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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:


    Anonymous said...

    Your district is using some of the worst math curricula in the country. What a shame.

    You might consider setting up a demonstration of three fifth- or sixth-graders in front of your school board. Select one top student, one in the middle, and one who is struggling. Give each a deck of single-digit flash cards in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Don't tell them in advance and don't let them practice; it has to be a "cold" test. Have them do a few problems in front of the board. Chances are the middle student and the struggling student will not be able to do those 2nd- and 3rd grade level problems. In some districts, even the top students can't do math in their heads, and would fail at that very easy task. It might be the best way to get the school board's attention.

    The thing is, the district will trot out the top few students who get the 5's on AP Calc as if that shows their reform math selections are great. (Note that only a small fraction of those kids who take the AP Calc test actually get the 5's that get them college credit, in most districts. Find out your %'s -- if only two or three kids in a graduating class of 400 get AP college credit, that's a damning bit of evidence.)

    The point is, the top students are kids who would excel no matter what the curriculum is. You have to look at the effect of the curriculum on the 80% of the kids who are in middle ground -- neither brainiac whiz kids at math, nor special ed. Those are the kids who are getting so cheated by these crazy "new math" non-math curricula. And just throwing test stats at the school board won't work. You have to show the kids in action, and struggling.

    Anonymous said...

    Ask you board members to watch carefully what happens with Beaverton's adoption of Everyday Math textbooks. The MSP running their adoption is PRISM. Public sentiment is about to change for them and they had better be prepared for some criticism. People are fed up and mad. This is a good time for young teachers to step aside and take a back seat.