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Monday, January 3, 2011

"What I see" - Parent volunteer tells heartbreaking tale

By Breann Treffry, school volunteer and parent of three, Spokane, WA

We’ve heard much recently about the United States slipping in the education ranking of developed nations. Having been a product of the American public school system, I knew, like many other American parents, that the education it provides is, shall we say, lacking in certain areas. What I didn’t realize - until I enrolled my own children, immersed myself in their schools, classrooms, curricula, and classmates, attended school board meetings, and heard the stories of other concerned parents and teachers - is just how lacking that education truly is.

From home, it can be hard for parents to understand the damage that’s being done to our kids until it’s too late and our children suddenly require remediation, tutoring, or have their hopes for their future crushed when they discover they’re woefully unprepared for college. When I initially began volunteering at my kids’ school, I admit, it was to monitor the education my own kids were receiving. In these last years, however, the education all our kids are receiving has revealed itself as the train wreck from which I can’t look away. Moral duty compels me to share what I have seen that every parent should know.

While I have either personally witnessed or have reliable sources who have witnessed these atrocities within Spokane Public Schools, they are in no way isolated to this little town in eastern Washington. The trend is nationwide.

  1. Cursive writing is no longer taught.
  2. I see high schoolers who cannot read cursive because they were never taught to write in cursive.
  3. I see math curricula that do not teach standard algorithms, but rather create dependency on calculators and technology.
  4. I see curricula that drive a wedge between students and their parents by fostering a dependency on peers through excessive group work.
  5. I see math curricula that prevent parental involvement by excluding the methods we were taught and teaching only “new math.”
  6. I know parents who can’t help their elementary age children with math homework because it doesn’t make sense to parents or students.
  7. I’ve seen the light come on for students who have struggled for years - after their tutors or parents show them standard algorithms.
  8. I have heard teachers ask parents to “please, please” not teach their children standard algorithms.
  9. I know teachers who have offered classes for parents on how to understand the “new math.”
  10. I know kids who “get in trouble” in class when they use the algorithms they learned at home.
  11. I’ve heard parents and teachers remark that math has “changed so much” since we learned it; but, of course, math doesn’t change. Two plus two still equals four.
  12. I see 12-year-olds who cannot add or subtract, let alone multiply or divide, yet have been pushed through to the next grade regardless.
  13. I’ve heard teachers telling students, “You have to draw pictures to show your work” in math.
  14. I see third and fourth graders who draw literally hundreds of marks or pictures to figure a single math problem because they haven’t been taught efficient methods, and still get the answer wrong.
  15. I’ve seen eleventh graders who cannot divide a 3-digit number by a 1-digit number without a calculator.
  16. I see elementary school classrooms with a calculator in every desk.
  17. I know teachers who have been told not to try to engage struggling and difficult students in lessons but to let them be content with picture books in class.
  18. I know teachers who have been reprimanded for criticizing district curricula or policy.
  19. I see teachers paranoid and intimidated over teaching traditional math like standard algorithms and facts drill in their classrooms.
  20. I’ve heard district administrators openly discussing “problem teachers.”
  21. I see students in classrooms where the teacher taught algorithms and drilled math facts excel the following year over students from classrooms where the teacher did not.
  22. I know volunteer tutors who’ve been refused because they teach traditional math methods rather than “fuzzy” math.
  23. I see students who are “good at math” in tears over their math homework.
  24. I’ve heard a teacher tell students, “Abraham Lincoln fought and died in the Civil War.”
  25. I see an appalling rate of high school graduates who require remedial math courses in college.
  26. I’ve seen students who successfully test into college-level math ultimately struggle and learn that they need remediation after all to fill in the holes in their math education.
  27. I see kids being taught daily to a level far beneath their capacity, and being told that they just have to sit there.
  28. Alternately, I see teachers struggle to provide additional challenges for those kids using only “district-approved curricula.”
  29. I see third graders singing preschool songs as a class.
  30. I’ve seen district-provided material that tells teachers to spend more individual instructional time with lower-performing students than with higher-performing students.
  31. I see students who mock and taunt adults in the school, with no significant consequences.
  32. I see students with multiple truancies that result in no consequences.
  33. I see unexcused absences that go undisciplined.
  34. I see late work given full credit.
  35. I see students receive extra credit points through no effort of their own, for example, when the teacher calls them by the wrong name in class.
  36. I’ve seen implementation of a grading system where it’s often impossible to achieve either the highest or the lowest grade.
  37. I’ve seen materials that tell teachers to train students not to question teachers or other students, not to raise their hand when they have the right answer, and not to take the lead in groups.
  38. I see academic learning time used for social exercises designed to make sure everyone a) feels good and b) realizes that they’re a small part of a large group.
  39. I’ve learned that - despite what the district has claimed - the WASL (now the MSP or HSPE at the high school level) is not required, not at any grade level and not for graduation in the state of Washington – rather, there are several ways to meet the graduation requirement.
  40. I see students’ love of and excitement for learning turning to drudgery and perceived failure.
As much I want to spare my own children from these wrongs, it’s just as wrong for adults to sit quietly by as the next generation, with eyes wide and full of hope and excitement, receives what has become the empty promise of an American public education. The essence of public schools is education for all, yet our schools are falling far short of the claim that they will prepare students to compete as adults, let alone in a global market.

I ask parents and teachers, what have you seen that just doesn’t sit right with you? What have you been told to teach or not to teach? What have your kids brought home that didn’t make sense, but you feel you can only assume that the schools must know best? Any one of these seemingly little things as an isolated incident might not mean much but for our children’s sake, do not discount it. These incidents add up to one giant failure across the country, putting the United States at the bottom of the list.

Parents and teachers, you are not alone. Get together, talk, stand up for our children. It’s their future and our nation’s future that are at stake.

This article also was posted Jan. 5, 2011, on at:

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at 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.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for sharing this. I wish more parents would take a close look inside our schools like you have to see what is really going on.

If I didn't have my own first hand experience, I would think you made this all up. From experience as a parent and an educator, I do believe you and I could add a whole lot more.

Unfortunately, too many parents put their trust in our public school system. For most, by the time they realize there is a problem, the damage done is such that it will be next to impossible to recover from even with intensive tutoring.

Breann---thanks for being involved in your the education of your children and the children of others and thanks for speaking out.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Breann for an honest insight into your child's school and to Laurie who continues to present real education issues with clarity.

Unfortunately, I can say the exact same things about my childrens'experience in Branford, CT. My daughter had a traditional math program and my son had Investigations. She is now using a calulator. He is being main streamed into a traditional class after skipping an entire grade of math.

Skipping a grade is a great disservice to him, but so is continuing with Investigations and reliance on a calculator.

My daughter corrected his Kumon math book with a calculator!

I go to BOE meetings, meet with teachers, call principals/superintendents. All to no avail. It is very sad.

Anonymous said...

41. I see 10th graders who don't know the difference between a sentence and a fragment.
42. I see 10th graders who don't indent paragraphs.
43. I see 10th graders who use "u" for "you" and don't capitalize the personal pronoun "I" in typed essays.
44. I see 10th graders who misspell practically every other word.
45. I see 10th graders who have single-digit percentages in my class because they've never learned the value of having a solid work ethic.

I could cite many more; maybe I will later.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

I was asked today to add something that goes along with #31:

31a. I see adults who mock the children in the school, with no consequences to the adults at all.

Anonymous said...

I am from a state far away. None-the-less your comments made me cry because it is EXACTLY what we are seeing here. It is so sad. What is going on? It has to stop. It has to for the sake of our country. It is the intentional dumbing down of our children, and it will pay grave consequences for the generations to follow. Thank you for sharing. Every single number resonated with me. Every single one. Keep fighting the good fight.

Fred Strine said...

I can confirm many of the horrors in this article. I had to PRINT assignments on the white board during my last decade of teaching. Most couldn't read cursive. I also had to add to class policy papers a prohibition against work printed in block letters (all caps). We capitalize appropriately in English class!

When we graded homework in class, kids were often clueless as to how many points to take off for each mistake on a ten-item paper. I explained that perfect papers got 100%, so ten items divided into that 100% meant each mistake was a 10% deduction from that perfect score. I might as well have been speaking Swahili. So much for "process" before content. No algorithms, no practice, no process.

For expedience, I finally developed a routine where I'd say, "Count up the number wrong. Write that at the top of the paper. Multiply the number wrong by 10. Subtract that answer from 100. That's the % score. Write the score including the percent sign next to the number wrong. Pass up the papers, so I can record the grades." Often, I'd get %90 instead of 90%. I don't know where that transposition comes from. It's a sad state of math affairs when the English teacher has to supply the algorithm.

At first, some scrambled for their calculators. I wouldn't let them. Eventually, after enough practice, I'd throw them a curve with a 20,25,33-item assignment. Most caught on. But these were 9th and 10th graders — high school! Yikes.

On further reflection, perhaps part of the problem was that I actually assigned homework and then had the audacity to grade it. It was personal accountability, not group work.

Fred Strine

Anonymous said...

46. I see 10th graders who do NOTHING in my class yet believe they will become Hollywood directors/lawyers/doctors after attending a prestigious film/law/medical school.
47. I see 10th graders who can't figure out that a 45/50 equals a 90%.
48. I see 10th graders who believe that talking to a friend while the teacher is talking is perfectly acceptable.
49. I see 10th graders who question me as to why I expect a "10th-grade standard" on their work.
50. I see 10th graders who simply should not be 10th graders.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
If not for the web and a blog like this one we would ALL be in the dark whispering. Just getting the truth out there and keeping it out there is a real challenge. We claim to export democracy and we know nothing about what the process really starts with turning on the lights. We are all responsible. Class size does matter. Thank you for this. Truly.

Anonymous said...

RE: “What I See”

Not one false statement….

Teachers are scared to death to buck the system… The ones who do turn out like me…

Martin Horsky said...

Given the choice between "changing the system from within" or making our own way, our family chose home-schooling. No regrets, but it's not for everyone, and your taxes should buy you something better than what the public education became.
I like the school vouchers idea and will support anyone who can sell it to voters. Schooling should not be compulsory - let them find out.

kprugman said...

K-12 was a waste of time for both my kids - they took electives in what they excelled in and still graduated from hs via learning centers and adult education, then they chose careers in music and art and now they are attending college and paying for it themselves. I am fortunate that I forgot I was a teacher and instead I listened to them and I one found alternatives for both that worked...homeschooling and vouchers only work if one parent can afford to stay home and supervise. Its a very demanding job. The curriculum for homeschooling is not that challenging.

Anonymous said...

@kprugman The beautiful thing about homeschooling is that it puts the parent in complete control of the child's educational experience, as well as in control of curricula. If the parent finds a chosen curriculum unchallenging, it's his/her job to change it - and there is an incredible variety from which to choose, many designed specifically for homeschooling. In public school, parents often have quite a fight on their hands if they want unchallenging curricula modified.

Mr. Horsky is right, homeschooling is a great way out of the broken system, but it's not the choice or an option for everyone. The public deserves high quality education for their tax dollars, and the children deserve it for their future.

Anthony said...

Regarding 1 & 2 (cursive writing), I see no point in students learning it anymore. Honestly, I never saw much point in it at all but that is more true today. Handwritten letters have largely gone the way of the VHS tape. E-mail or texting is faster and cheaper than a stamp and envelope.

Regarding 13 (picture drawing), I believe this is appropriate for certain situations. When doing algebra problems involving pools and walkways, for example, it often helps for the student to see the problem. Visualization is very important. Yet they will not draw the problem out unless it is required.

Otherwise, I can relate to a lot of what has been said here.

Anonymous said...

Oh nooooooo...its the end of the world!!!!! Cursive handwriting is your gripe???

Norbert Leute said...

I read your recent article in newspaper. You were right on with the unprofessionalism that goes on in the district. However, it goes much deeper and darker than you may realize. What you saw at the math forum is only the tip of the ice burg. Like me, many of us have suffered under this district misuse of it powers and responsibilities. Thus, our children suffer from these action as they filter down. We need to change the leadership if we want the best for our students and community.