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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

District says no one knows how to fix math problem

By Laurie H. Rogers

Before I quote from the Feb. 11, 2009, meeting minutes of the board of Spokane Public Schools, I’ll review some events of the last two years:
  • The National Mathematics Advisory Panel issued recommendations that called for more traditional approaches to math instruction (i.e. traditional algorithms, caution with calculator use, more practicing of skills, and increased rigor).
  • Washington’s K-12 math standards were completely revamped, calling for more traditional content.
  • For 20 years, mathematicians have criticized the reform math curricula widely used across Washington (and throughout Spokane Public Schools). These curricula also were hammered in Washington’s recent curricula assessments.
  • Washington State’s Department of Education (OSPI) issued recommendations for K-8 math curricula that are based on the new standards. The curricula used in Spokane are not on the list. Expectations are that Spokane’s high school curriculum also will be rejected.
  • Advocates have repeatedly asked school boards across the nation to replace reform math curricula with more traditional curricula.
You get the gist. Spokane needs to adopt more traditional math curricula. Waiting only prolongs the students’ agony. The district already has recommendations for K-8 math curricula that were vetted by people who support a traditional track. All the board has to do is adopt some of them.

Now I can quote from the Feb. 11 meeting minutes.
“NEW BUSINESS Teaching and Learning Services Middle School Math Update Ms. Bridget Lewis, executive director for Teaching and Learning Services, introduced Ms. Gina Rye, middle school math coordinator, and Mr. Rick Biggerstaff, secondary math coordinator. … Ms. Lewis commented that the staff needs to dig deeper in terms of the grade 6 to 7 transition.

"President Treppiedi asked the staff to help the board understand why middle school math scores are as low as they have been. It was his opinion that there is a lack of rigor in the elementary schools. Ms. Lewis responded that the data across the state and nation is not unique to Spokane. She said no one has the answer; however, the staff does know that they have to pay close attention to what is happening in the classroom. She pointed out that the data shows that Spokane has more students taking advanced placement math and all students are taking more mathematics. …

"Dr. Stowell noted that grades 3 through 7 math scores are higher than the state average. In spite of not having all of the answers, the scores are moving in the right direction. She stated that math and science summer camps and math coaches would help, but it is difficult to fill the open teaching spots. Ms. Lewis added that it is going to take multiple strategies such as standards-based grading, math labs, and professional learning in order to improve mathematics instruction.

"Director Douthitt indicated that the board would like to hear more ideas about adaptive changes. Director Bierman agreed that change takes time; he felt, however, that the math program is on the wrong track and needs to be distinctly different from what it is today, in both the language and the model that is used. Director Douthitt expressed appreciation for the way this presentation was constructed. He conceded that the frustration is that no one has figured out how to solve the problem. Because the district will still face the dilemma in 2014, he didn’t want the team to be constrained by saying 'we can’t do this.'

"Ms. Lewis said the team wants to look at this very straight forward and determine how to get at the hard questions.”
I’ll offer some thoughts on certain portions of these meeting minutes.

“…the staff needs to dig deeper in terms of the grade 6 to 7 transition.” What does this mean? Does it mean to replace the math curriculum? If not, they can “dig” as deeply as they want; they’ll never reach the solution.

“Ms. Lewis responded that the data … is not unique to Spokane.” This statement is true, but it doesn’t mean an answer isn’t available. Indeed, it points to a national failure with reform math curricula.

"(Ms. Lewis) said no one has the answer; however, the staff does know that they have to pay close attention to what is happening in the classroom.” Actually, we have the answer, and it’s clear: Replace the curricula with more traditional approaches. For some inexplicable reason, district employees obstinately refuse to say so. It’s true that staff members should “pay close attention to what is happening in the classroom.” If they were, they would notice that students aren’t learning sufficient mathematics.

“(Ms. Lewis) pointed out that the data shows that Spokane has more students taking advanced placement math and all students are taking more mathematics.” More students are indeed taking AP classes – but substantially more students also are failing to pass the AP exams. I reject the statement that “all students are taking more mathematics.” Some might be taking more math classes, but if the classes were effective, students would know more math than they do.

“Dr. Stowell noted that grades 3 through 7 math scores are higher than the state average.” So what? Spokane’s 2008 math WASL scores look like this:Grade Level Math 3rd Grade - 75.2% 4th Grade - 60.7% 5th Grade - 69.2% 6th Grade - 55.9% 7th Grade - 52.4% 8th Grade - 49.5% 10th Grade - 45.9%
“(Dr. Stowell said) in spite of not having all of the answers, the scores are moving in the right direction.” District staff members do have the answers; they just refuse to acknowledge them. You tell me – do the 2008 math WASL scores look like they’re “moving in the right direction”?

A few of the statements can be dealt with together:
"(Dr. Stowell) stated that math and science summer camps and math coaches would help, but it is difficult to fill the open teaching spots.”
“Ms. Lewis added that it is going to take multiple strategies such as standards-based grading, math labs, and professional learning in order to improve mathematics instruction.”
“(Director Douthitt) conceded that the frustration is that no one has figured out how to solve the problem."
“Ms. Lewis said the team wants to look at this very straight forward and determine how to get at the hard questions.”
Shall we laugh or cry? It’s the curriculum, the curriculum, the curriculum! Replacing the reform curricula with more traditional approaches is what will improve mathematics instruction. Why won’t they say it?
One begins to wonder if some of these people own stock in companies that publish reform curricula.

Folks, this is what is being done on your behalf. Please speak up and/or vote with your feet. Quite literally, the children’s futures are at stake.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (March, 2009). "District says no one knows how to fix math problem." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Your child's education is up to you

Over the last 27 months, I’ve come to see public education as an immoveable force. Administrators are fond of talking about “accountability,” but it doesn’t mean much, not in any real sense. Today's administrators know that all they have to do is produce upward ticks in pretend numbers. The only real accountability comes when unhappy parents leave the school district. Although a few thousand Spokane families have done that over the last five years, local administrators have so far declined to say publicly that the enrollment drops have anything to do with how the schools operate.

Meanwhile, things stay fairly quiet, which is what bureaucrats generally prefer.

My comments here could be seen as “cynical” or “critical,” but I see them as “realistic.” With realism comes truth. With truth comes knowledge. With knowledge comes power. With power comes change – even if it’s change for just one child. When it’s your child, one child is a lot.

My husband and I have therefore taken control of our daughter’s education. We now know it isn’t enough to just be involved in the school or the classroom; we need to know what she’s learning. We also must have some idea of what she should be learning. When the school curriculum or learning environment fails her, we must fill in critical gaps. This isn’t a game we’re playing. Her future is at stake. Six short years from now, it won’t matter whether we helped out with field trips or cut paper for the class every Friday. What will matter is the knowledge she takes with her to college.

Although several people in this district care about our daughter – most notably her teachers and principal – no one at the district level has expressed even a sliver of interest in what kind of experience she must have had that would lead me to do an intense and focused two-year investigation of public education. To them, I’m sure she’s just a bit of data in a long string of data. I doubt they know who I am. Over two years, I've interviewed three curriculum coordinators, two board members and other sundry district staff. I’ve sat down with district Superintendent Nancy Stowell and asked her pointed questions. I’ve written about Dr. Stowell on my blog and run into her a half a dozen times at various meetings. She still introduces herself to me as if we've never met. Clearly, she doesn’t feel the need to retain any information about me or my concerns.

Over 27 months, I've come to believe I could be brilliant, have the best research, find the most perfect words and fill up school board meetings with the most knowledgeable people – and administrators would still operate as if I don’t exist. If I ever manage to effect positive change in this district, I have no doubt that the minute I turn my back, someone will begin working to erase it.

I have two main goals now:

  1. Help parents cut through the fake statistics and “edu-speak” so they can see things more clearly.
  2. Tutor students in math. I looked into earning an education degree, but colleges of education tend to train teachers by using discovery learning methods and reform philosophy. I'm 47 and a college graduate. I get hives at the thought of sitting in groups to hash out simplistic problems I could easily solve on my own. I’ve therefore chosen the math program over the education program.

In these two small ways, I hope to help the children succeed. I yearn for revolution, but perhaps some of the improvement will just have to come one person at a time.

Speaking of “one person at a time,” I received an email from a Spokane parent who is distressed by reform math. Last fall, an elementary-school teacher told her to not teach traditional math to her children. She wrote:

“Laurie … I have to tell you, I'm going through a kind of personal revolution right now. I've always felt that I was hindered by a lack of knowledge, betrayed, if you will, by my own public education, and would just sound ignorant if I spoke out on the things I felt strongly about (education, political issues, etc.), so I said and did nothing. Besides, I'm just one little suburban mother. What difference could I possibly make? I have long felt that the public education system has failed us as a nation, and that this is now more apparent than ever. I've been very concerned about the direction our nation is heading at such a rapid pace, so I've been educating myself on American history and government. For the first time in my life, I've been following the actions of the government, communicating to my representatives, and I'm 33 years old. My own public education didn't come close to preparing me to be an active, educated citizen in the community, let alone in the nation (yet I still cast my vote at every election). I've been compelled to educate myself and take a more active role. I just can't sit complacently by anymore, and I've realized that everyone who has a part in making a difference is just one person. It's only when voices speak out that they're heard. “I spent 13 years in public school, 2 years in community college, and 3 more at a state university, and I have always felt ignorant and uneducated! There is definitely something wrong there, and the last thing I want is for my kids to grow up that way, too. So, I offer no more excuses for being part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution, and I do feel that it all comes down to education. I thank you for doing your part to improve the state of education (and, therefore, the country) and I want to do mine as well, so count me in! “I did go to bat for my own child last week, and I wish I had done it a year ago. (My son) has been complaining about school in general and math in particular. I think he's bored with the math in 1st grade and especially the pace of the class. Last year, I had the same issue with (my daughter) and (the teacher) danced around it, asserting that she was challenged in class in a variety of ways. My naive mistake was giving her the benefit of the doubt and not pushing any farther than bringing the issue up again at conference time. Last week, I went straight to (the principal). I have to say, I was very pleased with his reaction and the result. By the end of the day it was arranged (that my son) would go to (the next grade) for math. …”

This mother acknowledged, however, that the curriculum in the next grade is also insufficient, so she is tutoring her children in two traditional programs – “Singapore Math” and “Saxon Math.” She expressed concerns about the calculators in the elementary grades and wondered how I felt about it. I told her I’m opposed to introducing calculators in elementary school, that there is no need for it, and that it’s my belief that they interfere with the learning of necessary arithmetic skills. I asked the mother if I could quote from her email, and she said I could:

“I hope it can help encourage other parents to get involved or even just interested. One of the greatest things I took away from homeschooling was the attitude that my children's education is my ultimate responsibility, whether I choose homeschool, public school, or somewhere in between. That realization has been very empowering.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (March, 2009). "Your child's education is up to you." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was also published at at

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Free math assessments March 21

On March 21, 2009, from 1-5 p.m., Education NW Resources will conduct free assessments in mathematics for students in grades 2-12. The assessments are intended to reflect essential math skills and international math standards. Each assessment will be about 30-45 minutes long, and will take place at Education NW Resources, 9429 N. Newport Highway, Spokane, WA.

“Our entire purpose is to educate parents on the existence of the new state math standards, and on how their children are doing with basic math skills,” Deborah Knutson said. “Our experience tells us that many students in the area have serious gaps in critical skills, and also that many parents are unaware of how wide those gaps are.”

Knutson noted that, in 2008, Washington State’s math standards were revised substantially, increasing their rigor and emphasizing more “traditional” algorithms and concepts. However, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) doesn’t yet reflect these changes, and the planned “end-of-course” tests haven’t yet been implemented.

“We hope parents will take advantage of these assessments,” Knutson said. “They’re relatively short, they’re free, and they’ll give parents a better idea of where their children are in mathematical skill.”

Parents can call 323-4950 to register, or they can register at the door. Seating is limited, however. Please call to reserve a seat and a time.

Contact: Deborah Knutson
Education NW Resources
9429 N Newport Highway
Spokane, WA 99218-1245
Phone: (509) 323-4950
Fax: (509) 323-4950
Toll Free: (866) 491-0495

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What Is the Purpose of Public Education?

Updated March 11, 2009:

Part of the barrier to getting proper math instruction into America’s K-12 public schools is in the definitions. What constitutes “success” or “failure”? Which math skills are “necessary”? What is the primary function of public schools? Why do children go to school?

I don’t think of “success” and “failure” in terms of what’s good for the administrators but in terms of what’s good for the students. In my view, a public school’s primary function is to help students get prepared for postsecondary life. Children go to school so they can learn what they need to learn in order to grasp the future they want. Based on test results, remediation rates and dropout rates, there’s no question in my mind that today’s public schools are failing the students.

Many administrators, on the other hand, appear to see the primary function of schools as being all about inclusion, tolerance, equity, values and (the omnipresent yet ill-defined) “excellence.” They probably see themselves as successful.

Don’t laugh. I’m not pulling this stuff out of my hat.

As part of our district’s January 2009 celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell sent a letter to her “colleagues” that included the text of her welcome address for the Unity March. In part, she said:
“We renew our commitment to acknowledging the effects of white privilege and doing all that we can to understand and mitigate its effects – so that each of us understands race in a personal and profound way.
“We renew (our) commitment to creating classrooms, schools, and a school district that is founded on the principles of social justice … a compassionate system that knows each child.
“We renew our commitment to the development of culturally proficient and courageous educators who can succeed with all students because they believe in the value of each student.”

Dr. Stowell didn’t mention creating classrooms that are founded on the principles of a coherent and rigorous education. She didn’t mention renewing the district’s commitment to hiring academically proficient educators who can succeed with all students because they know the subject matter they’re trying to teach.

(These would be great ways to mitigate the effects of ethnic disparities.)

Reading Dr. Stowell’s remarks, you’ll understand the continued existence of a poster still tacked to a bathroom wall in the elementary school just down the street from me, that says: “The aim of education is the knowledge not of facts but of values.”

When I talk about math, administrators talk about “equity.” I talk about college; they talk about “social justice.” I talk about challenging the children; they talk about “achievement gaps.” I ask for better mathematics curricula – part of the schools’ primary function – and they say there isn’t enough money.

Actually, there’s a ton of money; it just pays for things that are not part of the primary function. It also pays for myriad things that shouldn’t be in the schools at all.

Meanwhile, President Obama is planning to deliver to states about 44 billion in nonexistent taxpayer dollars over the next six weeks. This money is on top of an already bloated education budget. More billions are forthcoming. Unless that money fixes the lack of academic content in our public schools, it won’t improve public instruction – it will just make the ineffectiveness exponentially more expensive.

The primary function of public school is academics. It isn’t supposed to be cheap daycare. It shouldn’t be promoting socialist views or any other political agenda. Its primary job isn’t to teach values or ethics, to feed the children, provide teen mothers with daycare, teach English to “undocumented immigrants,” or turn out people who are personally and profoundly aware of “white privilege.” Its primary function is to effectively and efficiently teach all students to a high standard of academic knowledge that will ready them for college, a trade, business ownership, a political career or whichever postsecondary life they envision.

If public schools don’t do this – their primary job – they’re a waste of students’ time and of taxpayers’ money.

So far, the education bureaucracy appears to be largely unwilling to address the biggest problem facing our public schools: The lack of core academic content – in much of the teacher training, in much of the curriculum, and in the daily focus of the typical classroom.

Some parents are coping with the educational shipwreck by deciding that sloshing through the water is OK. “Maybe she doesn’t have to work that hard,” one parent said recently about her daughter. “Academics aren’t everything.”

Others seek academic excellence (or even just academic competence) for their children by choosing to homeschool or to supplement at home (as we do) or by heading to charter schools, magnet programs, faith-based schools, private schools or co-ops.

I support these decisions. There is no guarantee that alternative choices will provide children with the best education possible, but we must allow for the most basic right Americans have: The freedom to choose the process. We have the right to choose to fail, and we have the right to choose to excel. It’s that flexibility that has traditionally made America strong.

Until lately, the market has always guided success and failure. It’s always provided us with the motivation to dismantle failing structures. Now, government programs support massive, systemic failure – while excellence barely has a place to breathe. For parents and students, flexibility and the freedom to choose have been legislated and mandated almost right out of the public-education system.

Every child deserves the best possible education, but what does that really mean? A gentleman from Massachusetts recently asked me: "If you could start all over again and build a brand new public education system … what would it look like?” This is an excellent question, and I’ve been pondering it ever since. I’m interested in hearing your ideas. Please reply to this blog or email me at

Let’s say the future of public education is open to you. What would you create?

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (March, 2009). "What Is the Purpose of Public Education?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: