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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Replace math curricula? Administrators won't answer in writing

By Laurie H. Rogers

[Updated March 14, 2011, to include their answer, finally given on the record.]

I've been trying since Nov. 8, 2010, to get a clear answer from Spokane administrators on whether they will replace the district's K-8 reform math materials. For four months, $544,000 worth of administration refused to answer this question definitively or on the record. Far from having my back on this, the board president appeared to blame me.

For a decade or so, Spokane Public Schools (SPS) has forced reform math curricula and excessive “discovery” learning down the throats of teachers and students. In 2010, we have abysmal pass rates on state standardized math tests. The longer students are in this district, the worse they do. In spring 2010, just 48.5% passed the 8th grade math test; they needed just 55% to pass. Just 38.9% passed the 10th grade state math test; they needed just 56.9% to pass. If the data were cleansed of students who are tutored outside the district, homeschooled in math, or who came to the district from other programs, the district’s pass rates would almost certainly drop farther.

For nearly four years, I’ve been trying to persuade SPS to replace the execrable and widely panned reform math materials “Investigations in Number, Data, and Space” and “Connected Mathematics Project” (CMP). Research and student data do not support continued use of these materials – not nationally, not in other districts, not at the state level, and not in Spokane. These reform math materials and other programs like them have devastated the math abilities of an entire generation of students.

Despite miserable outcomes; despite the research I’ve given administrators; despite the parents, teachers and students who have pleaded for a more traditional approach to teaching mathematics and grammar; and despite the 2008 district survey in which a third of parents who left this district said they left because of the curriculum – administrators have refused to replace "Investigations" and CMP.

In a Nov. 8 school district Citizens Advisory Council meeting, I asked administrator Tammy Campbell if the district planned to replace the K-8 math materials. She said if the data supported it, they would look at it. (That was a diversion, not an answer.)

The district’s student data actually support driving a stake through the heart of these materials, burning them into small ashes, and burying them under 12 feet of dirt. I followed up with the school board on Nov. 17, where board President Sue Chapin suggested I ask my questions of administrators Karin Short or Rick Biggerstaff.

On Nov. 19, I emailed Short, Superintendent Nancy Stowell, Campbell, and Biggerstaff to ask if the district planned to replace “Investigations” and CMP. If so, with what? If not, why not? Short was the only one to reply. She emailed to invite me downtown to meet with her and Campbell sometime in December.

I politely declined, saying a meeting wouldn’t be necessary; I just wanted the answers. Short emailed a two-paragraph reply of which the following sentence was the only part pertinent to my questions: “We are monitoring the progress of our middle level students...and will make curricular and materials revisions as necessary and as funding is available.” (This was another diversion, not an answer.)

Short also mentioned how well Spokane students did on the 2010 state tests, compared to the state averages. But if you look at Spokane’s achievement data on the 2010 state math tests, you will see dropping pass rates, from Grade 3 to Grade 10, culminating in a 38.9% pass rate in Grade 10. For most of these state tests, the score required to pass was less than 60%.

I emailed Short, Stowell, Biggerstaff and Campbell to ask my questions again. There was no reply.

On Dec. 1, I headed back to the school board to ask for help and answers. President Chapin said I’d been offered an opportunity to meet with administrators and had declined it. She suggested going back to Karin Short. Ever the accommodating taxpayer, I did.

On Dec. 2, I emailed Short, Stowell, Biggerstaff and Campbell, thanking them for the offer to meet, adding that I didn’t have time for it. I again asked my questions, noting that the questions were simple to answer and did not require a meeting. Short called my house while I was out to suggest we talk by phone.

I emailed them to politely decline the offer. I said that, in the interest of accuracy, avoiding accidents in the new-fallen snow, and avoiding wasting time and resources, I preferred to have the answers by email. I said I was perplexed at why I could not get these questions answered, that whether I would meet with them or talk with them by phone was immaterial to the math problem in Spokane. I said I preferred the answers by email and thanked Short for her time.

Short emailed to say they wanted to talk me with directly so they could be sure they answered all of my concerns. She repeated her invitation to talk by phone.

The next day, I emailed Short, Stowell, Biggerstaff and Campbell to say that the best way to answer my concerns was to answer them. I said Short appeared to be refusing to do so under the guise of being helpful and thorough. I said I couldn’t imagine that all taxpayers could meet with her in that way. I asked my questions again and said I would be fine with telling the public of Short’s refusal to answer my questions.

On Dec. 7, Short replied with this: “Good Morning Laurie, No one is refusing to provide information; we are offering to talk with you. Since you found the previous e-mail response to your questions unsatisfactory, we want to make sure we have the opportunity to answer your questions directly. Talking directly with you seems like the best way for you to get the answers you desire and to reduce frustration.”

That last sentence made me laugh out loud.

I emailed them to say I was glad they weren’t refusing to answer my questions, while noting that they had not yet answered them. “I understand and appreciate your willingness to meet with me or to speak with me directly by telephone,” I wrote. “I desire to have these answers in writing. Email is the simplest, most effective, and most expeditious method. Having the answers in writing assures a permanent record that is not open to interpretation.” I asked my questions again and thanked them.

This email remains unanswered.

On Dec. 15, for the third time since the Nov. 8 CAC meeting, I went to a school board meeting to ask for help and answers. I asked Superintendent Stowell to answer my questions, but she did not speak. Instead, President Chapin again said I had been invited to meet with administration or talk with them on the phone and had declined. I explained that I want the answers in writing. President Chapin continued to say I had my chance to get my answers and had refused to meet. (What is it about “I want this answer in writing” that is so difficult for President Chapin to grasp?)

Director Bob Douthitt pointed to a planned curriculum “review,” mentioned in the superintendent’s work plan. I asked when and how this review would take place. No one would say when or how this would ever happen. I said that, considering Spokane’s poor (and sinking) outcomes, it’s odd that administrators wouldn’t have a ready answer to these critical questions.

My five-minute allowance to speak to the board ran out. Karin Short said nothing to me. Nancy Stowell said nothing to me. My questions remain unanswered.

Karin Short makes $129,299 in base salary – a boost this year of 5.15%.
Tammy Campbell makes $114,849 in base salary – a boost this year of 4.1%.
Rick Biggerstaff makes $77,377 in base salary – a boost this year of 7.12%.
Nancy Stowell makes a total of $222,576 – a boost this year of 1.74%.

This year, taxpayers will pay at least $544,000 to four administrators who won’t answer simple questions on the record about the K-8 math materials. I have received other district answers by email or by letter; why not these? And – instead of insisting that these taxpayer-funded government employees answer simple questions from a taxpayer – the board president appears to blame the taxpayer.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the problems in Spokane. Teachers are hounded and harassed to use poor math and language arts materials and inefficient teaching methodologies. Brave teachers say they have been challenged or threatened when they tried to teach arithmetic or grammar to their students. How crazy is that? Soon, no doubt, administrators or board directors will again be blaming weak outcomes on “uninvolved” parents, “ineffective” teachers, or “unmotivated” students. But if we removed from this district all of the uninvolved parents, ineffective teachers and unmotivated students, Spokane would still have problems with math and grammar. That’s because administrators refuse to allow teachers to teach sufficient math or grammar. It’s that plain and that simple.

(Update March 14, 2011: I finally got an answer on the record, given in answer to my questions in the March 14 Citizens Advisory Committee meeting. The answer is "No." Not until they have curriculum that aligns with the not-quite-adopted Common Core State Standards. Oh, joy.)


Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (December 2010). "Replace math curricula? Administrators won't answer in writing." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/

This article was posted Dec. 20, 2010, on EducationNews.org at: http://www.educationnews.org/commentaries/insights_on_education/104845.html

16 comments:

HiDefMathFan said...

It sounds to me as if these administrators are averse to modes of communications that could come back to haunt them, one way or another. I recently visited a friend whose company has a new CEO that arose from their legal department. His mantra is "Don't write what you can say, don't say what you can communicate with a gesture, and never use email".

Niki Hayes said...

Your approach is perfect, if not rewarding in obtaining the answers that you need. That is, factual recording of efforts and responses is the best tactic in this war of wills. John Saxon would give you kudos (as do I).

Is there ANY news person in Washington who is willing to talk with you?

Anonymous said...

Laurie,
I'll second the sentiment of Niki Hayes in the previous comment: It's time to get the media involved (but I'm sure you've already done that.) If you have, what has media response been. I know when I sat down with a local reporter from the big local paper in Everett, I talked with him and gave evidence, reports, reviews, statistics for 1.5 hours - all on tape recorder too! This was back in May, and still nothing has been written or followed up on, in fact his parting comment to me was that in order to write an editorial/article on the state of math education in my district, he would need to get the district office perspective on my information. Of course, that never happened, and no article/editorial has been written.

Of course the Admin is going to blame you for their troubles, it's far easier than actually doing something positive for education. My admin thinks that parents in my district are upset because I have been ginning them up, not because CMP crap is hurting kids math skills....but here they are, coming to me in Algebra 1 as 9th graders with almost no basic skills.

It seems to me that the avoidance of real academic problems is chronic with administrators. They've loaded so much money and "PD" into this junk curriculum, they now can't seem to take responsibility for those bad decisions. That's really what it boils down to.

Anonymous said...

So let's get this straight. They want to meet with you and discuss things in an open honest setting and YOU refuse to do so. Amazing. It is clear that you only have one agenda and really dont want to solve any problems but rather cause them and draw as much attention to yourself as possible.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Dear Anonymous (at 9:44 a.m.):

Thank you for writing. Your comment, while obviously heartfelt, is not logical. Let's take it piece by piece:

They want to meet with you and discuss things in an open honest setting and YOU refuse to do so.

I have already met and/or spoken with each of the four, multiple times over four years. As a journalist, I see the wisdom and efficiency of receiving answers in writing. You are presuming without proof that this proposed meeting would be "open," whatever that means, and "honest." Perhaps it would meet your standards for “open” and “honest.” But my request for their answers to be on the record is neither difficult nor unreasonable.

It is clear that you only have one agenda

There is nothing inherently wrong with having one agenda. My one agenda at this time is to receive district answers on the record about the K-8 math curricula. I don't apologize for that agenda.

and really dont want to solve any problems

I have done my absolute best for four years to help solve the problem of math instruction in Spokane Public Schools.

but rather cause them and draw as much attention to yourself as possible.

It's true that I'm trying to draw attention to my advocacy efforts. I’m not a flamboyant person, and it isn’t my preferred position, but I recognize that I’m less likely to help make positive changes in this district unless others stand with me. To stand with me, they must understand the issues. Which problems do you suppose I'm causing? If I were to stop advocating right this minute, Spokane Public Schools would still have a problem with math and grammar. The problem with math and grammar in Spokane Public Schools is not Laurie Rogers.

Anonymous, what is your agenda?

Anonymous said...

Obviously the second Anonymous comment has little experience with Administrators to make the remark that was made, unless it was tonue-in-cheek. This is about having Administrators take responsibility and identify their positions. I have been in numerous meetings with Administrators where all that is required is a simple "yes" or "no", but what actually comes out is bloviated directionless jargon that nobody can interpret. What such "edu-speak" really means is "We have no clue what we're doing; but we want you to think we're concerned and we're working on it." Meanwhile, lots of money gets spent (on Admin and poor materials, as noted), test scores decrease, and students remain minimally educated.

So, Anonymous, unless you have actually experienced the sleight-of-hand that is a "talk with Administrators", please withhold your judgment on this issue. Administrators, once there, have only one purpose - to maintain their positions for as long as possible. If they actually were interested in making some real improvements, those improvements would be taking place. All you have to do is to look at the numbers to see that this is not their goal.

Anonymous said...

The resistance of the Spokane administration and school board to be captured “on record” is not unique. Several years ago, I had an almost identically frustrating lack of response from the leadership of the Issaquah School District on an entirely different issue.

There had been a message generated from the district administration that had found its way into every elementary school in the district. The message was concerning the WASL, and stated that it was required by state & federal law that all students take the test. This is/was factually incorrect, and no mention was made of parental opt-out provisions.

The district refused to give me any answers in writing (e-mail), and continually stressed their desire to “address my concerns” with a personal meeting. Not only did they refuse to answer any substantive, straight-forward questions prior to their proposed “personal meeting”, they refused to tell me what questions would be answered at the meeting. This “personal meeting” was to be attended by myself, the building principal, and at least two administrators from the district offices. I wasn’t given the names of all who would attend, but it was quite clear I would be in the minority, and no record would exist of the meeting.

Finally, after weeks of “e-mail volleyball”, I dropped the ball. It had become crystal clear that “address my concerns” meant placating my feelings, not directly answering my questions.

Perhaps you should take their offer of a direct “personal meeting”, and demand that either it be video-recorded, or that you be accompanied by a news reporter of your choosing. You may not get your answers, but it could be an interesting extension of the game of chess they’ve thrust upon you.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Dear Anonymous (10:35 a.m.):

Thank you for telling your story. It gives me an opportunity to mention something.

The law in Washington State is that - in private meetings - all parties must know if something is being recorded. Additionally - in private meetings - a party can say no to being recorded.

I did consider your suggestion. However, it’s Christmas, it’s been snowing, I’m busy, and my questions are simple. I do not want to play a chess game; I just want answers on the record to a few simple questions. Every busy parent, teacher and community member can relate to the position they’re forcing on me.

I am not the only one to suffer this diversion away from administrative accountability. For just one example, in July 2009, another parent asked Superintendent Stowell in the district's online "chat" about the math curriculum. Dr. Stowell’s public answer was that she planned to meet privately with the parent. http://www2.spokaneschools.org/Interview/faq.asp?id=15

We do not have to accept this diversion.

The Misanthrope said...

Unbelieveable!
Please, Laurie, shorten this blog entry and turn it in to The Spokesman Review as a Guest Editorial so that more may read about the circumlocution of downtown.

Martha McLaren said...

Laurie, if you can shape this into a Guest Editorial as Misanthrope suggests, it would be another step in the right direction -- educating the public about this horrific and distorted public process. Your clarity and insight, and quality of written expression continue to be of the highest caliber.

Richard Reuther said...

To Anonymous 12/20 9:06am,
After my wife and I were bullied out of the Edmonds SD, we attempted to contact the local paper which is corporately related to the Everett paper. After first showing interest in our story, we were suddenly told that they were not interested. Local paper editors belong to the same Chamber and Kiwanis as school administrators. They don't turn on each other because they need each others services to pass levies, do PR for the schools, etc. (Note that there aren't any actual teachers who are members because they are actually working at 7am.)

To Anonymous refering to the Issaquah SD: You are absolutely correct. All school districts are told by their lawyers to not communicate in writing. They all know the "drill." They are all afraid of being getting involved in a law suit. E-mail is forever. It is the same with the "policy" of bullying that we were subjected to. Their lawyers tell administrators EXACTLY what they can and can't do to a teacher as far as bullying is concerned. We were told that everything do to us was "perfectly legal." They all choose to ignore the psychological and physiological damage that bullying does. Your legislators are also deaf to these actions by school districts. "Just let them do their job" is what I've heard from more than one elected official. When does "their job" include inflicting emotional damage on another human, especially when all districts are striving to eliminate student bullying? The students see what is happening to their teachers and they don't understand why the rules are different.

When does "their job" mean they don't respond to their stakeholders? The only way administrators and board members providing them with cover can be made to listen is if you fill the board meetings with people who demand ANSWERS rather than evasions.

There was an adult bullying example in the Kiona-Benton SD last spring. The only reason anything got done was because 60-70 people (twice the fire occupancy of the board room) showed up for 6 consecutive meetings to demand answers as to why this teacher was being bullied. And when they stopped showing up, things pretty much went back to the same ol' same ol'.

You must outlast them. That's your only hope. They hold most of the power cards.

Anonymous said...

Hang in there!! I was part of a group that for six years reported out state data, We pointed out how we the District's standards were and how the district was letting the high achieving students fall behind. Needless to say the district forced us off the committee. It took a national group giving the state an F on its standards for the state and district to wake up. The district superintendent was finally fired. The state took over the district and literally read them the riot act (after someone read the state the riot act) and...we finally have higher standards, truer test scores mirroring NAEPs findings and hopefully a fresh start - generations late for the students but finally here. Now to get better teachers...thankfully we have a ton of RTTT money. The question is will it be used effectively and will more money truly fix the problem? I sadly doubt it...we need much better teachers (wake up colleges take in stronger students) and we need a very strong curriculum....

Best of luck to you!!

VainSaints said...

Supposedly, tenure is intended to give teachers latitude in this respect, so that they can't be abused in this way by administrators.

Tenure is not supposed to be free job security and nothing else. It is intended to prevent arbitrary abuse of authority by government.

If tenured teachers can't raise the courage to make a stink against Discovery Math, in spite of the obvious professional impediments it presents to teachers, they don't deserve tenure.

In these economic times, tenure is vulnerable, which makes me smell a compromise/ultimatum. The Board of Ed. might be more receptive to your cause if you hinted that their continued obstinacy would cause you to turn your attentions to eliminating tenure. You would find many allies in that cause.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. As a previous commenter said, it would be nice to have this information published in the local newspaper because I think you would find this has happened to a lot of parents. At the time it happens parents think it is just them (because the district administrators want them to feel that way). Once you start telling your story, you find out this is the norm.

I find it so interesting that all the school districts use the same tactics. I'm in the Olympia School District and after trying to hold the school board and administrators accountable for several years I finally gave up. It is VERY tough to outlast them. I did outlast some staff and some school board members but not the right ones. Unfortunately, the Superintendent is still there.

I still send yearly updates to the school board members with math test scores so they can see how much CMP has "helped" all the students in the district. I've also tried to follow how few advanced math classes there will be in the future because students are no longer able to skip ahead in middle school math. Unfortunately, the school board members don't seem to grasp the reality of having CMP in their schools (preceeded by Trailblazers).

Hang in there!

Julia said...

Hi Laurie,
I am a parent in Pennsylvania, and I am having similar problems.

First, let me comment to all who have stated that the admin. think that putting answers in writing will come back to haunt them. They are public employees who work for you through your tax money.

Everything should be public, but of course it never is.

I have been forced to use my Right to Know in order to get basic questions about my children's education answered. This is appalling. I would suggest that you use this procedure for the questions that you are asking. I was advised by several attorneys to handle it this way. Your district's website should have a procedure in place for this as it is the LAW!

I will share more later when I have time to sit and blog.

Lets keep in touch.

What they are doing is a Delphi Technique that the schools use all the time on parents, never ever talk to admin. alone. Look up Delphi , it is unethical.

You should also consider sending a certified letter.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To Julia:

Thank you for writing. Your suggestion to post instructions for requesting public records is excellent. I'll do more on this, but this is some preliminary information:

In Spokane Public Schools, send your written requests for public information to Dr. Mark Anderson at marka@SpokaneSchools.org.

In other districts or in other state education agencies, call the main number and ask who handles public records requests.

In Washington State, send your written requests for public records to OSPIPRR@k12.wa.us

Julia, I have information on the Delphi Technique posted here:
http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/2010/02/delphi-technique-art-of-pretending-to.html