – all reform – are inadequate. (Neither Connected Mathematics nor Investigations in Number, Data, and Space are recommended by the review panel; neither are on the final list of recommendations from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.) I asked the board to immediately offer parents the choice of a more traditional track in mathematics. 5. Tutoring.Test results, dropout rates, and tutoring and remediation rates all indicate serious problems relative to math in Spokane. Clearly, many students don’t have the skills they need to begin a more rigorous curriculum, much less graduate or go to college. I asked the board to offer tutoring and remedial help in traditional mathematics for all students so they can catch up to where they should have been.Two weeks after I made this presentation, I received the board members’ written response. Following are brief summaries of their comments:

1. Dialogue.Board members said they “have considered” reinstating the bi-monthly Coffee and Conversation public meetings the board used to host. (No decision or timeline is given, however.) 2. Inclusion.Board members said: “The district curriculum is developed by staff and administrators…Final adoption of any curricular materials is our responsibility as School Board Directors, serving as elected representatives of the community.” (No acknowledgement is made of the value or appropriateness of including parents in curriculum decisions.) 3. Details.Board members said there are plans in place to revise the Web site, including making the work sessions “more visible.” 4. Choice of a traditional track in mathematics.It’s a “lengthy process,” the board members wrote, to align curricula with state standards. Recently, the state math standards changed. The State Board of Education is finding out if financial incentives can be offered to publishers to align their texts “more closely with the revised state standards.” Therefore, the board members concluded, “It will be prudent for us to wait and see what new materials might be available for our use.” (In other words, don’t hold your breath waiting for traditional math curricula. No acknowledgement is made of the district’s problems in mathematics, the weakness of reform curricula, or the desperate need for a more traditional approach.) 5. Tutoring.Board members said: “Tutoring help for students who fall behind in any subject is one effective intervention strategy, and we are able to do that on a limited basis…Improved state funding for basic education is essential for districts to use local levy funds to provide extracurricular supports, like tutoring.” (No acknowledgement is made of the need across the entire district for immediate tutoring in basic math skills.)Perhaps behind the board’s carefully crafted response, there is much going on. Perhaps board members agree with me and just won’t say it in public or on paper. Perhaps I’m to assume I was taken seriously, that my concerns are being discussed at length, and that now, I just need to be patient. Perhaps if we all sat down together at a friendly barbecue, board members would confide their intent to immediately implement all five requests. They might even indicate their support of a sixth request - to replace our two lame-duck math tests (the WASL and SASL) with a single test that will tell us just how wide the gap is between what students know and what they need to know for college (or even just to meet the newly revised math standards).

But why would I assume any of that? At the board meeting, no board member or administrator offered me any vocal understanding, encouragement or support, and no one asked to see my research. In the meeting minutes, my presentation was edited down until it meant nothing and said nothing. The board’s written response to my presentation is careful and oblique. It acknowledges little and commits to just one small item. Most of it can be interpreted to mean anything at all. It’s the kind of response I expect from politicians and lawyers.

I plan to go to another meeting and ask that my specific requests be put in the public record. I’ll add the sixth request to the list since it makes sense. I’ll let you know what happens. No doubt you’ll be able to read in the minutes that I was there, but I can’t guarantee that the minutes will tell you what I said or what the board members said in reply.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (December, 2008). "Board meeting yields few answers." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:


Anonymous said...

If I'm correct, NCLB (with its federal dollars) requires specific actions by districts to include parents in decision-making.

I know for a fact that any LAP (Learning Assistance Program) and Title 1 programs, which include federal dollars, MUST have written plans for parent inclusion.

It would be interesting to see the district's submitted documents on these three programs.

Anonymous said...

NCLB shortcircuits Title I. The Principals and Sups do as they want, the Feds won't act and in Washington there are no whistleblower laws protecting teachers.

The best way to beat a non-cooperative administration is invite the public to board meetings and fill up the room with concerned parents.

Catherine Johnson said...

Laurie - Have you alerted them to the fact that Scarsdale has just dumped Math Trailblazers & adopted Singapore Math?

Several other districts here in Westchester County are now actively considering abandoning constructivist math curricula for Singapore Math.

Of course, my fear is that Singapore Math will be turned into fuzzy math; already we have consultants who can be brought in to school districts to help them do just that.

Nevertheless, the fact that a high-profile district like Scarsdale has abandoned the constructivist math curricula is meaningful.

I'll send you the news stories.

Bob Douthitt said...

Why don't you just post both your letter, and the board's response letter? That will show your concerns and its response more accurately. Personally, I thought you had some legitimate points, and the board also had some legitimate reasons for not wanting to do everything you suggested, but certainly the open nature of that exchange did not come across on your most recent posting.
Also, although your ongoing research wasn't a topic of your presentation, I would be interested in reading it, since you raised that idea in this post. You could leave a copy for me at the district office at your convenience. Thanks very much. Bob Douthitt/School Board Member

Laurie Rogers said...

Mr. Douthitt, I'll be happy to provide you with a copy of my research. I need a few days to update it - much has happened recently. Thank you for asking.

I do think I've given the salient points of what I said at the board meeting and what the board replied in its written response. When I talk about "open" dialogue, I'm referring to two-way public dialogue (for which the topic isn't set by the district). If you can provide specifics of how I can provide a more accurate picture, I'll make the necessary changes right away.

Meanwhile, thank you again for writing. I'll contact you soon about the research.