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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Administrators, board members need reality check

I challenge district board members and administrators to go out into the school district and start working with the children. I’m not talking about photo ops, obsequious gift giving, and meaningless meet-and-greets of the great, unwashed masses. I’m talking about working with the children, sitting down with them to tutor them in arithmetic, talking with them in all seriousness about their education, finding out how it’s been going, what their challenges are, what they would like to see happen, and what they really need. I’m talking about regular, quality time, every month.

If school administrators were open to learning something – and not just interested in hearing what they already believe – then working with the students could be a real education, a comeuppance, and a humbling experience.

“Keep it real, dude” should be the law – or at least district policy. But it’s easier to avoid reality, to make policy from afar, to field phone calls off the record, and to hold meetings where no one has to answer questions. My goal, therefore, is to help administrators keep it real.

Hey, here comes some reality now.

I’ve spoken at length with a Spokane principal about a free tutoring program for some of his K-6 students. At the end of the last conversation, I could see I would have to take my tutoring program elsewhere. It isn’t that he can’t use the help. In his school last spring, just 63% of the 4th graders and 59% of the 6th graders passed the state standardized math tests. It isn’t that he can’t let me in the door. I’m not a whacko, drug addict or criminal. I’ve volunteered in this school district for the last six years. The reasons I took my tutoring elsewhere are these:

  1. I want to teach arithmetic. The principal insisted he wouldn’t feel “comfortable” unless I taught multiple ways to solve math problems. He did NOT want me to focus on traditional algorithms.
  2. I want to teach arithmetic. The principal said he wants me to include other subjects in the tutoring (such as language arts).
  3. I know my limitations. The principal said he wants me to include all types of learners, including students who qualify for special education. When I made it clear I’m not trained in special education, he accused me of not meaning it when I said everyone can learn arithmetic.
  4. He said there is no money available for tutoring in arithmetic. Therefore, parents would be charged for something their children should be getting for free in the classroom.

What a mess.

The principal and I batted this conversation back and forth for more than an hour. He kept saying the same meaningless things over and over.

“Why do the students even need the Lattice Method?” I asked him at one point.
“So they can get a deeper understanding of the concept,” he said.
“Right, so we teach the traditional algorithm, we show them how it works, we have them practice it, and they get that deeper understanding,” I said. “Why do they need the Lattice Method?”
Pause. “So they can get a deeper understanding,” he said firmly, still certain.

At last, reluctantly, I gave up. I got in touch with a local tutor, who invited me to volunteer at an outreach center. And there, I must say, I am getting one hell of an education.

The students there have heartbreaking challenges in their life, and I can do nothing at all about most of them. Despite the fact that reform math is supposed to help disadvantaged students, these students have the same gaps in math knowledge as everybody else (exacerbated by the additional challenges).

I also found out that high school students who don’t have basic arithmetic skills can be enrolled in Algebra I. They also can be enrolled in Advanced Placement classes. (They’re likely to fail or drop out of these classes, of course, whereupon some administrators will say, “Well, they must have learned something while they were there.”)

I heard that some school counselors advise vulnerable students as follows: “Don’t worry about the exams. To go to the Skills Center or ROTC or college, you need these classes on your transcript. Just take the classes and do a portfolio or project at the end. They’ll let you graduate and then you can do what you want.”

These high school students are nervous, scared even – filled with bravado and doubt in equal portions, frightened of looking stupid. “I’m not (worried) about it,” one of them said to me repeatedly, not meeting my gaze. Watching him, I pondered the “discovery” learning method, so enthusiastically and inexplicably embraced by the schools. Like everyone else, this student will be told to work in groups and on his own to “discover” his own methods. I imagined him trying to discover thousands of years of math by trial and error. It made me angry. He needs to be taught, not pitched back into the hell of the Discovery Dog and Pony Show. But what do district administrators know of him or the other students in this district? What do board members know? Very little. Next to nothing. Maybe nothing at all.

I have an idea. District administrators and board members should set a policy of going into the schools each month for a certain amount of time, where they must tutor the students. If they do this, they’ll see 4th graders who already hate mathematics, 6th-graders who add on their fingers, and high school students who aren’t sure of how to do long division. They’ll see smart but ill-prepared students who flunked out of their AP classes and who now worry their friends see them as stupid.

They’ll see kids with fierce dreams, daunting fears and multiple life challenges – kids whose future looms large and forbidding in their mind. They’ll see that by high school, the students’ gaps in critical academic skills and knowledge are enormous, monstrous, and seemingly insurmountable.

They’ll see principals who are absolutely certain beyond any shadow of a doubt that current teaching methods will work, despite the entire last decade of contrary evidence.

Unless they are willfully blind to it, administrators and board members will see their hand in this mess, and they’ll see the gargantuan gap between what they’re doing and what they could and should be doing.

It’s so easy for administrators to sit around and make policy, to approve this or that, pontificate about how great things are, go on television and moan about a pretend lack of money, and commiserate with each other about how parents, students, legislators and teachers are to blame for the low test scores. "Stay in school,” they tell students. “Work hard. Do your best. Take this seriously.” As if that fixes it. It’s harder to go into the classroom and find out how things really are. It’s harder to go to PTA meetings and listen to frustrated parents. It’s harder to watch as children valiantly attempt to follow ineffectual district curricula and policies.

It’s really hard to sit in the hallway with a 4th-grader and his math homework and try to convince him that he is NOT stupid, that math is NOT hard, that he WILL get it -- all the while knowing that he’s going back to a curriculum that will continue to confuse him. It’s really easy to show that child how to do it properly and to help him practice it. It’s really rewarding to see him get it. It’s really stupid that this tutoring process is so necessary right now. It’s criminal that administrative roadblocks keep it from happening.

Here’s my challenge to administrators and school board members. If you’re really there to do some good, then get out of your office, sit down with the students and start learning something. Your customers have something to teach you.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (September, 2009). "Administrators, board members need reality check." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Sept. 16, 2009, on at