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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Students Need Parents & Teachers To Speak Up

On Feb. 25, 2009, Spokane’s school board hosted a “Coffee and Conversation” before its regular school board meeting. The public was invited to offer comment on topics of its choosing. A few dozen people attended; they offered comment on math, the bond and levy, and various district policies. It was a great start, but we need more from parents and teachers. Many of them know things are wrong; they've got to stand up and say so.

I asked for six things, including these:

  1. Traditional mathematics curricula.
    Spokane’s K-12 math curricula must be replaced with more traditional curricula. This should happen now, not in 18 years when the next wad of taxpayer money floats by. There is money to do this now; it’s just being spent on other things. The district could lay off a couple of $100,000 administrators and use their salary to buy traditional curricula.
  2. Math tutoring.
    Our students desperately require tutoring that’s based on a traditional approach (direct teaching, traditional algorithms, no calculators, little or no group work, a logical progression of concepts, and regular practicing of skills) so they can catch up to where they should have been. There are many ways to access this tutoring. Some of it might even be free.
  3. Proper assessments.
    An assessment is required to determine which math skills are missing. This assessment can’t be the WASL or SASL because neither is based on the new standards.
    It won’t be pleasant to see the results of proper assessments, but the results will be truthful and accurate. With truth and accuracy, we’ll have some hope of filling in the gaps before the students try to graduate.

After the “Coffee and Conversation,” a cameraman asked me if I thought the district had been listening to its constituents. This is a tricky question. I’ve been researching public education since January 2007. I’ve interviewed dozens of people, including two school superintendents, a former curriculum director, a former board president and three curriculum coordinators. Despite the flood of evidence that ALL of our math curricula are seriously deficient, no central office employee has ever acknowledged it to me.

On the other hand, were administrators polite to me? Always. Did they accommodate requests for information and private meetings? Almost always. I presume they listened, but I think they didn’t agree with me, they wouldn’t say they agree with me, or they didn’t give a flip about what I said. I told the cameraman that administrators have always been polite and accommodating but didn’t appear to agree with me.

Spokane’s newest board member is Dr. Jeff Bierman, a physics professor at Gonzaga University. On Feb. 25, Dr. Bierman supported my comments, agreeing that the math curricula are weak and that changes need to be made. He said he chooses to supplement the instruction for his own children. That was the first time I heard anyone associated with the administration publicly acknowledge the curriculum problem.

The mistake would be to think this welcome support will change the math curricula. In January 2009, curriculum coordinators said they planned to recommend retaining two of our disastrous (reform) curricula for Grades 5 and 6. Although Dr. Bierman’s Feb. 25 comments were soon echoed by a parent, a high school math teacher and a college mathematician, he was the only board member or district employee at the meeting who spoke publicly in support of traditional mathematics.

What’s desperately needed is a firm push from parents and teachers. Supporters of reform math occupy the seats of power. Parents, students, teachers, college professors, tradespeople and businesspeople – we all have a vested interest in how well math is taught. This district has serious problems in mathematics that directly affect our families. It isn’t an exaggeration to call it a crisis.

Students are not learning the math they need to even begin college. They don’t have the math they need to get jobs that require arithmetic (much less algebra, geometry, trigonometry or calculus). Our high-school graduates will be competing against private-school students, homeschooled students, and students from places like Finland, Singapore, California and Massachusetts – most of whom will have enough mathematics for college. (More and more of those graduates are being accepted on Washington campuses, and there are only so many seats.) A solid math education will help students secure a future. This isn’t being extremist – this is being a realist. But it’s hard to get this message across.

I hear: “Well, I have to trust them.” (But trusting them put us here. Now, it’s time for scrutiny.)
I hear: “Life is short. There’s more to life than academics.” (True. But school isn’t “life.” School is supposed to be about academics.)
I hear: “The district is doing the best it can.” (If it were doing the best it could, things would be better than they are.)
I hear: “I don’t know anything about math, so I can’t comment.” (Most parents and teachers know when the children can’t multiply or divide. They can comment about that.)
I hear: “It will work itself out.” (It hasn’t “worked itself out” in 20 years. But if we participate, it might work itself out in time to benefit our children.)
I hear: “Not everyone will go to college. There are plenty of good jobs you can get without a college degree.” (True. Many of those jobs require math, however.)
Observing my efforts to improve mathematics instruction in Spokane, my daughter called me Horton, as in “Horton Hears a Who.” “No one else seems to hear what you hear,” she said. “Whoville is floating away, and the children are stuck on it. No one can hear them except you.” What we need, she said, is a YOPP – a Dr. Seuss sound that makes people stand up and take notice. If we have a huge, loud and fabulous YOPP, she said, everyone would hear it.

I told my daughter about the mathematicians and advocates who are YOPPING, who have worked hard for decades to try and rid the country of the scourge of reform math. I told her how they’ve done research, presented evidence, gone to meetings, testified in legislatures, built Web sites and blogs, and written Letters to the Editor. “I’m not alone,” I said. “Across this entire country, many Hortons have been fighting for Whoville.”

“Then why haven’t things changed?” she wondered.

Why indeed. What do I tell her? That it’s easier and more convenient to turn our backs while the monkeys toss Whoville around? That many teachers won’t speak up for Whoville because they’re afraid they’ll get into trouble? That many parents won’t speak up because they’re too busy and distracted to hear or believe the message? That many school administrators will believe in reform math – despite all contrary evidence – until they die? That lots of them would rather not hear from us at all?

Parents and teachers: The time is now. This is the children’s future we’re talking about. They live in Whoville, and they’re being miseducated – betrayed – by math curricula that fail them – from kindergarten all the way through Grade 12. Please call the school board. Write letters. Talk to the principal. Attend school board meetings. Tell the board what you see in the classroom. Talk to the PTA or PTG. Say no to counterproductive math curricula. Opt out of the math WASL. Demand better materials. Supplement at home and in the classroom with traditional curricula. Get this critical issue out in the open.

I don’t know if it takes a village to raise a child, but I believe it’s going to take a village to push reform math curricula out of our schools. Give a great and mighty YOPP. Make them hear you. Help open career doors for the students. Help save Spokane's Whoville.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (February, 2009). "Students need parents and teachers to speak up." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was modified slightly and reprinted March 3, 2009, on, at

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Help Improve Math Education in Spokane

The Spokane Public Schools (SPS) Board of Directors is hosting a “Coffee and Conversation” – an open, two-way conversation with the public. Everyone is welcome.
When: Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009, from 6-6:50 p.m., prior to the regularly scheduled board meeting at 7 p.m.
Where: The Ferris High School library, 3020 E. 37th Avenue.

I’m asking you to go to that meeting. Math education in Spokane is on the precipice of change, and it desperately needs a firm push in the right direction.

Parents, students, teachers, college professors, tradespeople and businesspeople – all of us have a vested interest in how well Spokane teaches our children. This district has serious problems in mathematics that directly affect your family.

Here are Spokane’s 2008 WASL results:

Grade Level Reading Math Writing Science
3rd Grade 72.6% 75.2%
4th Grade 76.9% 60.7% 63.1%
5th Grade 78.3% 69.2% 46.0%
6th Grade 71.5% 55.9%
7th Grade 63.3% 52.4% 66.1%
8th Grade 63.7% 49.5% 48.6%
10th Grade 80.5% 45.9% 85.0% 44.2%

Notice the pass rates for math and science. The math WASLs have long been criticized as being weak indicators of the math skills students need for postsecondary life, and yet fewer than half passed the 10th-grade test. Contrary to what I’ve heard administrators say, this is NOT the fault of the students or teachers. This is because of the reform math curricula used in Spokane: “Bridges in Mathematics,” “Investigations in Number, Data and Space,” “Connected Mathematics,” and “Core-Plus Mathematics.”

Welcome to your child’s future:

About a third of high school students are likely to drop out before graduation. Each year, dozens will leave SPS and graduate elsewhere. Of our graduates who choose college, about half will need four to six classes of remedial math (which can’t be taken concurrently) in order to pick up the math skills they don’t have. Many will decide math isn’t for them, and the door will be slammed shut on careers in engineering, medicine, technology, law, business, science and economics.

When our high school graduates decide against college, a trade or business, it won’t necessarily be because they aren’t capable. Some will just see how much math remediation they need, and they’ll decide that life is too short for more high school. This reality will be a cold shock to their parents, who watched them pass the math WASL, get "A"s in math and even head into honors math and Advanced Placement math classes.

Spokane Public Schools desperately needs at least three things in mathematics:

  1. Proper math tests that tell us which skills are missing. The tests don’t have to be onerous or expensive. There are tests available now, and some are free.
  2. Access to tutoring so that all students can get caught up to where they would have been had they been taught with better curricula. (Obviously, this tutoring should not be based on the same failed curricula and teaching methodologies.)
  3. A more traditional track in mathematics from kindergarten through grade 12.

You might think these things are obvious, but I’ve seen a real reluctance in the district to acknowledge the weakness of reform math. In two years of asking questions all over the city, I’ve never heard any central office employee say it.

In the Feb. 10, 2009, online “Chat with the Superintendent,” I asked Superintendent Nancy Stowell about last year’s math WASL. I noted how the pass rates for mathematics dropped, grade after grade, until just 45.9% passed the 10th-grade math WASL. I asked her what this told her about the math instruction in Spokane. She said she thinks ongoing professional development for teachers is critical. Then, she said:

“Although our scores for grades three through 7 are significantly higher than the state average, we believe it is imperative that we continue to close the gap to standard for all of our students. We are definitely aware of the drop in scores at middle and high school. We are working to change that. Right now we making sure that we have materials that are aligned with the new performance expectations in math and we are continuing to provide professional development for our teachers.”

You might think her reply means the district plans to adopt more traditional curricula, but in the Jan. 14, 2009, school board meeting, a curriculum coordinator said that for grades 5-6, “The curriculum staff will be proposing a combination of different materials – three units of new “Investigations” and three units of “Connected Math.”

That is no change. “Investigations” and “Connected Mathematics” are used now. They’re both reform. They’re both inadequate and confusing. They're unlikely to help guide students to college math. They aren’t recommended by the state. They don’t align with the new math standards. They are failed programs. And yet here they are.

Clearly, a push is needed. I’m asking you to go to the “Coffee and Conversation” and ask for better math curricula. Help students build the skills they need for the future they want. This is your chance to make your wishes known. You might think you can always have two-way, open, public conversations with the school board, but it isn’t so.

Seize the day. Join me at the meeting. Tell them what you want to see happen. If you can’t go, please call the board members or write to them. Together, we can turn this thing around.

Meanwhile, please pass on this message to other interested parents, and if you have questions or comments, you can write to me at

Thank you for your help.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (February, 2009). "Help improve math education in Spokane." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

    Thursday, February 5, 2009

    Teacher education programs part of the problem

    Up until high school, I enjoyed math. I thought I was good at it. Then, I hit Grade 11 math, and along with Grade 11 math came Mr. Anand.

    Mr. Anand was Death to Math Enjoyment. He was a bright, personable, confident math teacher whose explanations were unintelligible to me. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get it. Hating the daily trauma of not understanding what we were doing, I began to skip the class. Eventually, I fell so far behind that the most logical course of action seemed to be to drop the course and graduate from high school without it. Mr. Anand’s class had tipped me over from “good math student” to “math dropout.”

    A decade later, I enrolled in community college to pick up that math course. My community college teacher? Mr. Anand. After a few more months with Mr. Anand, I was again completely lost. I took a trig exam thinking I would ace it, and instead, I flunked it. When the stock market crashed, I gratefully accepted that as an excuse to drop the course. I was 30 years old, working in finance, and I hadn’t passed high-school math.

    A year later, I had married, moved and enrolled in college. The math requirement worried me. I felt deep in my bones that I was good at math, but my experiences with Mr. Anand had spawned many doubts. Thankfully, Mr. Anand had not made his way to Tennessee. College math was fun, interesting and logical. I still enjoy math, although I’m quite unenthusiastic about Mr. Anand.

    I tell you this story because I’m aware of how much difference teachers make. Teachers hold the keys to the future; their interest and skill can make or break the learning process. But the teaching profession – one of the more challenging professions out there – is complicated by the lack of core content in many teacher education programs. I’ve heard and read repeatedly about programs that are woefully light in content, that focus too much on how to teach and not enough on what to teach. It’s a shame, because common sense and research tell us that teachers who know core subjects – math, science, languages, civics and history – are better able to teach them to their students (Stotsky, n.d.; “Teaching,” 2004; “U.S. Department,” 2005, p. 3; “Teaching,” 2006).

    Some educators believe they can pick up a well-written textbook and effectively teach that material even if they don’t know it themselves. The prevalence of this theory helps explain why math is so often taught as a game in which children work in groups to teach math to themselves. But I doubt the theory does hold true for math. As I tutor our daughter in algebra and geometry, it’s clear that she won’t understand it if I don’t.

    The sad state of K-12 math instruction appears to be intentional. In 1997, public policy organization Public Agenda found that, of 900 professors of education, 86% believed it was more important for aspiring teachers to “struggle with the process of finding the right answers than knowing the right answer” (“Professors,” 1997). Fifty-seven percent thought that children who used calculators from the beginning would have better problem-solving skills. Just 55% would require high-school graduates to demonstrate proficiency in “spelling, grammar, and punctuation.” Sixty percent wanted “less emphasis on memorization” in the classroom.

    Fast-forward 11 years to 2008. A report from the National Council on Teacher Quality said that elementary-school teachers are now ill prepared to teach math to their students, having received insufficient instruction in math while they were in college (Zuckerbrod, 2008).

    Folks, teachers have been betrayed too. They’re in the same shoes as their students. They can’t know things they haven’t been taught. If they don’t know it, they’ll struggle to teach it. Some would argue that last point with me, but just look around. The proof is right there in the generally weak math skills, sinking enrollments and high rates of dropouts and remediation.

    Dr. Sandra Stotsky is a professor of Education Reform and holds the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality at the University of Arkansas. She is also a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and was a member of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. She has said schools of education are “a major part of the problem,” not the solution (2005) and that they’re responsible for three critical issues facing public schools:

    • Many teachers, especially those in K-8, have not gained an adequate academic background in the subject they’re supposed to teach in their professional preparation program.
    “As every school district has found, most of their K-8 teachers require continuous professional development in the knowledge base for the subjects they teach. This is remediation, not enrichment or updating ….”
    • Colleges and universities aren’t providing public schools with sufficient numbers of “academically qualified teachers” for core secondary school subjects.
    • “Education schools do not train prospective teachers how to teach.”
    “Instead, they arm new teachers with a host of pseudo-teaching strategies like small group work and with the philosophy that students should ‘construct their own knowledge’ and are more capable of shaping their own intellectual growth than teachers if they are sufficiently motivated by ‘inquiry.’ Education schools have been especially remiss in preparing new instructors with research-based knowledge for teaching beginning reading and arithmetic … The funds now invested in professional development to train our current teaching force how to teach beginning reading and arithmetic are staggering.”

    Many teachers earn extra pay for master’s degrees, but Dr. Stotsky is critical of the typical master’s of education degree, calling it “an academically impoverished set of courses touting a body of ‘professional’ knowledge that has little, if any, support from credible research.” She says schools of education often disparage scientifically based evidence as “positivistic and irrelevant,” while rejecting scientific research that supports systematic and explicit instruction in reading, practicing skills, and providing “highly structured teaching” for at-risk children:

    “Many if not most of the faculty in our education schools who prepare new teachers and retrain experienced ones do not accept the results of scientific research on the nature, development, and teaching of reading or writing or arithmetic. … They thus mistrain those who are preparing to teach in costly licensure programs … and continue to mistrain them in even more costly professional development programs.”

    Speaking of development programs, it’s strange to me that people go to college, learn how to teach and then come out supposedly needing retraining in order to teach. Why would universities and colleges allow such a situation to continue? If teachers don’t know how to teach when they graduate from education programs, then either they need to stay there longer, or maybe there’s something wrong with the programs.

    If I ran a university, and my school of education didn’t turn out teachers who were qualified to teach – without the constant need for coaching and retraining – I’d be embarrassed. If I ran a school district and had to keep retraining the people I hired – I’d be embarrassed. If I were a teacher, I’d be angry that I paid for a college education that didn’t adequately prepare me to go out and work. This is not an argument to fire a bunch of teachers; I’m following this thought through to its logical conclusion. If teachers who graduate from college need retraining, then something is awry.

    Besides the fact that professional development is a lucrative business, it’s another sneaky way of blaming the teachers. It’s easier and more comfortable to say: “The math programs will work just fine once the teachers know how to teach it” than it is to acknowledge that the curriculum itself is inadequate and incomprehensible. Illogically, while teachers are away from class getting all of this retraining, their students are taught by substitute teachers who are not getting the retraining.

    I’m truly surprised teachers haven’t yet filed a class-action lawsuit.

    In March 2008, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel said teacher-education programs must focus more on traditional aspects of math such as whole numbers, fractions, geometry, measurement and algebra (“Foundations,” 2008, p. xviii). The Panel said teachers need to know mathematics in order to teach it better, and so the “mathematics preparation of elementary and middle school teachers must be strengthened as one means for improving teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom” (p. 39).

    (It’s hard to believe the NMAP had to say that.)

    Can we ever expect professors currently in the colleges of education to step back and say, “Gee, maybe we were wrong”? Most of them taught reform, promoted it, fought for it, received grant money for it and published material on it. It takes a big person to admit an error, especially one this costly in children’s futures. I expect most of them to support reform until they die.

    Parents could grow old and gray waiting for teacher education programs to acknowledge the obvious. Find out what your children need to know for post-secondary life and fill in the gaps. Students shouldn’t have to wait until they’re 30 to get the math they need for the life they want.

    Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
    Rogers, L. (February, 2009). "Teacher education programs big part of the problem." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

    This article was posted February 9, 2009 at, at