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Sunday, November 14, 2010

SPS brushes off math concerns in meeting devoted to math concerns

By Laurie H. Rogers

In October, Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell asked parents in the Citizens Advisory Council what we want to discuss in future meetings. Resoundingly, we said: mathematics. Thus, the agenda of the Nov. 8 CAC meeting was to discuss mathematics. But the Nov. 8 meeting was tightly controlled. There was little opportunity for parent discussion of mathematics.

Citizens Advisory Council Meeting, Nov. 8, 2010, 6:45 p.m.
District administrators devoted the first part of the Nov. 8 meeting to issues other than mathematics.
  • Board member Dr. Jeff Bierman discussed the district’s bond sale and the district's wonderful bond rating. (It’s lovely how wonderful the district’s bond rating is, even when the district’s academic programs are so poor.)
  • Tim Henkel, of the United Way, asked parents to partner with the United Way. He handed out a sign-up sheet. (I signed his sheet. Why not? Perhaps he can get the district to change the K-8 math materials.)
  • Dr. Stowell discussed a “longitudinal study” the district will conduct to determine specific characteristics and “markers” of children who “get off track” in school.
Perhaps the student "characteristics" and "markers" include having to suffer with constant group work, discovery and a bass-ackward way of learning math and grammar. Perhaps they include difficulty with terrible math programs and weak state math tests. A 2006 study from Johns Hopkins researchers Robert Balfanz and Ruth Curran Neild found an increasing likelihood of students to drop out when they begin failing math and English classes. (Hmm. Perhaps it is Spokane administrators who are “off track.”)
At about 20 minutes in, the district finally began talking about mathematics. Presenting were Tammy Campbell, Rick Biggerstaff, Kim Dennis, Laura Ketcham-Duchow, and Michelle McKenzie. Dr. Campbell said a few times that the district would “continue to raise achievement in mathematics.”
(Uh… “Continue to raise achievement”?? What fuzzy math is this? On which planet is she living? Spokane has steadily sinking pass rates on math tests and extremely high remedial rates in math at area community colleges.)

The district presentation included these topics: Collaboration in Buildings, Principals’ Conferences; Walk-Throughs; Data-Driven Dialogue; Standards-Based Grading and Reporting; Professional Development; Coaching; and Curriculum.

According to Dr. Campbell, Biggerstaff, Dennis, Ketcham-Duchow and McKenzie all “work with teachers to build their capacity.” They are “professional development leaders,” as well as writers of curriculum.
Oh, yeah. I’m sure this is how teachers see the administrators exactly. The Nov. 8 presentation did nothing to alleviate my perception that administrators think the math problem is the fault of teachers, parents and students. Indeed, based on this district presentation, it seems likely that teachers will continue to be obstructed, disrupted, and pulled out of class to be professionally developed, coached, monitored, and stuck in “lab classrooms” where they will waste valuable class time watching other teachers. It seems administrators will continue to “collaborate” about them, monitor them, “walk-through” their classrooms to “brief” them and “debrief” them, and then continue to pound them to death with “professional development” in failed instructional dogma.
My perception is that, when all of this disruption and obstruction continues to NOT work for the students, teachers will continue to be criticized, patronized, and disciplined. (Later, administrators can tell teachers that parents are the problem. At no time will anyone hear that administrators continue to be the problem.)
I raised my hand to ask if there is a limit on how many hours Spokane teachers can be absent from the classroom for district-initiated reasons, but administrators moved on without calling on me.

An administrator discussed the new emphasis on data-driven dialogue (which is where, mind you, the emphasis should always have been).
OMG. If you thought the WASL wasted too much class time on data that went nowhere and accomplished nothing, just wait until you see what students face now: End-of-unit assessments, the MSP, the HSPE, and the MAP in fall, winter, and spring. Not only will teachers be continually pulled out of class, students also will be “missing in action” each time the district wants more fake data.
Of course, recent student data already tell administrators a devastating story of failed reform curricula, and of confusing and counterproductive methodology forced daily on the teachers. But listening to administrators talk Nov. 8, it seems these data tell them students are doing well. Better than students across the state (which appears to be all they care about). And everyone loves the administrators. And they love themselves. And they dress well, too, because $100,000/year can buy some really nice shoes.
I raised my hand to offer current student data and to ask what it shows them, but administrators moved on without calling on me. I did manage to ask how all of their data will translate into change for the students. Dr. Campbell mentioned “grouping” and “interventions.”
Hmm. What I’ve been hearing from parents is that students are being “grouped” into “high” and “low” math classes, which does not seem helpful to students' self-esteem. I wonder how many students would be in a “low” class if all of their teachers had been allowed to teach them basic arithmetic skills. What kind of intervention can it be when administrators don’t appear to value basic arithmetic skills, and they actively interfere with teachers who want to teach them?
Over the years, I’ve asked various administrators, principals and board directors to help me – or at least allow me – or at least allow someone – to start a free district tutoring program in arithmetic. To no avail.

An administrator presented graphs showing how Spokane students achieve more than students across the state. Also discussed were “strand data,” and the SAT, NAEP, and TIMSS, all of which supposedly point to student success in Spokane.
In my opinion, this piece of the presentation was so selective, manipulative, deceptive and shameless, it’s hard to believe the administrator didn’t just melt into a pool of muck on the floor.

When you look at actual pass rates on the WASL, MSP, and HSPE, you can’t help but weep for the children. Look at the pass rates for 2010: (“Pass rates on 2010 math tests shocking”).
The presentation handout doesn’t cite sources for this “strand data.” It just lists outlandish claims of student performance on unnamed "strands." As for the SAT, NAEP, and TIMSS – what do they say about Spokane? Where is specific data on our students? Were the tested students homeschooled? Were they tutored? Did any actually attend Spokane schools?
I raised my hand to ask about specific data on Spokane’s 10th-graders and middle-schoolers, but administrators moved on without calling on me.

During the standards-based grading piece of the presentation, district administrators discussed the new “standards-based grading,” which has caused smart, capable students in Spokane to burst into tears.
Repeat after me: Grading does not improve math achievement. Done well, grading can tell us how the district is performing. But in Spokane, grading is done with standards-based grading, and this kind of grading is particularly good at hiding a weak math program. In Spokane, nearly everyone gets an A or a B. Few excel. Few fall behind. Everyone is pretty much the same, regardless of what they know. Rest assured that all college admissions people in Washington know this.
During the “curriculum” piece of the district presentation, Rick Biggerstaff did not talk about curricular materials. Instead, he talked about how the district planned to build a standards document to hand out to parents.

In Spokane Public Schools, “curriculum” has come to mean “standards.” (I think “standards” has come to mean “cow patty,” and “cow patty” now means “all parent and teacher input,” especially the input they find disagreeable.)
At the state level in 2008, incredibly well-qualified people collectively spent $1.6 million of taxpayer money to build Grade A math standards for Washington State. (Of course, those state standards include algorithms and arithmetic, which in Spokane Public Schools are a definite no-no.)
Regardless of what you think of when you think of “curriculum” – textbooks, standards, or criterion objectives – just know that at no time on Nov. 8 did administrators talk about Spokane’s execrable K-8 curricular materials. Not until I asked, that is.
I raised my hand to mention that their discussion of “curriculum” had become a discussion of standards, that good state math standards were already built, and why would the district waste taxpayer money writing standards for parents (which – pardon me for being a cynic – will almost certainly include heavy elements of reform dogma)? Administrators moved on without calling on me. This snubbing was so obvious, other parents began to laugh.
After our “small group discussion,” which arrived at the hour mark and lasted just a few minutes, I was allowed to ask if Spokane’s K-8 curricular materials would be replaced. Dr. Campbell said if the data warranted looking at the materials, they would.
If? IF?? Spokane has a 38.9% pass rate on the 10th grade math tests, pass rates in some middle schools that hover around 30-40%, and high remedial rates in math in college. The student data warrants lighting a match, setting our reform math curricula on fire, and then, when they are nothing but ash and dirt, locking them in a box and throwing them into the deepest, darkest part of the ocean, tied down with a large rock so they can never, ever resurface.
But administrators have beat Spokane teachers half to death with discovery and reform, and it seems they are not about to change now.
The Biggerstaff/Dennis/Ketcham-Duchow/McKenzie/Campbell/Stowell team talked confidently about what they’re doing to continue to improve math education in Spokane.

It was shocking. Shameless. It warrants firing. But who will fire them? The superintendent listened without comment. The school board directors voted this summer for administrator raises. Clearly, it’s up to you and me.
  • Teacher unions and staff unions can vote no-confidence in the superintendent, the school board, and the district. They can threaten to give up. When that doesn't have an effect, they can walk out.
  • Taxpayers can say no to levies and bonds.
  • Parents can continue to pull their children out of math classes, out of schools, and out of the district altogether.
I believe Spokane's current district decision-makers will never listen to teachers, parents or students. Yet, district residents must keep giving them our tax dollars, whether we like it or not. This sorry situation warrants legislative changes.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (November 2010). "SPS brushes off math concerns in meeting devoted to math concerns." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:  


Anonymous said...

Indeed, based on this district presentation, it seems likely that teachers will continue to be obstructed, disrupted, and pulled out of class to be professionally developed, coached, monitored, and stuck in “lab classrooms” where they will waste valuable class time watching other teachers.

Laurie, this is an apt description of what is taking place in other school districts. What refer to as "lab classrooms", I have heard called "studio classroom".

Are these teachers learning, as they are in other places, to develop student Mathematical Habits of Mind? Great! Let's teach students how to think mathematically but let's not help them develop the basic skills to actually be able to do it.

Anonymous said...

Well said. Hopefully, all of us as parents will begin to ask some serious questions at every opportunity and hold our school board accountable for the decisions being made by those climbing the corporate ladder. There is something dreadfully wrong with the leadership in our district.