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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


Anonymous said...

I agree--it's the curriculum or the method of teaching, often both since they are chosen by the same people. This sounds so much like the schools where I live, far from Washington. When we pulled our daughter out her senior year, the paperwork required nothing more specific for withdrawal than "other." How do school officials expect to learn anything from "other"? How can they satisfy us by learning what we want for our kids when the "visioning" groups set up by central office or foundations have a "facilitator" to shape the results to fit their predetermined plan? All "stakeholders" get a chance to speak but it doesn't matter because no dissenting voices are really heard, nor do their comments make it into the final report. In our city this procedure has been done by 3 different groups in the last 5 or 6 years but parents' desires have yet to be implemented. I am beginning to this this is a universal, not an isolated, problem.

Anonymous said...

I think there's more to it than just the curriculum. Yes, that is DEFINITELY a problem. But it's more multifaceted than that. I think a lot of teachers are afraid of parents and rightly so. Often it doesn't seem that they are backed by administrators if they fail kids or discipline them. So they try to be the kids' friends and then the kids - not all of them, but enough to be a disruption in class - take advantage of that. Then the kids who don't want to mess around can't learn.

In our society a priority is not put on reading and learning and so I think there is more responsibility on the parents than you give them. Somewhere along the line, enough is enough, and people who have children have to spend the first five years reading to them and talking to them and preparing them to be ready to learn in school. Thirty years ago it wasn't the schools' responsibility to overcome so many social problems but it's not pc to blame parents so we blame schools. We expect kids to come to school knowing how to read and write, but they aren't prepared to learn.

We value sports in our schools over education, but we wouldn't tolerate teachers having such high expectations as our coaches do.

I took my kids out of school to homeschool them and this year my daughter decided to try two classes as a freshman, one of which was Spanish. It was not a very pleasant experience for her. The teacher had no control over the class, there was blatant cheating, and the well behaved kids were constantly punished for the bad behavior of others. A substitute came in for a couple of days and they all had a great time, so this had nothing to do with curriculum.

We took her out of the high school and she is taking a college class at the community college and loving it. She says she thinks the reason she likes it so much more is that the people want to be there, there's no busy work, and kids aren't throwing spitballs (literally).

Dan Dempsey said...

I agree. This is will continue to be an incredible problem until the decision makers recognize the obvious.

Unfortunately I am not sure that recognition is in the works. Take a look at the $150,000 report just out on the achievement gap for African-American students (funded by the state legislature).

Note the enormous list of contributors ... then see if you can find any mention of defective math curricula as being responsible for this gap?

When you do not recognize the most important cause of a problem ... an effective solution is extremely unlikely.
So we can now continue to watch the money bring very little in the way of academic improvement.

There is a mention about culturally responsive curriculum being needed.

IT is the CURRICULUM and the curriculum's lack of an academic focus or emphasis on mathematical skill development that widened the achievement gap for black students in math over the last decade in Seattle... I guess the fact that the curriculum is the academic heart of the school is pretty darn difficult to grasp for these experts.

It sure has been a lot easier for districts to socially promote all the students than to actually teach required skills and to require understanding to be demonstrated before grade level promotion occurs.

Niki Hayes said...

I LOVE your repetitive statement about "It's the curriculum." everytime an answer was offered by the administration. I maintain that must be the tactic used by parents at this point. Stay focused on what you believe and simple, declarative statements. Don't get pulled into the muck of edubabble because administration is expert in that. You are expert, however, in what your children really need and deserve. (Sometimes a parent is off the mark on this, but, in general, parents know what their kids need.)
The other enlightenment is when your supt said she's not sure people really want to know the facts because then something would have to be done. That's a chink in the armor you might pursue.

Richard Reuther said...

My "thing" is the teachers. Having been pushed out of my job by a bullying principal, I'm very curious to know how widespread this practice is. But, just as you can't seem to get administration to be curious or forthcoming about the reasons for student transfers, they don't seem to care about why their teachers are leaving, either.

This fall the new superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, was on the local Seattle public radio station. A caller asked about why good teachers were leaving the district. She had only a tepid teachers-leave-for-their-own-reasons answer.

Just as Spokane looked at student transfers, every school district should perform anonymous exit surveys of their teachers,too. They (and the public) might learn something about how teachers are being bullied into leaving their jobs. It might be curriculum related as well; we were forbidden to use the National History Day social studies curriculum. As so often happened to us, we were personally or professionally threatened or abused and then told: "If you don't like it here, go someplace else."

On the other hand, perhaps they do know and don't want the public to find out what they are doing to the teaching corps. Either case begs for an answer.

James Stripes said...

My son attends the same high school that I did thirty years ago. It is a better school now. The curriculum is better in English and history. The opportunities for advanced classes are better. But, he attended a far worse middle school in the same neighborhood.

My junior high closed was terrible and no longer exists. In my son's middle school, the standards were lower, the math curriculum was garbage, the science was weak. English and history were terrible in my junior high and about the same at his MS. My junior high math was pretty good, and science was okay.

I opted for homeschooling for a year and a half--half of 7th, all of 8th--to get him out of a school where there were no academic standards to speak of. Make-up work for three days of missed school amounted to twenty minutes of reading and one small worksheet.

There are some good things happening in our public schools, including Spokane's Dist #81 (I'm less certain about West Valley). Not all is good, and some aspects of the curriculum are a problem. WASL was a disaster because it oriented most teachers towards teaching to a test calling for minimal competency. Integrated math is bogus nonsense. Science teachers that do not understand the nature of scientific theory are infiltrating public schools with their anti-intellectual religious agenda.

Other problems include teachers that speak, "like, you know, I mean, OMG, whatever, and stuff"; some of these teachers relate well to the students because they are no less ignorant, and no more articulate.

One teacher telephoned me because of an issue with my son in class. Her patronizing tone went away mid-way through the conversation: I asked how she had attempted to quell the disruptive behavior, and in response to her inadequate answer stated, "adults don't get away with that in my college classroom; I'll make them sit away from each other." If a group of students talk constantly, why are they allowed to sit together? Either the knowledge that she was talking to a college teacher, or my rebuke of her classroom management strategies led to her change in tone.

Anonymous said...

I think of curriculum as what school can change. People are the same wherever you go and teachers especially can't impose order on people who don't want to cooperate. Curriculum creates an appealing environment for students and the teacher. If you feel you are learning and its something worth learning then you'll behave civil. If the textbooks are badly written and even worse, the information is mostly useless to you then the sorts of discipline problems you see happening daily now are not unreasonable. This has all the elements of a double bind. Teachers are opting to retire earlier because of stress. Students are giving up. This is not a good situation. Change the textbook and focus teacher training on activity structures.

Anonymous said...

Students sitting together talking means they are not engaged or not actively participating in the classroom. Either they do not understand the curriculum or that it lacks relevance for them.

The purpose of standards is not to write them on the board for students to copy. Yet that is what happens - as though writing it down gives it meaning.

A rule that forbids talking creates new problems, since talking is what students do naturally. This rule runs contrary to children's 'folk' knowledge about school being a model of democracy.

The goal of a teacher is to harness that energy. The purpose of standards was to ensure that every classroom was learning the same knowledge and the textbooks are really to help make that task easier for teachers. Math, more than any other subject, other than language, depends on learning a specialized type of knowledge that combines both logic and language.

Teachers depend on good textbooks to teach math. Learning math is comparable to learning Latin.

The difference is Latin has only one standard - the Cambridge textbook series. It would be very difficult to write a textbook that wasn't better than this little set of textbooks and so nearly everyone uses it.

Singapore is of that caliber, it is that good.

The textbook standard is more like a standard that companies use to build telphones or televisions. We are led to believe that all phones are equal, only some users are better phone operators than others. The phone companies say that this works best because the technology is always 'innovating' and getting better. Doesn't that sound familiar to parents?

So the focus should be to recognize that equality can't exist unless we agree to teach children using one textbook and one standard. Then it makes sense to have end of course exams. Standards are not something to be decided arbitrarily by every state and then left up to school boards guessing as to which textbook they should adopt. You allow for all sorts of abuse and worse the people harmed are the most vulnerable.

Half the children in the US live below poverty, yet they don't want an education. That is ridiculous and a lie.

Anonymous said...

The subject of textbooks is interesting. It is widely known that publishers write the texts for the largest consuming states-Texas and California. These are what are popularly known as "market forces." This creates a narrowing of ideas and points of view presented, especially in history and science texts. And consider that many of the high stakes tests are published by the same textbook publishers. Consider the ramifications.