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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:


Stacy Shore said...

Bravo Laurie,
I read your words and I forget momentarily that you are in Washington and I am in Missouri. It sounds eerily familiar. We are facing the exact same frustration and "double speak" that you all face there. Isn't it frustrating to have to ask your top administrators and board members to define every other word to make sure you really understand one another. It all seems so silly.
Keep up the great work. We feel your pain here in Missouri.

Anonymous said...

Let me take this comment apart section by section ... for I admire the ability to write much and say little, which the admin answer from does ...
“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. ***So the plan is what ... one would think the person who wrote this would address the future, that is the plan to "dig deeper". Clearly the issue was important to Laurie and the person writing the response felt it important to address the question, but not important enough to address the issue. One would think the answer was designed to "get the challenge" off the plate", give oil to the noisy wheel ... keep making noise Laurie ...***

In many cases it is hard to draw any solid conclusions from the information. ***then the survey was flawed or the survey was designed recognizing it was just the start ... if the former, fire the bums for wasting money, if the latter then lay out the plan ... if there is one***

We are still very interested in providing options for parents so that they choose Spokane Public Schools ***what options are under consideration ... what is the plan***

; we will continue to work on that. ***so they are working on it now ... what plans are the using, where is the roadmap, and what are the branches and what are the sequels to the current actions ...***

Right now our focus is on providing information regarding the bond and levy renewals on the March 10 election ballot. ***funding ... ok, to fund what ... and is that funding tied to the issues raised in the blog or just more money to hire more admin types, buy more cars and buildings ... yes, infrastructure is needed, but there is more to school than infrastructure ... so does the focus on the bond issue relate to the issues raised here ... by the way, most large organizations have the ability to handle more than one major issue at a time ... and if the plan to fix issues in schools is available, then doesn't the plan drive the money needed so the issues are addressed in an integrated manner ... so, it comes back to the plan ... but wait, if a plan is dependent on data, and the data collected was not useful or showed more data needs to be collected, then why try to get more money when there isn't a solid plan in place ... data drives planning, and the plan drives money requirements .... but the data is flawed ... I can only think then the "system" desires to build more on a less than solid foundation ... not smart***

That is really consuming our time right now. ***why ... if there is plan, and the plan drives the money ... then the plan should stand on its own***

We're out making several presentations a day. ***on what, the need for money ... is the presentation posted on line, and what part of that presentation addresses the concerns raised in this blog ... can't the author provide a link to the presentation and highlight those items that address the specific problems ... this isn't nit picking, it is simply recognition that a challenge was raised and a non-answer was provided, but an answer that begs the question ... is there a plan and does some part of that plan address the issues raised here ...***

Keep up the good work, make "them" answer the questions your raised ... parents, this is a wake up call ... your government in this case isn't working for you ... it is trying to keep itself alive by getting issues and challenges off the table ... vote, your future depends on it, and the future is your children.

Shea's Mom said...

Yes, that reply is frustrating. But, it is obviously one of the e-mails that was sent so that they can say they responded. She didn't respond to your good questions but she did respond. I get this sort of run around all the time over here on the other side of the state.

I enjoy your blog. Keep it up