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Friday, August 28, 2009

Blame math problem on administrators

(Updated Oct. 2, 2009)

During the Aug. 26 board meeting for Spokane Public Schools, Razak Garoui, director of Assessment and Program Evaluation, blamed new legislation for the district’s abysmal math test scores. (According to a previous news report, he also said scores were low because students didn’t take the test seriously.)

Listening to Dr. Garoui, I was reminded of a song that was NOT sung by Milli Vanilli. “Blame It On the Rain” was a major hit for Milli Vanilli late in 1989, just before news broke that the duo was only pretending to sing. While suffering through the pretense of Dr. Garoui’s Aug. 26 presentation, I recalled the chorus of “Blame It On the Rain”:

“Gotta blame it on something
Blame it on the rain (rain)
Blame it on the stars (stars)
Whatever you do don't put the blame on you
Blame it on the rain yeah yeah
You can blame it on the rain”

I became annoyed with Dr. Garoui and Milli Vanilli. As a diversion, I found and began to read the August 2009 issue of the district’s newsletter “School Talk.” The issue contains an article titled “It All Adds Up To Math.” In this article:

  • A Shadle Park high school teacher says, “I’m impressed by the students’ depth of understanding, and their ability to communicate mathematical ideas.”
    (Shadle’s pass rate for the 10th-grade math test in 2009 was 47.4%.)
  • A Ridgeview Elementary School teacher says, “Kids are able to apply concepts seamlessly in different contexts. They are excited about math now.”
    (Ridgeview’s pass rates for the 3rd-6th-grade math tests were 62.1%, 56.3%, 58.2% and 43.5%).
  • A Chase Middle School teacher says, “The curriculum does a good job of pushing kids to discover their own understanding. And it also allows time to practice skills and algorithms.”
  • (Chase’s pass rates for the 7th-8th-grade math tests were 52.8% and 55.6%).
  • The article says: “Student scores on statewide assessments are, in some cases, showing improvement. However, there are still students not achieving at the level necessary to demonstrate mastery of standards."
    (No kidding. Nowhere in this happy article is the fact that in 2009, Spokane Public Schools' 10th-grade math WASL pass rate was just 42.3%.)

Following Dr. Garoui’s comments, board member Dr. Jeff Bierman, a physics professor at Gonzaga, commented on the “abysmal” WASL results for mathematics and on the “almost deceitful” district representation of student achievement. That’s when Superintendent Nancy Stowell blamed the low test scores on the teachers. She said the math problem isn’t just about curriculum; it’s about the quality of teaching. She added, “And we have a real problem in this district” with quality teaching.

Wow. Really? That’s probably news to Spokane teachers. The Garoui/Stowell comments are unsupported by evidence. They actually stand in direct opposition to the flood of available evidence on Spokane’s execrable math curricula. After everything she’s heard – over several years and from parents, teachers and advocates – after all of the research and reports she’s received – Dr. Stowell prefers to just blame the teachers.

“Gotta blame it on something
Blame it on the rain that was falling, falling
Blame it on the stars that did shine at night
Whatever you do don't put the blame on you
Blame it on the rain yeah yeah”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard Dr. Stowell blame the teachers. In a 2008 interview, I told her some teachers believe they’ve been disciplined for voicing their concerns, and she said that didn’t surprise her. The district has “a wide variety of teachers out there,” she said, “some of them very, very successful; and some less successful. And so, you know, people have issues along that continuum.” Some teachers just don’t like change, she added – somewhat hypocritically, I thought, considering that, as a whole, she and her fellow administrators seem completely adverse to effective change. These administrators are a nearly immoveable force – stain-resistant, impermeable, opaque and impervious. They’re like a black hole, sucking in all available taxpayer money and emitting no Light At the End of the Tunnel.

Teachers, however, are forced to change. They either change in response to every administrative whim, or they’re forced out. Afraid to voice their concerns, many teachers become silent and submissive. And yet – while doing exactly as they’re told – teachers are still blamed for low test scores.

“We have a real problem” with quality teaching, Dr. Stowell says.

Jim Harrison, 6th-grade teacher at Balboa Elementary School, was neither silent nor submissive. He fought a long and almost solitary fight for better mathematics instruction in Spokane. Parents and students are fond of him. They look up to him and believe he gave them his best. Last spring, Jim’s principal, Pat Lynass, broke WASL testing protocol in Jim’s class in several ways. A district spokesperson said Ms. Lynass will not be disciplined for these infractions. Jim’s class, however, was labeled a “problem.” This year, Jim is on a leave of absence. Next year, he retires.

“You got to blame it on something
(Blame it on the rain)
(Blame it on the stars)
Whatever you do don't put the blame on you”

Teachers, parents and students tend to be blamed because they have little voice. Even as Dr. Stowell and her curriculum coordinators say publicly that no one knows how to solve the math problem – that “no one has a silver bullet” – they refuse to listen to the people who DO know how to solve the math problem.

People all over the world HAVE solved the math problem, just by teaching it properly. That’s all it takes. They teach it. They don’t blame teachers, students, legislators, a fake lack of money, new standards, student hormones, parents, society, or students’ alleged bad attitude. They don’t ask students to learn mathematics by cutting out paper dolls, playing with molding clay and straws, or counting bird calls. They don’t expect children to teach math to each other or to themselves. Recognizing that it’s silly to teach mathematics by not teaching it, people all over the world just get up there and teach it – effectively, efficiently, with little fanfare but with superior results.

In Spokane, it would be refreshing to hear administrators say, “We’ve really screwed this up. We don’t have a problem with quality teaching; what we have here is a failure in administration. We should all leave right now, give up our pay, our bonuses, our travel allowances and our fancy offices. We stink. We should give back several years of pay. In fact, we should pay the students for what we’ve done to them.”

But I doubt we’ll ever hear anything from Spokane administrators acknowledging their responsibility for the mess that is K-12 math instruction. It’s time board members took Dr. Stowell to task. She and some of her employees have said that no one knows how to solve the math problem. This is both arrogant and incorrect. A positive step toward fixing the math problem in Spokane would be for Nancy Stowell, the math curriculum coordinators, their supervisors – and sure, while we’re at it, Razak Garoui – to resign.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:Rogers, L. (August, 2009). "Blame math problem on administrators." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Aug. 31, 2009, on, at:


dan dempsey said...

Spokane Central Administration fails to use available empirical evidence to make decisions. Education in the USA is not an evidence based profession. It is the equivalent of USA medicine in 1790.

We have the best medical system, which is evidence based (although the most expensive.) We have a mediocre expensive system of education that is particularly pathetic in mathematics.

John Hattie's "Visible Learning" looks at the empirical research in this book, which is a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.

In Mathematics both Spokane and Seattle seem dedicated to avoiding effective teaching practices and avoiding effective instructional materials. {This is a direct extension Dr. Bergeson's politically correct ideology trumps empirical evidence decision making.}

These districts speak of coaching in the use of Best Practices and offer Professional Development. It is now quite clear that these districts have no idea of what is BEST. Expensive misguided practices would be more accurate.

W. Edwards Deming said:
To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data.

In any system at most 15% of problems are due to employee inadequacy.

Usually more than 85% of problems are due to system structure.

"Blame it on the teachers." Is that the Superintendent's plan for improvement?

Perhaps the Spokane public is to blame for not tossing out a Central Administration, which continues this expensive lunacy.

Rob Archer said...

I think, more than anything, you've insulted Milli Vanilli. At least they weren't hurting anyone else.

Anonymous said...

Think of it this way. Washington school reform is like a dangerous strain of ebola virus. Teachers in your state are learning to work around it. Speaking out is not worth sacrificing one's career. There is no cure. Bergerson helped it multiply. The 'adult?' environment teachers are forced to work in is hell.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Anonymous, I'll have to disagree with you.
Teachers must speak out. It is the right thing to do for the children, and en masse, they could make a difference.
Either of those things would absolutely be "worth it."
If they are working "in hell," it's partially because, "en masse," they allow it.

Anonymous said...

Then reform taxpayer protection laws and give whistleblower protection to state employees.

Your state has no rights for whistleblowers - the best advice for a teacher who is having difficulty with administrators is to keep a daily journal of 'everything' that occurs in your class - take special note of who your children's parents are and if they are close friends of an administrator. It might save your job later. Your unions are structurally weak. If the districts consolidated, the teacher's unions would become stronger and they could negotiate better salaries and protect members.

If I were a teacher, I wouldn't take money from an administrator, especially if you've been given a vague job description like 'policing curriculum in your department'. Also, don't take a job, if your not credentialed to do it - like Title I district coordinator - when you don't even know what SSC means. SIP coordinator! Another route to mismanage more funds. Commit fraud and your community pays for it. Your biggest frauds are in the community - they can pull strings.

Watch for heavy turnovers in districts, especially at the district office. Avoid those districts - why are they continually posting available positions - especially with math and science.

There is more graft and corruption then we probably realize. You can compare base salaries to actual salaries using the state's database and that might expose some of it. I think travel expenses that get approved by boards should be examined more carefully.

Its the lack of ethics that creates widespread waste. Curriculum certainly needs to be addressed. This is a huge, segmented industry and without question classrooms need better textbooks.

Anonymous said...

Teachers don't see the big picture - for them the picture is the same everywhere and it is temporary. Teachers are in their classrooms.

They allow things to happen around them because they're told everyday that things will get better. They are promised better jobs and better students. And they focus is on perfecting their craft which is teaching.

After about 15-20 years, some of these teachers go on to better groups of kids or schools. But many also grow disillusioned. If you're going to invest as much money into teachers as this country does, then I think we have to find better ways of keeping all teachers, regardless of performance, in the classroom.

Teachers leave teaching if they're not satisfied anyway and the time and cost of removing a teacher is cost prohibitive. It is far easier to remove an incompetent administrator.

Administrators are not necessarily the people who should be evaluating teachers, especially when the textbooks are so incredibly bad.

Most textbooks are not suitable for our students. I have teenagers that are illiterate and all my materials are made or purchased with my own resourcefulness and money.

Without my efforts to keep students enrolled, our school would easily lose 200 students and that's 4 teachers. My principal looks at test scores, not enrollment so the question for educators is over ethics, not about teachers.