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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Students learn by being taught

“How do you feel about putting students in AP classes for the exposure, even if they don't have the skills to succeed?”

I feel it’s a really stupid idea. It’s good to challenge students and have them reach beyond their comfort zone. But if they don’t have the skills to succeed in a class, why would we put them in the class? Unfortunately, this is policy in many public schools. Students supposedly benefit from “exposure” to material that’s way over their head. It’s thought to be OK if they don’t pass the class or even take the exams. I’ve been told several times: “They’ll learn just by being there.”

But what do they learn?

Administrators with an overabundance of training in education theory keep making perfectly obvious things murky. They claim, for example, that placing ill-prepared students in advanced math classes is helpful. They say it’s about “equity” and “opportunity.” It’s about “challenging” them. It’s "good" for their self-esteem. The policy also can make money for the schools, look good on spreadsheets and serve to mask the nature of what’s really going on in the classrooms.

But behind the mask, there is devastation.

Young children enjoy math and science. In America, this enthusiasm gets squished right out of many of them. By 4th grade, they’ve changed their minds forever. I place the blame squarely on reform mathematics. Reform math curricula deemphasize traditional algorithms; instead, students learn multiple “alternate” ways to solve problems. And “discovery” teaching models have them working in groups or pairs to teach concepts to each other.

“Traditional methods don’t work anymore,” parents are told. “Our kids need 21st-century skills.”
(Personally, I think that phrase is code for “Our kids need TI84 calculators.”)

Traditional math does work – every time. It helped build America. It doesn’t have a shelf life where it might curdle or grow moldy. It’s needed as much in the 21st century as it was in the 14th century. It isn’t one of “many acceptable alternatives.” For most students, it’s the best, most efficient, most effective method for learning mathematics. It’s necessary in college, businesses, trades, and STEM careers. It should be emphasized – taught first and then practiced. Yet, thanks to reform, most public-school children don’t become proficient in the arithmetic skills that are critical to their future.

When these children struggle in math, they might be given TI calculators to take the place of arithmetic. Instead of practicing skills, they might get lessons in how to pass standardized tests. When they’re bored, they might get extra sheets of busy work. When they’re frustrated, they might be sent into the hallway where they can’t bother anyone. Some are delivered, nicely wrapped, to behavioral or special education groups. And regardless of what anyone learns, nearly all will go to the next grade in the fall.

This is called “social promotion,” best defined in this way: “Students can fail the entire grade, learn less than nothing, actually fall farther behind than where they began, basically become mindless amoebas just taking up desk space and annoying their classmates and teachers – and they’ll still be passed to the next grade so that room can be made for the next class.”

Social promotion could work if students received tutoring or remedial help over the summer, but the vast majority is neglected entirely. The next fall, many are tagged – either with a “behavioral” or “special ed” tag, or perhaps just with a roll of the eyes, an averted gaze, and a “You won’t believe the class I have this year!” These kids continue to lurk in hallways, “special” classes and detention. They’re expected to work cooperatively with classmates to reinvent thousands of years of math – on their fingers, and with molding clay and pipe cleaners. Day, after day, after day. Plop on the forehead. Plop on the forehead… drip… drip…drip…

Since students have no training in special education or child psychology, and they lack the “professional development” teachers get, they fail to see how all of this is good for them. By 4th grade, they begin to tune out.

“I hate math,” I’ve heard 9-year-olds say. “I’m no good in math.” “My Dad can’t understand this.” “I can’t wait for recess.”

In middle school, there is usually more reform math. Behavior problems are blamed on society, “free will,” short attention spans, video games, parents, hormones or a sense of entitlement.
(I have heard all of these.)

When they get to high school, students are encouraged to take honors math and Advanced Placement math classes. The entire point of AP classes is to earn college credit while still in high school. Most universities and colleges won’t give credit for AP math classes unless students pass AP exams with a score of 3 or better. But high school students are encouraged to take AP classes even if they lack the requisite math skills.

“Let them eat cake,” administrators tell parents. No, I’m just being silly. Parents are told, “Students learn just by being there.”

As the students flounder in these classes, whatever bare shreds of dignity and self-esteem they have left are battered to death by a daily pounding of material that’s over their head. Their worst fears are realized: “Maybe I’m really not capable in math,” they fret. “Geez. Maybe I am stupid.”

A few struggle through the classes, thus fueling the administrator view that the policy works. Most sink into apathy or outright rebellion. In Spokane, 808 more AP exams were flunked in 2008 than in 2000. These flunkings don’t take into account the AP students who didn’t take AP exams or the AP students who dropped out of school altogether. (Currently, up to a third of our students will drop out before graduation.)

After they’re sufficiently tortured, high school seniors are eventually allowed to graduate without requisite math and science knowledge because retaining them isn’t “fair” to them.
(As if graduating them without the necessary skills is fair to them.)

In college, most want to run as far and as fast as they can from mathematics, but they need some form of college math to get a degree. Up to 95% test into remedial math. Many require remediation in arithmetic.

The bad news continues. College math classes go fast. There is little time to practice. Some students have to take remedial classes more than once in order to pass. As they struggle, give up, or drop out – they’re blamed yet again. I watched students drop like flies from a remedial algebra class, and the instructor explained it this way: “Students just don’t want to learn.”

Instead of becoming the engineers, mathematicians, scientists and tech specialists this country desperately needs, these students head into other fields that don’t require a whole lot of math classes. Like education.

And thus, the circle is complete – a betrayal of trust from elementary school all the way through college. Think how much these students could have learned, had they been in the right class with the right material and an efficient teaching approach.

Doesn’t it make you angry?

There are a few specks of sanity out there, but not many. Most students don’t have access to the specks. They’re pushed, prodded, poked, analyzed, assessed and – ultimately – blamed. Many give up, tune out, and move beyond our reach forever.

What to do about it? Well, here’s the good news. The easiest, most productive thing we can do to fix remediation rates, dropout rates, enrollment drops, and the entire “math problem” is to just start teaching the children properly. It’s easy. “Obvious,” you could say. But the education establishment is – for the most part – unwilling. Proponents of reform mathematics and discovery teaching models appear determined to believe in them, despite all contrary evidence – until they die. Parents must do it then – find a way to provide their children with the needed math skills.

Math doesn’t have to be torturous. It isn’t scary or bad; it’s logical and interesting. It’s a helpful tool. Taught properly – directly, with a logical progression of skills and time for practice – most of the children will learn it.

And I promise you – they’ll take it from there.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (June, 2009). "Students learn by being taught." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published June 25, 2009, at at

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

National standards, national curriculum dangerous

After a 2007 U.S. Department of Education (DoE) report indicated differences among the various states as to what constitutes academic “proficiency,” Sec. of Education Margaret Spellings sent a letter to The Washington Post to express her concerns that some people might be tempted to press for a national curriculum (2007c).

That would be “unprecedented and unwise,” Sec. Spellings wrote. Not only are national standards not necessarily “synonymous” with high standards, they might actually lower the standards while doing little “to address the persistent achievement gap.” Additionally, she noted, forcing one curriculum on all 50 states would contradict both tradition and the American Constitution, which places most responsibilities for education in the hands of state and local governments and administrators.

“They design the curriculum and pay 90 percent of the bills,” Sec. Spellings said. “Neighborhood schools deserve neighborhood leadership, not dictates from bureaucrats thousands of miles away.”

Ah, the irony. Some see NCLB as a “dictate” from “bureaucrats thousands of miles away.” But the comment got me thinking. Would national standards or curricula result in equity? Would they be good for students? Would they be good for the country?

A few years ago, Washington State administrators floated the possibility of developing statewide mathematics curricula. State legislators took the first step in 2007 by requiring the superintendent to choose math and science curricula that would align with the soon-to-be revised learning standards. The legislation reassured districts they wouldn’t be required to adopt the curricula, but it left the legal door open:

“However, the statewide accountability plan adopted by the state board of education … shall recommend conditions under which school districts should be required to use one of the recommended curricula. … ” (“Certification,” 2007, p.3-4).

Washington State’s standards rewrite and curricula assessments did go the way I wanted them to go – toward more traditional content. At the moment, as our children continue to choke on reform curricula, it’s tempting to wish that districts would be forced by law to adopt state-selected curricula. But the concept gives me pause.

What if the revised standards had instead continued to emphasize reform math? What if the state-selected curricula had all been reform? What if proponents of reform mathematics managed to fill every administrative and legislative seat and nothing was the way I wanted it to be? Reform could happen all over again. It probably will.

Districts must always be able to choose alternatives. Parents and students must always be able to compare procedures and results against something from the outside. Dissent is necessary to keeping any system honest and strong. That’s why I’m worried about current trends toward national education standards and a national curriculum.

National Standards:

In June 2009, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and the Council of Chief State School Officers – in partnership with Achieve, Inc.; ACT and the College Board – announced an initiative to develop national learning standards (“Forty-nine,” 2009). Washington State is one of 49 states and territories to have already signed on to this initiative – despite the $1.6 million Washington just spent revising its own K-12 mathematics standards.

This is purportedly a “grass-roots” initiative, but Sec. of Education Arne Duncan and the Department of Education reportedly support the initiative (Levine, 2009). How “grass-roots” can it possibly be?

Any concerns are already too late. Decisions have been made. People have been chosen. The initiative was formally announced June 1, 2009 -- along with plans to release “college and career ready standards” in July 2009. That’s either really fast work, or they’ve been on this for a while. Quietly. Behind the scenes. In secret. I’ve seen little about this in the media. I can find nothing about it on the DoE Web site. Washington State signed on to the initiative with barely a whisper to the public. This has not been a particularly public process.

Who are these people? I’d like to know their backgrounds and get a sense of their leanings. The NGA declined to give out names until July. The San Francisco Chronicle called that “a wise decision," adding that "A truly open process would result in the experts being lobbied by countless interest groups, and – given the still-controversial nature of national standards – it could torpedo the plan altogether.”

Wow. A newspaper is championing secrecy. So much for the fourth estate.

Perhaps a truly open process would result in people finding out which special interests are already lobbying these “experts,” or maybe it would uncover some inappropriate backgrounds for some of the “experts.” A truly open process could indeed torpedo the plan altogether, as perhaps it should.

The NGA press release says there will be an “expert validation committee” “composed of nationally and internationally recognized and trusted education experts who are neutral to – and independent of – the process.” The words sound so good. Expert, recognized, trusted, neutral, and independent. Then again, we always hear those sorts of words. In 1999, the DoE assured us that reform curricula were “exemplary,” chosen by a team of mathematics and education “experts.” Look how that turned out. I doubt many “education experts” are actually “neutral” or “independent.”

Hey, I have some questions. What happens if Washington’s learning standards are weakened again? How will parents know? Against what will we compare them? How will contrary philosophies and commercial products survive – competing as they’ll be with well-connected organizations and companies, exceptionally savvy marketers, and the U.S. Department of Education?

National Curriculum:

Reportedly, Sec. Duncan also supports a national education curriculum (Levine, 2009). Again, as of June 2009, I can find nothing about it on the DoE Web site, but in May, while touting Tough Choices and Tough Times (two pilot programs that could form the basis for a DoE program called Race to the Top), Sec. Duncan reportedly said that not having a national curriculum is “crazy.” Steven Levine of Business Week writes:

“Both Duncan and the Tough Choices members steer carefully around the phrase "national education" … Yet that’s clearly where the Administration is headed. Duncan wants to nudge the winning states toward agreeing on rigorous, shared curricula that could spread across the country. ‘The idea of 50 states doing their own thing I think is crazy,’ Duncan says. Race to the Top is a way ‘to say to a set of states, 'You lead the national conversation. You do this.'’”

Perhaps if I were the author or publisher of K-12 curricula, or I sold commercial products related to education, such as calculators, for example, I’d be watching these developments closely. I’d want to be involved behind the scenes, working with allies and friends to sway things to my best advantage. It would just be good business, right?

On the Texas Instruments (TI) Web site, I found multiple links to papers from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Coincidentally, the CCSSO is a partner in the aforementioned national standards initiative. The CCSSO and TI also have been partners for a while. One TI link is to a joint CCSSO/TI paper from 2005 titled “Standards-Based Foundations for Mathematics Education: Standards, Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment in Mathematics.” The paper says:

“In an effort to explore new ways of improving mathematics education in middle and high schools, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Texas Instruments formed a Technology Research and Development Advisory Committee (“R&D Committee”) in the spring of 2004. This R&D Committee, consisting of state deputy superintendents or commissioners, district superintendents, and CCSSO staff, met in April 2004 to examine ways in which business and education can work together to build models that will enhance mathematical literacy” (Stumbo & Lusi, 2005a).

Another TI link is to a joint CCSSO/TI paper from 2005 titled “Why Isn’t the Mathematics We Learned Good Enough for Today’s Students?” The paper says:

“This partnership will investigate the influences on mathematics education and develop recommendations for effective state actions to lead to improved student performance in mathematics” (Stumbo & Lusi, 2005b).

Hmm. This national standards initiative is looking less “grass-roots” all of the time. I’m sad to tell you that’s not all. Remember the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)? This group ushered in the “Standards” on which reform math programs claim to be based. Its former presidents have written or helped develop several of the reform curricula we have now. In a June 2009 press release, the NCTM speaks glowingly about the prospect of national standards. It also speaks hopefully about a national curriculum.

(Oo. Just got a cold shiver.)

The NCTM takes care – as does the NGA – to specify that national initiatives would be “voluntary.” But there is very little about the standards and curricula we have in Spokane that’s “voluntary.” The only “voluntary” part is where parents can voluntarily leave the district if we don’t like it.

So far.

At the moment, parents have the right to reject any part of their state’s standards or district curriculum and teach their children at home. Occasionally, some folks try to take away parents’ right to do this. Sec. Duncan supports charter schools, but what if the push for national standards and curricula weakens parents’ right to choose other kinds of alternatives? What if the national support for one curriculum drives other curricula (perhaps curricula preferred by parents) out of business? Already the parent voice is weak – even at the district level. How strong could it be at a national level? Which of us could be heard over the clamor of well-heeled interests such as the NSF, the NCTM, the Dana Center, the NGA, Achieve, Texas Instruments, and the College Board?

I worry that, ultimately, standards, tests and curricula will become streamlined in a happy little U.S.-government-led, taxpayer-funded row. Pretend scores will rise, certain businesses will make tons of money, and administrators will be happy, happy, happy – but the devastating gaps in what our children know will just be better hidden from sight. Any time the doors close and shades are drawn, I start wondering: “Where is the Accountability?” Even if these shadowy faces manage to create perfect national standards and curricula that allow our children to rise to the top of the international food chain, they – and their creations – won’t last forever. What happens then? Once we have national standards and curricula, we will never ever get rid of them.

State, district and especially parent rights must be preserved – for the people. Our children depend on educators to provide them with a proper education, but their minds and their futures are our ultimate responsibility. Parents must take back the reins of their children’s education. They must go beyond the revolving door of standards and curricula, beyond the lame-duck standardized tests, beyond the parsed and handpicked statistics. They must go beyond the teachers, beyond administrators and beyond the useless school boards. They must find a way to determine what their children should know versus what they do know, take steps to fill in the gaps, and stay on top of things until their children graduate.

Based on what I’ve seen and heard, an increasing number of parents are doing exactly that.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (June, 2009). "National standards, national curriculum dangerous." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published June 11, 2009, on at