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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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Missouri parent tells of "insanity" in reform classroom

Note from Laurie Rogers: Reform math, excessive constructivism, and persistent administrative arrogance and interference are not exclusive to Washington State. Together, they have sunk this great country into a mathematical Dark Ages, severely limiting the futures of millions of children and devastating our supply of STEM professionals.

Every week, I receive emails from perplexed, frustrated and angry parents, teachers and community advocates in states across America. Here is one sample, provided by a Missouri parent Dec. 8, 2010, and republished here with her permission:

[From personal email, Dec. 8, 2010]:

"Laurie,

"I think you will find it interesting that in my son's elementary school, the teachers are only allowed to teach reform curriculum Investigations in Number, Data, and Space....without any supplementation.

"When I found out that my son was sitting for 50 minutes per day during intervention time, allowed to draw, read any outside reading book, play games, or play on the computer -- I called the teacher and asked if I could send his math workbook from home that he worked in every night at home. I explained that it would be a much better use of his time during the day. I was told that I could.

"I sent the book, and quickly other parents were sending their children with the same books that were simply standard math practice with traditional algorithms. I was called to the principal's office. I was told that the book was not allowed. I was dumbfounded. My daughter, who was in that building the year before, had practiced in the same book the 2 years prior. She had the second highest score out of 400 of her peers on the math portion of the state standardized test.

"So, I clarified: 'You mean to tell me that my son can bring in a Stephen King novel, draw pictures, or play games, but you will not allow for him to better himself with math practice during math intervention?' I was told, 'That is true.' My husband and I walked out the door, and we decided to pull him out of that building that day.

"The crazy thing is that the 'games' were questions for no grade like, 'Write a chant or a song about a division problem.' Another was, 'If you met an alien who could not speak your language, draw portraits of what a multiplication problem will look like to them without using words.'

"INSANITY. Keep up the good work."

Stacy Shore, Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri

[Later, Stacy Shore added a side note.]

"The other very alarming element of what we have been through here as of late is what happened when one mom went in to ask for copies of the 'extension activities' (that involve the writing chants, and drawing portraits for aliens, to name just a few of the ridiculous 'activities' our kids are being forced to do). When asked if we can have copies of all activities being offered to our children, we were told that we can come in and look at them, but we cannot have copies to take outside of the school. Our kids do not bring home copies of this homework, and without a couple of us parents going in and reviewing the 'activity box,' no one would realize what our kids are being forced to do.

"Insanity. And, our children are absolutely NOT allowed to practice standard algorithms in their free time. When we realized what was going on in 'secret,' if you will, we pulled our kids and ran."



Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at wlroge@comcast.net. Please limit columns to not more than 1,000 words. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Strengthen math program with "instructional" curriculum -- and with music

By John Barber, retired mechanical engineer and 1960 graduate of Shadle Park High School

(Article originally published December 4, 2010, in The Spokesman-Review. Republished on the Betrayed blog with permission from author John Barber.)

Are we wasting money teaching math to our students? Not as in: we shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. Rather, as in: we are spending the money but not teaching them anything.

For Spokane Public Schools, at least, the answer is yes. The proof is in the test scores. In the 2010 state-wide proficiency test given to 10th graders, less than 40% of Spokane Public Schools’ students passed. The State apparently didn’t expect much of them; they put the passing grade at only about 57% - itself a level generally considered failing on most tests. So, over 60% of Spokane’s 10th graders failed to even get a failing grade.

As Spokane’s students leave high school, this deficiency in mathematics hampers their college careers. Nearly all of Spokane’s students enrolling at our two local community colleges must take remedial math there, math they should have mastered in high school.

I find these numbers, quite simply, appalling.

I am surprised there isn’t a massive hue and cry being raised over this. If I were a parent, I would be outraged at how our school system was failing my children. I speak simply as a resident of the community who is concerned about how we are educating our young people. And I am irritated at how poorly our tax money is being used in this regard.

So, what’s the cause? One sometimes hears complaints about the teachers themselves; but while there indeed may well be occasional teachers weak in the subject, placing blame on the teaching staff overall implies that across all of the district’s schools, throughout all of the grade range, there is hardly a decent one out there. This is patently ridiculous. Rather, the most likely cause, in the eyes of those observing it most closely, is the curriculum the District has chosen for teaching math.

The style of curriculum adopted by the district is of the type often described as “reform” or “discovery.” The philosophy underlying this style is that students will discover much of what they need to know themselves, without the need for actually learning anything about handling numbers (i.e., like long division). It is big on students working nicely together in groups, and big on the use of calculators (since they can’t handle numbers in the first place). This style of curriculum has been roundly criticized by mathematicians and university math educators alike as ineffective and even harmful to students’ ability to master math. But it has been the darling of the primary/secondary education establishment, and our local education administration seems enamored with it.

This problem is recognized by some in our community, who are calling attention to it loudly and clearly. They are, however, a smallish number, small enough that they seem to be easily ignored by the local education establishment.

So, what to do? Two things, for starters.

One is to change the curriculum, to the type sometimes referred to as “instructional.” As in, the teacher actually teaches (instructs), and the students learn. They learn the principles and the skills. There are a number of such curricula, with the Saxon and Singapore systems being representative. The principle feature that distinguishes this type of curriculum from the discovery variety is that with it, students actually learn their math. And test scores show it. Around the country, students in districts that use instructional curricula typically score much higher than those suffering under the discovery variety.

Number two might be a little surprising: music. While it has long been felt that active involvement in music helps students achieve academically, recent large scale studies have been showing just that, with actual test grades. Music seems to help train the mind and thinking processes to facilitate better performance in mathematics. The longer students stay involved in music, the more pronounced the effect. And it appears highly effective not only for the stronger students, but even more so for the weaker ones as well.

Music may help to compensate for an otherwise poor curriculum, such as that used in the Spokane schools. Think of it as something like a booster for a radio receiver, to enable it to better receive a weak signal.

However, that signal shouldn’t be allowed to remain weak; it should be strengthened, with a decent curriculum. And it should be bolstered with a strong music involvement (for those so inclined), either in school or privately, to further support the mathematics proficiency of our students.

Then perhaps we won’t be wasting our money teaching our kids math.


 
Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at wlroge@comcast.net. Please limit columns to not more than 1,000 words. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.