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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


    Anonymous said...

    I remember "learning" about the Lattice Method during a math education class while I was getting my Master's at UW. I battled the prof about it's stupidity in relation to the much easier to understand, much more readily applicable, and much more mathematically 'deep' traditional algorithm - which, if students are taught basic multiplication tables and place value early on, is easy to master with practice (boy, they do seem to hate that word, as if anything worthwhile could be accomplished without it!)

    I really believe that higher ed is part of the problem.

    :) An Anonymous Middle School Math teacher in Snohomish County

    Anonymous said...

    The math issue is across the United States. In GA (yep, couldn't be happy with next to last) we have adopted the fuzzy math. I've taught my 2nd grader multiplication and simple division. In class he is learning estimation. He came home saying "we have about 4 people in our family". I thought National standards might solve these issues, but they are so vague.. I agree that if administrators and folks in the central office spent time actually teaching students then there is a chance they would have to acknowledge the fuzzy math doesn't work. I admire Ms. Rogers work to help the children. It is tireless as I have found out. Ms. Rogers keep up the work, some day this country may emerge from "The Math Dark Ages".

    Todd Hausman said...

    If I didn't know any better, I would swear you were writing about the Bellingham School District. What's really sad is that each of the 295 public school districts in Washington are governed in this same way. Why do we need so many different school boards and superintendents anyway? Can you imagine trying to operate a business with 295 autonomous departments, each with its own CEO and board of directors? For profit companies are not organized this way for a reason, it doesn't work. Our schools are like dinosaurs in a tar pit, they're stuck in a mess and dying a slow death. I know the voters in this state have rejected them before, but it's time for Washingtonians to rethink Charter Schools. The public education system is unable to save itself.

    Katharine Beals said...

    I had an experience similar to yours when I started an after-school Continental Math League club for 2nd and 3rd graders last year (for which there was overwhelming interest by the many math-starved students and parents!)

    When I taught kids the standard algorithms, teachers started complaining that I wasn't teaching "meaningful" strategies and was confusing them.

    The principal's complaint, on the other hand, was that the math club was widening the achievement gap between participants and nonparticipants.

    Somehow, I was simultaneously mis-teaching and raising achievement.

    Kim said...

    Although this post is a heart-breaker, I want to say *thank you* from the bottom of my heart. I'm just learning the reality of what has been happening in our schools. I knew there was 'influence', but not how pervasive it had become. As a mother with a fourth-grader in Ilalko, I'm thrilled to have found your blog.

    Spedvet said...

    Listen -- You don't need to know a thing about special education to teach special ed kids math. They learn best with the traditional methods as well. Also, most kids in special ed are kids who are simply behind (either due to poor instruction to begin with), or have a "learning disability" (dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc., although schools will rarely give a kid a specific learning disability diagnosis because it leaves them on the hook to be following research based practices for that particular LD) or ADHD. These kids are not that hard to teach.

    The more severe kids, like severe autism, MR, etc. also still benefit from traditional math, but they may need the basic distilled down even more. In other words, Saxon and Singapore may not work with an autistic kid, but SRA Direct Instruction Connecting Math Concepts usually works well.

    I suggest you tell your principal that you've reconsidered and will work with the sped kids. They won't give you a sped kid with behaviors you can't handle, because if their behaviors are severe, it will be required in their individual education plan (IEP) that persons who work with the child must be trained. And therefore you won't work with those kids anyway.

    Once you tell the principal you will work with sped kids too, the ball will be in his court to deny you the opportunity to tutor kids in math. And you will probably find you enjoy working with the sped kids, and will begin to advocate for them once you see the crap the most vulnerable in our school are getting that passes for an education.

    Whereas bad math for a typical normal kid may mean the difference between him getting a good grade on the SAT for college preference, bad math for sped kids --especially the more severe ones-- means the difference from a lifetime of dependence on others vs. a life of independence and even a basic floor of opportunity.

    Anonymous said...

    I'm keeping a journal of my encounters with the principal at my school. Our union is asking all their members who have concerns about curriculum and walkthroughs to start keeping detailed records.

    I did it before and it led to several resignations over mismanagement. Someone should have me painted red as I'm considered to overqualified and toxic to managers who are incompetent and unprincipled.

    I was given an 'exceptionally challenging' teaching assignment where 2/3's of my students are bussed in and test far below basic. I'm managing my classrooms and using groups - his criticism was that I wasn't challenging my students and I was allowwing them to talk too much. I told them they were mostly illiterate and I was teaching them how to read and take turns speaking.

    It takes years to build up good programs. It takes only one year to tear it down.

    He wanted them to 'think-pair-share' and I was told to give them separate tasks while they were in groups and I said that it wasn't realistic. Too much structure lowers motivation.

    He wanted to see students doing more 'higher-order thinking' - I said that we were using the textbooks and they were focusing on passing the CAHSEE and the CST.

    My students and their parents are happy and they think its a miracle that they're kids are finally feeling successful and this principal wants to monkey around with raising test scores - he's playing with fire and I gave him a gentle warning, but I predict he will be facing a management crisis if he and his APs continue down this path and my colleagues are all in agreement. Last week, he and his staff observed over a 100 classrooms - so who was minding the office while they were all out snipe-hunting.

    Anonymous said...

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