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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Poverty NOT the problem with K-12 math

By Laurie H. Rogers

[Updated March 14]
A local school district spokesperson was quoted in a Feb. 27 column in The Spokesman-Review. According to column author Chris Cargill, of the Washington Policy Center, the district spokesperson said: “Instead of criticism, we’d like some help” (“Schools don’t shine in index”). The quotation made me laugh. What kind of help would that be, exactly?
  • For four years and six weeks, I’ve tried to persuade central-office administrators to adopt math materials that will get our children to college readiness in math. They don’t appear to want that help. On March 14, the executive director of instructional programs told parents the district wouldn't replace Connected Mathematics for at least two more years.
  • I’ve tried to persuade a few principals to allow me to begin a free tutoring program in arithmetic. Other community members also have tried this. The district doesn’t appear to want that help.
  • I’ve been asking questions since January 2007. I write this blog. I’ve written a book. Central-office administrators and a quorum of board directors appear uninterested in my research, my desires as a parent, my daughter’s needs, or what would cause me to spend four years in this way. Occasionally, I get a glimpse of what some of them think about me and my efforts to help the children. Often shockingly arrogant and immature, their comments also indicate they haven't budged an inch on reform math.
  • I’m working now with two STEM professionals to give people the information they need to help their children and grandchildren. Administrators definitely don’t want that help. They continue to argue passionately for their approach. It’s obvious to everyone but them that this approach completely fails the children.
Read through my blog and see how central-office administrators have obstructed, undermined, and dismissed all help from the community … unless it supported their philosophy toward learning or came with a check. The district administration doesn’t want “help.” It wants scapegoats.

A favorite scapegoat, used shamelessly and with impunity, is poverty. I heard it from self-identified teachers at a March 12 legislative town hall meeting. I saw it in the March 9 weekly The Inlander. I hear it frequently from district administrators.

“We have so many poor people,” they say sadly, bellies up and paws waving. “Can’t you see we’re doing our best? It’s the poverty. We can’t overcome poverty. Poverty is the problem. We also have ineffective teachers, uninvolved parents, unmotivated students, social issues, lack of money, changing standards, testing, No Child Left Behind, huge classes, and … uh … a bunch of other things for which we’re definitely NOT responsible … But, the main problem is poverty.”

“Poverty is the key,” a district employee said at our Feb. 7 forum. “If you could fix poverty, you would fix the math problem.” He thinks he’s absolved from responsibility. Pass rates on standardized math tests do tend to be lower for disadvantaged students, but that isn’t because poverty is the problem with math. Jaime Escalante, Ben Chavis and Geoffrey Canada all have capably taught math to disadvantaged children.

I could give every poor family in Spokane millions of dollars, fancy suits, and a Lamborghini. If their children went through the district math program, and without outside intervention, they would eventually park the family Lamborghini in the community college parking lot and walk inside to take multiple remedial math classes – which about half would fail.

Four things are required for any classroom to be effective. I call those things the “Square of Effective Learning.” These are its four corners:

  1. Effective teacher
  2. Prepared student
  3. Efficient and effective curriculum (learning materials)
  4. Focused and effective learning environment
Poverty is not in this Square. (Careful now, lest you accidentally stereotype low-income families.)

I built the Square of Effective Learning because administrators and instructional coaches continually divert the conversation away from the math materials. Spokane’s K-8 math materials have been criticized across this country, from border-to-border and from coast-to-coast since their inception. They have wreaked devastation in every community, every income level, and every ethnicity. Spokane’s leadership has so far refused to replace its K-8 materials with math textbooks that are efficient, effective and sufficient.

Our students are prevented from learning the mathematical skills that would help them rise out of their circumstances. Administrators blame poverty, while they add to the poverty problem. Rather than allowing these kids to learn to fish, they’re grooming them to accept a fish a day for the rest of their lives.

Poverty isn’t the math problem, and money won’t fix it. The math problem is fixed by teaching students sufficient math skills. Children from poor families can be taught, and if they’re ever to escape poverty, they must be taught. Students get one shot at a good K-12 education. The material must therefore be delivered effectively and efficiently.

At one time, children from low-income families were taught effectively and efficiently. My husband’s family was poor. Many of today’s STEM professionals used to be poor. Several attendees at our community forums grew up poor, but their education gave them new lives. They resent hearing that poverty is the problem with math. Huge numbers of immigrants came to America to be taught in our public education system. They were taught rigorously and efficiently - even with language barriers - and most thrived. Today’s immigrants, however, are perplexed by the lack of arithmetic, grammar, civics, or cursive writing in our schools. When they ask questions about the math program, some are assured: “There are lots of fields that don’t require math.”

"That isn’t what I want to hear,” a parent said to me recently. “My children need to learn math. They need to learn grammar. They need to go to college. It’s why I came here. I’m angry to hear that my income level is being blamed for district failures.”

Here’s how income level does bear on the math problem. Parents with money are better able to fix the mess the district leaves behind. Those with a math background can see gaps earlier and more clearly and can help fill in those gaps. Parents with money are better able to pay for professional tutors or private schools where teachers are allowed to teach. They often have connections and options that other parents don’t. Poverty bears on learning insofar as it prevents parents from hiring people who will do what the public schools won’t.

Meanwhile, as our administrators complain continually about poverty, I’ve watched for four years as Spokane Public Schools sinks under

  • high remediation rates in college in math and English
  • low pass rates on state tests that required less than 60% to pass
  • low levels of student skills, to a point where students know almost no grammar, can’t add fractions together, don’t understand the number line, and can’t accurately subtract simple numbers without the use of a calculator
  • a net loss of thousands of full-time-enrolled students
  • high dropout rates, even in middle school
  • complaints from parents and community members
  • ever-increasing expenditures per student
Nancy Stowell became superintendent in 2007 but has been a central-office administrator since 1991. What are her successes? She and her administrators get a perennial free pass on failed policy. There is no real oversight, no assessment, no objective analysis of their effectiveness, as it relates to student outcomes. They interfere constantly, yet they’re ready to "assess" teachers, happy to assess teachers, really looking forward to assessing teachers --- based on student outcomes. Gee, I wonder how that will go.

When central-office administrators refuse to do what needs to be done for the students, to carry out the will of the board, to listen to parents and professionals, or to be accountable for the poor results of their policies – they must be replaced. When they persist in blaming everyone else, hounding good teachers out of the classroom, and wasting taxpayer money on their own salaries and failed philosophy – they must be replaced.

The contract for Spokane’s superintendent rolls over in June, each year putting her in the first year of a three-year contract. Hers is basically a lifetime job, unless the board takes action. Apparently, this sort of contract isn’t unusual in public education. Other central-office decision-makers also have de facto lifetime jobs. Student outcomes obviously aren’t the metric for their evaluation; otherwise, nearly all would be gone.

District K-12 math programs must include standard algorithms, practicing to mastery, efficiency, effectiveness, and sufficient arithmetic and algebra. Current students who need remediation (to bring them to where they should have been) must get it. If the superintendent won’t replace ineffective administrators with effective ones, then the board must replace her. If the board won’t replace the superintendent … the people must replace the board.

Our children and our communities need strong math and grammar skills, and we, the people must find a way to work together and make it happen.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is
Rogers, L. (March 2011). "Poverty NOT the problem with K-12 math." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:


Anonymous said...

Keep up the fight, Laurie! As usual, you are 100% right on this. They just don't get it. I don't understand why-- is there some "secret iformation" that we just don't have? We are always Open, Honest, and Logical, we provide credible research, etc. and they are always secretive, backstabbing and passive-aggressive and give back nothing but lame excuses. I don't live in Spokane, but you could be talking about my district here in Oregon! Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

A few points concerning your wonderful article:

1. There has definitely been proven a correlation between socio-economic level and student academic success; however, many people automatically assume that this correlation is actually a cause-effect relationship. Such a stance is both faulty logic and purposeful deception; moreover, it becomes a crutch on which administrators may lean so as not to have to make the tough decisions for the sake of our kids. It's time we knock that crutch out from under them so that they (deceptive administrators) may fall.

2. "Societies declining into obsolescence understandably resist looking forward and hang onto their past mythologies." (Joe Bageant) Our national educational society IS "declining into obsolescence" (the research is abundantly clear on this one), but we the people don't want to hear such negativity, especially from our leaders; in fact, those leaders become our leaders because they are prolific at publically denying such an obvious decline and can use rhetoric well in helping us hold onto our "past mythologies" of the excellence of the American public school system. It's time for us to wake up to the facts and stop being lead around by these pseudo-politicians so that we can start fixing the problems that plague us.

3. From a high school English teacher, thank you for bringing grammar instruction (or lack thereof) into the conversation.

Keep up the good fight!

Anonymous said...

It's very frustrating to know how to teach and what to teach, but to be prevented from teaching!

Hang in there and keep fighting...

RW said...

Right as usual, Laurie! I am so sick of this excuse "poverty is the problem". Poverty does not create a lack of education...a lack of education creates poverty. Instead of saying "if we could fix the poverty problem, we could fix the education problem", we should be saying "if we fix the education problem, we could fix the poverty problem"! Why don't they get it? Thanks for all you do!

concerned said...

You nailed it AGAIN!!

Fight the Good Fight!

concerned said...

That previous link didn't work, so here's another:

Keep Fighting the Good Fight!!

Unknown said...

The issues associated with poverty are not simply a matter of money. It is not a car and clothing that makes the child able to come to school prepared to learn. Laurie, you have not been in my school. You have not seen our five year olds in our low income schools and the burdens they bring with them each morning to school. I am a kindergarten teacher. I do teach math well. However, you do not know the scars of poverty. Certainly I wish for resilient children that can garnish hope for their future. Home life and poverty effect how the brain processes information. We do not have enough counselors to heal our children from the abuse that poverty has given to them in their homes. The issue is not a matter of money. I am sad to say that Chris Cargill did not honor Logan Elementary where the school has made distinguishable gains in scores and is one of the highest schools in poverty in our state. We have a mentor school in Spokane Public School that we are watching and learning from right here in Spokane. Check it out.

Laurie H. Rogers said...


Thank you for writing.
My colleagues and I recognize that poverty is an issue in our schools, and it's increasing due in part to children not coming away from the K-12 system with the skills they need to be successful in postsecondary endeavors.

We don't deny the existence of poverty, or its negative impact. We’re saying that poverty is not the problem with K-12 mathematics. The problem with K-12 mathematics is that our students aren't learning enough math. We don't blame teachers for that -- we blame the weak math materials and the insufficient amounts of direct instruction or practicing to mastery. Are these the ONLY problems? No, but they’re critical, and they are the problems we’re trying to fix.

You can see the truth of this in the example I gave you about the million dollars and Lamborghini. I was making a point about the failure of the math materials. Fix the poverty problem, and you will still not have fixed the math problem.

You have a unique perspective as a kindergarten teacher, and I know that you have particular challenges in that role. But if you look down the road at these students in middle school, high school, and postsecondary, you will see that the vast majority of them do NOT have the math and grammar skills they need. The ones who do, have received help outside of the system. THAT'S how wealthier families can offset the negative impact of the awful math materials.

Understand that I am blaming the materials. I do not blame poverty. I do not blame teachers. I do not blame you. The materials are weak. The approach is failing. But your district leadership will not budge. Regardless of how hard you work for these kids in kindergarten, the ones who don't have parents to get them what they need are doomed.

Please ... get angry about this. I'm angry about it, which is why I'm spending my days trying to tell people how they can help their children. Do you think the district sees me in a positive light?

Nothing will change for these children, or for you, until people get angry. My anger simply isn't enough. I need you.

thushara said...

Laurie -

You said:

"Our students are prevented from learning the mathematical skills that would help them rise out of their circumstances. Administrators blame poverty, while they add to the poverty problem. Rather than allowing these kids to learn to fish, they’re grooming them to accept a fish a day for the rest of their lives."

It is a good observation and shared by people of Where's The Math. I studied the standard algorithms and I can see how that makes analysis a lot easier as the student moves to higher level concepts.

However, missing from your analysis is the social concept. What are the social relations of society and how do they drive the education process? Do the current social relations require poverty for its sustenance?

I'm holding a meeting on April 27th 7-9 pm in the Bellevue Public Library (Room 1) where we will create a citizen's committee to make our own plan for public education for Bellevue taking the interests of students, teachers and parents as the starting point.


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