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Friday, July 3, 2009

Why administrators don't listen

“In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”
-- Leo Tolstoy, author of “War and Peace”

A common complaint among math advocates is that the education establishment continually rejects pertinent data and valid research on how reform mathematics curricula are deeply, fatally flawed.

“It’s like watching a completely preventable traffic accident,” I’ve said. “How do they not see it? Why won't they listen to reason?”

No advocate has the answer, although there are suspicions. Some of the possibilities I’ve heard include these:

  • Kickbacks from publishers
  • Overly friendly relationships with publishers
  • Ignorance
  • Stupidity
  • Herd mentality
  • Indoctrination
  • Ego
  • Habit
  • Personal comfort
  • Political philosophy
  • Ennui

Spokane Public Schools persists with its reform math curricula despite all contrary evidence from the district, state and nation – and despite distressing results (a scary, black hole of dropouts, remediation and failed tests). The district must have some very compelling research on its side - research that math advocates haven’t seen.

In April and May, I asked district administrators for the research and data that support their continued use of reform curricula. Despite several formal requests for public information and a friendly phone call, I’ve received no data and no research. I was told that supporting research was tossed with yesterday’s meatloaf. No, I was actually told it wasn’t kept on hand. (The meatloaf is still there.) I don’t know why the research wouldn’t be kept because administrators keep referring to it (as in “research shows” and “according to the research”). Instead, I was given the names of three organizations and two types of tests, and I was invited to the central office to look over their “great number of materials on the subject of effective instruction in mathematics.” Technically, this is not “data” or “research.” Technically, I think this is called “skating.”

You’d think they’d at least try to have a good excuse. I would give points for creativity, like: “It’s lost in the Bermuda Triangle.” “It was destroyed by a magic bullet from a grassy knoll.” “Jimmy Hoffa had it with him when he disappeared.” “We were hoping Geraldo Rivera would find it in Al Capone’s vault.”

If the data and research don’t support these curricula, and the entire nation has found that a steady diet of reform leads to math incompetence and cataracts in laboratory rats … what is the real reason for their continued use? Could it be aliens? Think about it. If aliens came to Earth and wanted to take down America without firing a shot, this would be the ticket: Infiltrate public education, teach the children to think conceptually about nothing, and then pretend to fret as the country falls to its knees. It’s the perfect crime.

Look, I’m just saying it’s a possibility. Otherwise … well, choose your preferred explanation.

Leo Tolstoy reportedly said this about people who refuse to listen:

“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”(Well, OK, but I still think some of them might be aliens.)

Meanwhile, we math advocates manage to keep each other going. We disagree about many things, but our dissent is generally friendly and respectful. It helps to keep us honest and thoughtful. We agree on one major point: American public-school math instruction is a blight upon the land. It’s a crater, a crime, a sin against the children.

It takes a strong stomach to know the truth of how bad it is, and still speak politely with administrators who keep saying the most ridiculous things. It’s tough to keep pushing, to keep trying, and to somehow avoid sinking into despair. When we talk with district decision-makers, we often find their eyes are glassy. They’ve breathed in the smoke and mirrors and can’t seem to hear anything but the twaddle from curriculum coordinators.

Tolstoy also reportedly said this:

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

Education’s decision-makers appear to be “firmly persuaded” – many will do whatever curriculum coordinators tell them to do. So we troop over to the curriculum coordinators, and we find they’re certain, too. They don’t care what we bring to the table, even if it’s the best information, the most pertinent research and the most brilliant arguments. It’s their table – not ours – and they’ll decide (thank you very much), what happens with it. Our evidence is swept off the table onto the floor. They walk over it on their way out. Later, it’s disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.

Sitting through certain interviews and meetings, listening to the idiocy that passes for argument (for example, “How do we know a 45% pass rate isn’t good? It all depends on where that group began”), I develop headaches, jaw aches and an upset stomach. I’ve had dark moments where I felt that nothing would ever improve, administrators would never listen, and parents should just grab their babies and run for the hills, as far away from the aliens as possible.

The obliviousness of the education establishment is impressive. The deceit and the covering up of the children’s reality are immoral, if not technically criminal. I’ve sat at my computer and blanched at the cheerful destruction of so many children’s futures.

Meanwhile, since 1989, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) happily became “relevant” as they pushed their national standards. Across the country, school districts happily spent truckloads of taxpayer dollars chasing after every mangy, stray-dog program, and Texas Instruments (TI) and textbook publishers happily made enough money to wallpaper the moon at least twice in pretty thousand-dollar bills.

It’s all happening again. The National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) are the “new black,” pushing for new national standards (because it worked so well the last time). TI continues to deliver fancy calculators to wee tots, and textbook publishers and the College Board pant and salivate at being in on the ground floor of new national curricula and assessments.

Math advocates weren’t invited to this table, either, but who cares? I could sit at that table, lie down on that table, take off my clothes and dance the fandango on that table, and all of the deals would still be made – right next to my sweaty feet.

Math advocate Mike Miller said: “A culture that embraces purposeful perversion will be more resistant to both exposure and change.”

What if the purposeful perversion affects children’s futures and the stability of the country? At what point does it become evil?

Maybe the public-education establishment is already there. Maybe if we look up from our work long enough, we’ll see this for what it really is: An ongoing bloodless takeover by aliens.

Mark my words.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (July, 2009). "Why administrators don't listen." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article also was published July 5, 2009, on Education News at


Niki Hayes said...

I've concluded we cannot continue to try and explain/convince/persuade those who think like drunken members of an elite club. It's time to give families respite from all the energy being spent on this issue. Otherwise, we are adopting that favorite method of reformists to "process" an issue to death. We have to establish our own places of education and prove our merit and then hope that people will want to join OUR teaching environments with their children. Join the new U.S. World Class Math group or the Center for Education Reform group (promotes choice) and help build critical mass for those who don't want to waste energy anymore on a losing fight but who want to build opportunities for CHOICE. How do we put our energy and time into effectively building a better place for our kids TODAY?

Kai said...

You know, you are absolutely right! I am currently in the process of writing a paper on the Math Wars for a graduate school course in which I'm supposed to be "objective". I have tried to come up with the studies that show how wonderful reform math is and I'm just not finding them. I'm finding many studies the showing how great direct instruction is. I'm finding all kinds of papers that support a more traditional approach, but very little from the other side. Frankly, I thought that finding studies in favor of reform math would be a piece of cake, but I was totally wrong.

Anonymous said...

It still shocks me to read these posts. I sometimes wonder if you read my mind and put it into WORDS. Thanks for speaking for so many parents out here! You are the BEST!

Richard Reuther said...

Yes, we got the "research shows" line from our principal as he dismantled the teaming and blocking (both "best practices" according to the National Middle School Association) that we had been doing successfully for ten years or so. The westside district had even gone out of its way ten years ago to hire a principal who would INSTITUTE teaming and blocking. But now "the research shows" something else, apparently. Perhaps these children had different brains than the ones ten years earlier. Or was it just to bully the over 50 crowd out of the building? Or was it because the new teachers coming into the profession were only trained in one subject area and not the other so they were not QUALIFIED to block LA and SS or Math and Science?

"The research shows" is garbage as far as being a valid piece of evidence in an argument goes unless you can actually find it, duplicate the study, and arrive at similar results. When you hear "the research shows..." be afraid, be very afraid.

dan dempsey said...

I've just begun reading John Hattie's "Visual Learning". Real Empirical Research is something the decision makers in USA math constantly avoid as they prefer fads and politically based decision making.

Look at Seattle's favorite plan for everything Differentiated Instruction.... Hattie does not mention it. NMAP says:
Although most teacher educators and professional development providers highly recommend a technique called Differentiated Instruction (DI) at all educational levels, there is no basis in research for promoting DI in the mathematics (or any other) classroom. The Panel could not evaluate the quality or weight of the evidence for DI because there is no empirical research on it at all.

Hattie also reports the following effect sizes:
Direct Instruction 0.59
Inquiry Based Learning 0.31
Problem based learning 0.15

The hinge point is 0.40......
note: our decision-makers do the ineffective or marginally effective rather than what works.