Summer Help in Math

** Do your children need outside help in math?
Have them take a free placement test
to see which skills are missing.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Good golly, our schools desperately need new leadership

[Updated May 10, 2011, to clarify language regarding the board vote.]

By Laurie H. Rogers

When our school administrators speak to the public, we often hear one or more of the following:
  • Blaming of others – Typical targets include teachers, parents, students, poverty, and a (fake) lack of money.
  • Deceitful presentation of student outcomes – They’ll speak glowingly of some stray statistic that supposedly shows them in a slightly more positive light, but which also depends on the public not knowing the entire truth of it.
  • Astonishing ignorance or accidental honesty. Sometimes the truth comes out of them – in shocking or comical ways.
  • Requests for more money, on the heels of low student achievement. As pass rates go down, the expense per student continues to increase.
  • New policy that will serve their ulterior purpose, but which will make life more difficult for students, parents and teachers.
And so it went, at two recent gatherings for Spokane Public Schools. Teachers were blamed. Administrators praised themselves. The superintendent’s comments caused a stir. And the school board voted to have the option to increase class sizes and cut 90 teachers.

Blaming of Others

Spokane Public Schools' Citizens Advisory Committee is a parent group that is actually run by the district. At the monthly CAC meetings, administrators do most of the talking, and an administrator writes a summary.

(No one takes actual minutes, which would have to include parent questions and concerns.)
At the April 11 CAC meeting, district administrators were enthused over new, “prescriptive” evaluations for teachers and principals. These evaluations will entail four tiers - like standards-based grading - and will be based partly on student outcomes. Such assessments would be valuable tools if:
  • Teachers had the freedom to teach and supplement as they deem necessary
  • Teachers weren’t constantly pulled out of classrooms for non-academic activities
  • Teachers’ professional development contained real content
  • The district’s choice of instructional materials were sufficient and dependable
  • Principals had the freedom to allot money, modify curriculum, and hire and fire as they see fit.
Alas, this is Spokane Public Schools, and teachers and principals will be assessed on student outcomes over which they have little control.
At the CAC meeting, I asked: Do these new evaluations mean that teachers will gain academic freedom? I received three different answers from the same administrator.
  • Staci Vesneske said teachers might be awarded that freedom if they hit the top tier of the evaluation system. (Answer #1)
  • I asked, What if they need that freedom in order to hit the top tier? She said teachers already have academic freedom. (Answer #2)
  • I persisted: Will teachers gain academic freedom? She said it will all come down to collective bargaining. (Answer #3)
Later, I asked: Will principals gain the freedom to allot money, hire and fire, and modify the curriculum? Dr. Vesneske didn’t fully answer this question, saying only that the board makes all decisions on curriculum and supplementary materials.

All school employees should be assessed based on achievable, measurable goals. Considering the heavy boot our administrators place on district employees, it seems fair that upper-level administrators be assessed partly on student outcomes. (If they were, most would be fired.) Our superintendent's own evaluation is done by the school board. Our board directors use a “summative evaluation” form for her that is so general and vague, their evaluation must be based largely on opinion.

Self-serving statistics

Nancy Stowell, Spokane superintendent, seems happy about the district’s “improved” graduation rates. But here are missing pieces she neglects to mention.

Students don't have to pass a state math test to graduate from high school. They don't need to know much grammar, pass a state science test or know how to write in cursive. Sure, they’re allowed to leave, but college remedial rates consistently indicate serious and widespread gaps in knowledge – particularly in basic mathematics and grammar.

Additionally, her “improved” numbers don’t include families that chose to transfer out. Full-time enrollment in SPS dropped by about 2,650 (net) from 2003 to May 2010. A 2008 district survey indicated that about 33% of those who left did it mostly because of the curriculum. (The survey excludes students who went to a private school.) The district didn’t publicly release the survey; I heard about it and asked for a copy.

Increased expense for unproved programs

Taxpayers pay for scads of district and community programs devoted to reducing dropout rates and increasing on-time graduation rates. As district expenditures skyrocket, parents are still staring at students’ low pass rates, high dropout rates, high rates of college remediation, and low levels of basic skills.
Dr. Stowell praised the district for obtaining a multi-million-dollar grant for Rogers High School, which suffers from particularly low graduation rates. (Please note the illogic of awarding grants to failing programs because they are failing. Failure thus results in more money.) Dr. Stowell said the grant will pay for longer school days, extra teacher pay, a homework center, and – you knew it was coming – a pilot evaluation for teachers.
Astonishing comments
Dr. Stowell said the federal Race to the Top initiative “required” that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation be “based on student growth.”
  • Weird. The state always said the percentage of teachers' evaluation that would be based on student outcomes would be just a small part of the total assessment. Fifty percent doesn’t seem small.
  • But Dr. Stowell said Washington State isn’t “going in that direction,” anyway, so she’s trying to work in the 50% herself, by bargaining with the teachers union.
Here’s an April 11 quotation from Dr. Stowell on removing teachers:

“First of all, we do get out lots of teachers. We do it very quietly because the litigation is so expensive. So, we don’t litigate. We try to talk to teachers. We give them the data that we have. We look at the information our principals have collected. We look at that person over time, and then Staci works to move them out. You know, the conversation that, “You know, things aren’t going very well here for you.” (Laughter from the group.) “This might not be the profession that you want for the rest of your life.” (Continued chuckling from the group.) Over the years, we have lost not only teachers through that process, removed them, but we’ve also removed principals through that same process.”
Dr. Stowell then asked CAC members to push legislators for help in removing people.
Unhelpful district policy

At its April 27 meeting, the Spokane school board voted 4-1 to have the option to increase district class sizes by up to three students. Along with adjustments for declines in enrollment, this vote reportedly also could result in the elimination of 90 full-time teaching positions. How would this help students, parents and teachers? Well, it wouldn’t.

On the district Web site, Dr. Stowell explains the need for cuts: “Over the past 10 years, facing enrollment decline and state funding challenges, our district has already made tens of millions of dollars in cuts to programs and support staff, leaving us with no easy ‘fixes’ outside of the classroom to solve this budget challenge.”
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) Web site says:
  • Overall expenditures for Spokane Public Schools increased, from $252 million in 2004-2005 to $298 million in 2009-2010.
  • Per-student expenditures increased, from $8,158 in 2004-2005 to $10,406 in 2009-2010.
  • Enrollment decreased, from 30,923 in 2004-2005 to 28,712 in 2009-2010.
  • The district’s on-time graduation rate decreased, from 85.1% in 2004-2005 to 62.1% in 2009-2010.
Regardless of how the Spokane superintendent is assessed, the student data cannot be seen as “success.” Her contract will roll over in June unless the school board says “No.” Dear parents and teachers: Please ask the school board to say “No.”

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is

Rogers, L. (April 2011). "Good golly, our schools desperately need new leadership." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:  

A version of this article was published May 2, 2011, on at:

No comments: