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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Parents have the power to change everything

"We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
-- Thomas Paine

How did public education get to be so complicated, cumbersome, expensive and ineffective? I know that teachers care and try hard. I know staff members capably do their jobs. Yet, ineffective classroom policies persist. Teachers feel they can’t speak freely. Parents are shut out of the decision-making process. Administrators continue to enthusiastically embrace ridiculously ineffective curricula. Money continually gets frittered away on things that won’t have a positive effect on student learning.
Education advocates keep hearing: “You’re the only one who’s ever complained.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of problems like the ones you’ve described.”
“Parents who leave our district don’t leave because of the curriculum or learning environment.”

More than a year ago, I wondered what administrators thought of the reform math curricula that have resulted in such low levels of competency across the entire country. In November 2007, I asked Debbie Oakley, Spokane’s elementary math coordinator, if she thought the district’s K-6 math curricula (all reform) were good. All she would say is that the curricula wouldn’t be here if administrators didn’t think they were good. Logically, then, district administrators must believe the programs are good – since they’re still here. But that’s weird, inundated as the district is with a wealth of evidence that says otherwise.

In the fall of 2008, a survey was done of families who had chosen to leave Spokane Public Schools. Thirty-three percent of the respondents said they left partly or solely because the quality of the curriculum was less than they expected; 21% said the desired coursework wasn’t available. (This survey did not include families who chose to go to private schools. I suspect that many of them also left over the curriculum.)

On Jan. 14, 2008, I emailed Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell to ask the following questions about this survey:

  • “What did you learn from this report that you didn't know before?
  • Did this report say what you thought it would say? If not, what were the surprises?
  • What does this report indicate to you about why these parents have left Spokane Public Schools?
  • What do you think Spokane Public Schools should do as a consequence of this survey?
  • Will Spokane Public Schools try to get these parents back?
  • How will Spokane Public Schools encourage other parents to stay with the district?
  • Will there be more exit surveys like this one? Will surveys become a regular process? If so, when will that start?”

Ten days later, Dr. Stowell emailed me back. This was her entire response:

“Dear Laurie,
One of the important things we learned in this survey is that we probably need to dig a little deeper with the questions if the information is to be valuable and actually inform our decision making. In many cases it is hard to draw any solid conclusions from the information. We are still very interested in providing options for parents so that they choose Spokane Public Schools; we will continue to work on that. Right now our focus is on providing information regarding the bond and levy renewals on the March 10 election ballot. That is really consuming our time right now. We're out making several presentations a day.

Either there are other things Dr. Stowell learned that she’s declining to mention, or administrators spent $8,000 on a survey and learned only that they need to do a better survey. Faced with concrete proof that parents are dissatisfied with the curriculum, Dr. Stowell implied that the information isn’t valuable, that it won’t inform her decision-making, and that the district’s main focus is on asking parents for money.

When someone says the grass is green, and all of the evidence indicates that it’s brown, there are several possible reasons for the inconsistency:

a) the person doesn’t understand what’s being asked
b) the person doesn’t want to know what color the grass is
c) the person has a different definition of "green," "grass," "color" or "is"
d) the person is lying
e) the person is foolish

When a survey clearly says parents are frustrated with the district curricula, what are we to think when administrators refuse to acknowledge that?

Different definitions: Perhaps the definition of “good” is the issue. I think “good” mathematics curricula are structured to lead 85-100% of students to competence in pre-college mathematics. Perhaps administrators think “good” curricula are structured to lead 60% of the students to pass simplistic standardized tests (or some loopy alternative) in one of five possible attempts. It’s distressing to see the yawning maw between where I stand and where administrators appear to stand. It’s as though I’m looking at a chair, and they’re looking at a table, and we could sit and argue all day about what we see, but at the end of the day, they’ll see a table and I’ll see a chair. Can a gap like that ever be bridged?

Foolishness: Many administrators are accomplished at “edu-speak” (an annoying blend of words, pretend-words and almost-words commonly used in education circles). Administrators are also good at diverting conversations to more comfortable areas. It can be instructive to try to pin down the half-statements and leaps in logic; when one does that, people who are unknowledgeable or hiding something tend to quickly become defensive, accusatory or dismissive.

Don’t want to know: Early in 2008, Dr. Stowell mused: “Sometimes I think people don’t want to know (why families are leaving) because … when you know, … you have to do something about it.”
I’m sure she’s right about that.

Meanwhile, if the public believes that math and education advocates are stupid, foolish, selfish, extremist, unreasonable, unknowledgeable, rude or impatient; if we can’t be pleased; if we’re alone in our complaints; if we’re expecting too much … then administrators don’t need to take us seriously. They don’t need to make hard decisions or speak honestly of their errors – especially the big ones. Instead, they can look like they’re listening, they can write nice little notes or letters, and they can even meet us for coffee. Then they can go right back to their original plan, having already forgotten what we said.

It’s darn frustrating. Some frustrated parents will quietly resort to other options. They might be too frustrated to tell administrators what they’re thinking, but it will be some variation of this:

“Administrators don’t care what I think. I can talk about my child’s classroom until I’m blue in the face; it won’t matter. I can bring them information, surveys, reports and empirical evidence. I can pack district and school-board meetings with parents, math professors, business leaders and students. I can show them how the district’s money is wasted on training and tutoring in the same failed approaches. They’ll refuse to hear me. They’ll say anything, and blame anyone, rather than acknowledge the truth. “But I can vote. Until there’s a better test, I can say no to their testing. Until the curriculum is structured to guide students to college, I can say no to the math classes or to the entire public-school system. Until they start taking me seriously, I can vote no when they come up for re-election. Until I’m certain my tax dollars will go where they should, I can vote no to any new requests. I can tell my friends. I can speak up at PTA meetings. I can encourage others to vote with their feet."Parents do have a voice. Some day, administrators will have to listen.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (January, 2009). "Parents have the power to change everything." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I say it's the curriculum

(Updated February 5, 2009):

The mathematics curricula in American public schools represent perhaps the biggest problem with American mathematics achievement, yet many administrative, legislative and media conversations about mathematics don’t mention them.

On Jan. 15, 2009, for example, four “big education thinkers” offered “a few words” to President Barack Obama on how to improve education (Toppo, 2009a). In their original response to the question, these thinkers might have waxed poetic about the curriculum, but in the published article, curriculum isn’t mentioned.

On Jan. 20, 2009, an article discussed the $142 billion dollars that will be lopped off the $825 billion economic stimulus plan and delivered to public schools over two years (Toppo, 2009b). The $142 billion for education is huge – reportedly more than “health care, energy or infrastructure projects.” The money apparently comes with “strings” attached, but if one of the strings is to improve the curriculum, the article doesn’t mention it.

Education administrators keep talking about how they need billions more dollars to improve public education. They talk about money for technology, teacher pay and incentives, special education, smaller classes, all-day kindergarten, programs for “struggling” students and more teachers and staff. I rarely hear them mention any plans to fund improvements in the curriculum. It’s difficult to even get them to criticize the curriculum. At times, it’s almost as if they’ve been in a cult.

“It’s about the curriculum,” I say.
“We really need education to be fully funded,” they say.
“It’s the curriculum,” I say.
“Most of our district families are lower income.”
It’s the curriculum,” I say.
“We just need better coaching support for the teachers.”
It’s the curriculum, curriculum, curriculum, curriculum!”
“If our teachers could just get more professional training… If the state would just stop messing with the standards… If our kids just didn’t have so many challenges … If we just had more alternatives that would interest the students…”

Arggh! It’s like trying to force together the north poles of two magnets.

In October 2007, Spokane Public Schools officials said the drops in student enrollment were bewildering (Leaming, 2007e). The district had lost more than 2,000 students since 2001 (“School,” n.d.), and officials speculated about possible factors such as jobs, demographics, new construction north of the city and lower-cost housing. They did not publicly speculate about parent dissatisfaction. (The question is important, considering that the 2006 enrollment drop of 350 students reportedly cost the district $1.6 million in revenue) (“Funding,” n.d.).

In a belated effort to find out why enrollment was dropping like a rock in a bathtub, district officials decided to hire a demographer to conduct a study. In a May 2008 online “chat,” Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell said the demographer projected another drop of 375 students, “mostly at the secondary level,” for the 2008-09 school year. Enrollment was projected to turn around in 2013, “depending on economic and housing trends” (“Chat,” 2008b). She didn’t mention the demographer’s recommendation that the district do a survey of families and brokerage firms to determine “perceptions of local schools” (“Regular,” 2008b, p. 9).

I think Spokane administrators already had some indication of parent dissatisfaction. When I met with the district director of communications and community relations more than a year ago, she showed me partial copies of small exit surveys that had been done. Some of the questions were vague and the data pools were small, but the results were intriguing. On one survey, the reason parents gave most often for leaving was “Choice,” the second was “Home school,” the fourth was “Better for student,” the sixth was “Continue at another school” and the ninth was “No reason given.” (“Dissatisfaction with the curriculum” was not an option.)

On another survey, the top reasons given for leaving were “Other reason” (by more than a 3:1 ratio) and the top clarifying explanation was “better academic program.”

On the third survey, the top reason given for sending a child to a Spokane Public School was “live close to the school.” The top reason given for sending a child to a school that is not in the district was “quality of schools.”

These surveys should have piqued someone’s interest.

Following the demographer’s recommendation, a telephone survey of parents was done between Aug. 26, 2008 and Sept. 5, 2008. Drawing from a list of 1,368 student transfers between Feb. 21, 2006, and Aug. 15, 2008, interviewers completed 294 interviews, asking about 24 questions in each. The report was completed in September 2008; its margin of error is +/- 4.5% (“Spokane,” 2008). The results were telling.

Five of the top six schools having out-of-district transfers were high schools. Five of the district’s 7 middle schools also were listed in the top 14. A whopping 79% of students who left went to: the Mead School District (located north of the city); online for virtual options; or to the West Valley School District. (Private schools as a destination were not included in the survey.) Parents were allowed to cite more than one reason for leaving the school district. The top 5 reasons that were cited:

  • 33%: Quality of curriculum does not match your expectations
  • 26%: District class sizes too large
  • 22%: A transfer will make student more accessible to parent’s work
  • 21%: Desired coursework is not offered in the district
  • 21%: Student doesn’t feel connected to his/her current school


  • 87% of the respondents said no one from the district had contacted them to offer alternative options for schooling;
  • 59% said there was nothing the district could do to interest them in returning.

(On a positive note, in 104 cases, respondents made suggestions for improvements – including improving the curriculum – and 68% of those making suggestions said they might return if the improvements were made.)

I’m not surprised. Early in 2008 when I met with Dr. Stowell, I told her it seems to me there is no connection between parents’ frustration and the district’s perception of the situation. Dr. Stowell replied that when administrators receive complaints, they’re “always trying to figure out, ‘So, is this, like, a couple (of) people? Is this bigger than a couple (of) people? Is it issue-centered?’”

She said she knew families would appreciate more opportunities to be heard. “We’re never going to be for every person exactly what they want, I don’t think, but certainly there are lots of things I think we could do differently based on what we hear from our community.” She also mused that, “Sometimes I think people don’t want to know (why families are leaving) because … when you know, … you have to do something about it.”

On Jan. 14, 2009, I emailed Dr. Stowell to ask her what the 2008 telephone survey indicated to her and where she thought the district should go from here. I believe she should have a clear sense now that the district curriculum is a serious problem for a large number of families.

What she and fellow administrators choose to do about that remains to be seen.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (January, 2009). "I say it's the curriculum." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was also published January 22, 2009, on at

Friday, January 9, 2009

What about the 40% who didn't pass?

In a January 2007 interview, I offered a statistic to (then) Spokane Superintendent Dr. Brian Benzel:

“Forty percent of the students didn’t pass the math requirement,” I noted.
“But sixty percent did,” he said encouragingly.
“I know,” I persisted, “but if you’re a parent of one of the 60%, then woo-hoo for you, but if you’re a parent of the one of the 40%…”

Dr. Benzel assured me that overall, grades are up. “As recently as 5 years ago, 60% didn’t (pass), and 40% did,” he said. “We’re being very clear in what these learning targets are, and it’s contrary to the way most of us adults went to school. We were all compared to our peers. We weren’t compared to standards. We were scored on norm-referenced tests, where we were measured against a mythical group of students from 20 years ago or 10 years ago.”

And then … he proceeded to blame it on the students: “If there’s a problem after 4th grade, this thing called free will comes into play. The choices that students make take on grave power in a person’s willingness to learn. Up through 4th grade and 10 years old, kids tend to do pretty much what we tell them to do.”

It sounded as though Dr. Benzel was explaining the 40% failure rate in part by saying students were deciding to not learn. Are you shocked? Dr. Benzel isn’t alone. A high-school teacher in Spokane echoed this theory in a May 2008 Letter to the Editor, writing: “The real breakdown in our current model of education is, in part, the growing number of students who simply don’t want to learn… These are likeable, worthwhile kids, but they have been influenced by our culture, their sense of entitlement or a teenage lack of foresight, and concluded that the classroom isn’t worth their time.”

In the fall of 2007, I asked a district administrator about the scores on the 2007 Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). I showed her the district Report Card, pointing out how the math scores dropped grade after grade until Grade 10, when just 48.1% of students passed the math WASL. “What about 6th grade,” I asked her, “where just 57.9% of the students passed the math portion of the WASL?” Her response: “How do we know that 60% isn’t good?” She said it might be good, depending on where that group began.

These exchanges show you the vast difference in thinking. I don’t look to the students to find out why 40 to 60% of them don’t pass the WASL. I don’t believe that 40 to 60% of them don’t want to learn or come to school not ready to learn. If the situation weren’t affecting children, these statements from educators might even be funny.

Try this statement on for size: “The real breakdown in our current model of health care is, in part, the growing number of patients who simply don’t want to get well.”

Or how about this: “The real breakdown in our current model of national defense is, in part, the growing number of citizens who simply don’t want to be protected.”

It isn’t all that often that 60% is “good.” If you expect a score to be zero, and instead it’s 60%, perhaps 60% is a huge relief. But it isn’t good.

  • It isn’t good on a battlefield. (“Sir, 60% of the men have guns and ammunition.”)
  • It isn’t good in a hospital. (“Ma’am, 60% of our patients lived through the night.”)
  • It isn’t good at the dinner table. (“You get to eat 60% of your meals.”)
  • It isn’t good in college. (“Sixty percent of you will get textbooks this year.”)
  • It isn’t good as a score in the classroom, and it isn’t good as a pass rate on the WASL.

I don’t see a 60% pass rate as “great gains.” I understand that the figures matter with respect to NCLB requirements, but what about the 4 out of 10 children who didn’t pass? I don’t celebrate because this year (for example), 61.8 percent of students made it as opposed to only 59.3 percent last year. To me, both figures are pitiful. I’m not looking to slowly eke our way up over three decades of struggle. There’s no good reason why it shouldn’t happen right now, this year, on their watch. We’ve been teaching math and science in this country for hundreds of years. How did it suddenly get to be so hard?

It’s a travesty that only 60% pass the math portion and even fewer pass the science portion. It’s a complete district failure. Imagine how the students see themselves. It’s shameful, when, with a more effective learning environment, most could have learned what they needed to know. How can we even communicate when I see 60% as a failure, and they see it as potentially good? I was shocked that district administrators would go on the record saying 60% might be good – and then defend that statement against my shock. They can continue to write their own reality, but you and I know the truth. A 60% pass rate isn’t good. It might be an improvement. It might be the best you can do. It’s certainly better than zero. But it isn’t good.

Queried about the 40% of students who didn’t pass, Dr. Benzel wanted to focus on the 60% who did. You’ve sure got to hope your child’s one of the 60%.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (January, 2009). "What about the 40% who didn't pass?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

The aritlce was posted January 12, 2009 at at