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.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Teaching grammar doesn't stifle creativity; it enhances creative writing

[Note from Laurie Rogers: Many school districts, including Spokane Public Schools, have not taught grammar in a coherent, focused, disciplined way for several years. District leadership argues that students can pick up grammar intuitively, through their own writing. Consequently, our students are graduating from high school without even basic skills in grammar. They cannot define an adverb or adjective, much less recognize a run-on sentence or sentence fragment. In 2010, a Spokane teacher described to me how her efforts to teach grammar were questioned by a central-office administrator. In this article, senior college student Katherine Brandt explains why teaching grammar is critically important.]

By Katherine Brandt
English Teaching student, Brigham Young University

Although the rules of the English language are constantly changing and transforming, teaching grammar has great value in the school system because it gives students the background that they need to understand their language and use it effectively both in and out of the academic world. By teaching grammar, educators provide students with the building blocks of language. When students understand each of the building blocks behind their language, they have a greater ability to communicate not only in their native tongue but also in other languages which employ similar building blocks, albeit in a different order.

Grammar is an important tool because people who do not understand it have difficulty communicating well, and as a result their ideas are often overlooked. Consider children who have yet to learn how to speak well or foreigners who misunderstand how to use prepositions or adjectives. For example, a Spanish-speaker learning English might say, “The sock red has a hole small.” Though people may understand sentences like this one, they might also need to make a conscious effort to achieve understanding.

Although the idea of the foreigner is an exaggerated example, students who understand the idiosyncrasies of English grammar will, in a much more subtle way, be able to control the voice, meaning, and level of formality with which they write. As a result, they will be able to write for an educated audience without the embarrassment of making obvious mistakes.

I have been able to see grammar’s importance in my own education. When I was a child, I attended a private elementary school where we were constantly drilled in grammar. We diagrammed sentences, learned parts of speech, and revised incorrect sentences time and again to master the language.

When I was twelve, my family moved, and I went to a public junior high school where the teaching of grammar was considered unimportant and indeed somewhat damaging to a child’s voice. Nevertheless, in my first month of class, my English teacher checked for students’ basic understanding of grammar. To my shock and dismay, I was the only person in the class who could recognize verbs and complete sentences. My peers consistently struggled with their essays because they had never been taught how to construct a complete idea within a sentence. They had been to school for seven years and could not write a simple sentence. I wondered what they had learned in all that time.

Imagine reading entire papers composed of fragments such as “When I went to the store.” These papers might convey meaning but certainly not in the way that the students intend – with clarity. From the time I entered the public school system, I was at the top of my class in English simply because I had been taught how to put words together correctly. As a result, my teachers could understand and respond to the ideas that I expressed in my papers. All children need to obtain at least a basic understanding of grammar in order to communicate effectively and meaningfully in the educated world.

Knowing grammar also gives students another advantage when it comes to learning foreign languages. When I first started taking Spanish, I had greater understanding simply because I knew some grammar. My teacher, in vain, explained how Spanish speakers position nouns and adjectives differently from English speakers; most of the students did not even know how to differentiate a noun from an adjective. On the other hand, I easily understood what she was explaining because I had been taught to identify parts of speech and their function within a sentence. The other students struggled and guessed their way through the course because every unit presented new parts of speech. Indefinite and definite articles, participles, and verbs were among the difficult concepts that they had not even learned in their native tongue.

I pity my peers who came from a system of those who have written off grammar as unimportant. I have heard these educators say that the study of grammar “stills the creative voice.” My personal experience has shown the contrary. Grammar has been my key to creativity because, with my basic knowledge of the language, I know how to coherently express my ideas so that others can appreciate them. I also know the building blocks to learning other languages which will only expand my creativity and not inhibit it.

It is time for educators to take a stand and teach children to use grammar well so that they may be able to participate both creatively and formally in the educated world. Even as we would not cripple architects by taking away the resources that they need to build beautiful buildings, so we should not cripple our young writers by refusing them grammatical knowledge. From a strong foundation in grammatical understanding will come better, stronger writers who will know how to use the tools educators give them to create beautiful and original writing.

Katherine Brandt is a senior at Brigham Young University, majoring in English Teaching. She will receive her degree in April of 2012 after completing her student teaching.

As part of her program, Katherine was expected to pass a basic grammar exam. The average score on the exam for her class of English Teaching majors was 13 out of 50. According to Katherine, the vast majority of grammar questions did not go beyond the most basic grammar, yet most of the students in the teaching program found it difficult.

In a discussion in one of Katherine's classes, she listened quietly as her peers, who struggle with grammar, dismissed the need for students to learn grammar. In a separate discussion, the students were decrying parental involvement in curriculum choices. Happily the teacher intervened to say, "The parents are the customers."

Katherine is contemplating going on to law school after graduation.

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.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

District rejects community efforts to help Celesta - (part 3)

By Laurie H. Rogers

[Note from Laurie Rogers: This is part 3 of a series of articles on Celesta, a grade-11 student in Spokane, WA. I interviewed her for a June 4 episode of “Cut to the Chase,” a local radio show hosted by Rob Chase for the ACN Network. Part 1 of the series described Celesta as lacking multiple basic skills in mathematics. Part 2 discussed the district's response to my queries about how to help Celesta and her classmates.]

I’ve been writing about Celesta, a high school student who was carrying a 3.6 GPA, who passed her math tests, got As in her math classes, was placed into honors pre-calculus, and who – like many of her classmates – suddenly found out she was missing multiple critical skills in elementary math. She was struggling to pass her honors math class. She also has few skills in grammar.

I’ve been trying to figure out a way to help Celesta and her classmates.

The best way to help the students:

Go back in time and teach the students the grammar and the six years of math skills the district refused to give them. I need a time machine to do that, and no one has invented one – not that they’ve told me, anyway.

The second best way to help the students:

Someone at their school could work with the students and bring them up to grade level. But when I called around to all of Spokane’s middle and high schools a few weeks ago to find out how to help students like Celesta, most had no remedial programs for students who are NOT special education. Nearly all wanted to test Celesta for learning disabilities. Several expressed doubt about the veracity of her story. One suggested she might have brain damage. Few expressed interest in community members coming into the school to help with skills; almost all referred that idea to central-office administration.

Additionally, Celesta said the “homework center” at her school isn’t for remedial skills. Kids view it as detention, not help, she said. She also was denied access to remedial algebra classes, she said. As an honors student, she said, she was told she can’t go backward. She must march forward to Statistics, ready or not.

Celesta’s situation reflects the sheer depth and magnitude of the problem. She is smart, articulate, and dedicated to her schoolwork. She is considered to be an honors student. Because of her achievements in math, she was placed into honors pre-calculus, which – with a great deal of effort – she passed, with a C. But I know what she doesn’t know in basic math, and it's devastating.

Now, imagine all of the students who DIDN'T pass their math tests, and who AREN'T getting As. Just 38.9% of Spokane’s 10th graders passed the 2010 state math test, on which they needed just 56.9% to pass. That 38.9% pass rate includes Celesta. It also includes students who receive supplementation from outside the district. Take those students out of the data, and where would the pass rates be then? By itself, does the district math program get anyone to actual proficiency in real mathematics?

The complete picture is barely imaginable. Folks, in K-12 mathematics, it’s a smoking wreckage out there. This is a completely preventable tragedy. It’s persistently pushed and pressed on teachers, parents and students by an ineffective, self-interested, obstructive leadership.

How district administrators and board directors can look at themselves in the mirror is beyond me. How they can accept plaques, awards and raises – well, I couldn’t do it. I would feel ill to be rewarded and praised for such abject failure. But the people who built this failing program are still employed at the district, most received raises last summer, and the superintendent’s contract was extended last night to July 31, approved unanimously by the four board directors present. (Approval of a new contract was delayed until July.)

The school board can fire just one person – the superintendent. Nancy Stowell received nearly a quarter-of-a-million taxpayer dollars last year as she stubbornly maintained a failing academic program and did not fire these incompetent administrators.

Meanwhile, various people in the district have accused parents and community members of blaming the district while refusing to help it. That’s hilarious. I've tried to help; they keep saying no.

The third best way to help these students:

The community can step in and tutor these students in basic arithmetic. I have asked the district repeatedly to work with me on developing such programs. On May 11, 2011, I again asked Nancy Stowell, our superintendent, if community members could work with the district on developing a free tutoring program. This is her reply (quoted verbatim – just cut and pasted):

"Good Morning Laurie,

"I have looked into your request, but I don't believe we have a structure in place to support community designed tutoring proggram. The only way we have for working with volunteers in through our Volunteer Program. That program, as you know, operates thruough our individual schools, but it really isn't set up to host specific tutoring programs designed by community members. In our Volunteer Program it is up to principals to idenfity the work of the volunteers. If volunteers do work on academic progjects in the schools it is under the supervision of a certificated staff member. If community members want to set up a tutoring program, they might be able to work through the community centers or perhaps the libraries.

"Thank you for your interest. I do understand that you have a huge commitment to our students and their academic success.


I asked Dr. Stowell if she would build a “structure” for offering free tutoring to the students. I received no reply. On June 13, I asked her again, noting that school was almost out. I received no reply.
Dr. Stowell’s response isn’t the first “no” I’ve gotten. A few years ago, I asked an elementary principal about helping students in math skills. I was told I would have to use the district curriculum, I would have to include all types of learners, and I would have to include language arts along with math. Well, that sounds like the failing district program to me.
I took my request to the school board. I was told it’s an issue with collective bargaining, and that, to get around it, I would have to rent the school.
In January 2011, I tried again. I wrote to a new principal to say this:

"As you probably recall, I asked you a few days after school began last September about beginning a free tutoring program in basic math skills for students in the … program. You said you would think it over. I have reminded you about it a few times since then, in September, October, and November.

"Each time I met with you, I explained the situation with Spokane's K-8 math program, about Spokane's high remedial rates, high dropout rates, and weak passing scores on state math tests. I noted that the tutoring would take time and dedication to fill in the large number of gaps in the students' math knowledge. I said it doesn't have to be me who does it, that the point is to get the students the basic skills they need if they are to succeed in algebra and geometry.

"I am following up with you to find out what is happening on this.

"Thanks very much,

"Laurie Rogers"

This was the principal’s response (quoted verbatim – just cut and pasted):


"Thanks for your email. Like we talked about in December, I am working with our teachers on identifying what our specific students' needs are how to best address them.

"Hope you have a great weekend."

Oh, sure. Have a great weekend. I hope they all have a great weekend. I hope Celesta and her classmates are having a great weekend. Want to bet that the next time we turn around, the district will again blame us for all problems in math?

The fourth best way to help the students:

The community can build its own program for helping the students. This takes organization, money, student maturity, an iron will, and careful scheduling. It isn’t easy. We must find a building and supplies. We must track down students and convince them to come in on their own time to work on the subject that drove them half crazy during the school year. We must get permissions, background checks, and supervisors.

I’ve found that it takes about two months, an hour per day, five days per week, to move a student one grade level in elementary math. High school students would need to find an extra five hours a week for an entire year. What are the odds this would work? These are children. They have other responsibilities and interests. And many have given up on math.

Spokane’s central-office administrators are accomplished at deflecting blame – onto teachers, principals, students, a fake lack of money, societal issues, and poverty. They’re good at giving themselves raises. They’re good at protecting their administrative turf, and they’re good at staying employed in this district in the face of absolute failure. They are NOT good at doing what they’re paid to do: Build an effective academic program. For that, they should be fired. But who will do that?

When it’s time for you to vote for a replacement for board directors, please keep this in mind: A vote for the status quo will be a vote for failure – for the children, for the community, for you, the taxpayer, and for this country. When you vote, please vote for someone who will hold the superintendent accountable, who understands the math problem, who will push for real math instruction and for real transparency in decision-making and finances. Vote for someone who has the will, the integrity, and the backbone to stand up for the children, who will vote "nay" to wrong things, and who won’t just "go along to get along."

And please also have a great weekend.

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

Rogers, L. (June 2011). "District rejects community efforts to help Celesta - (part 3)." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was posted on at

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

District blames Celesta for gaps in math skills - (part 2)

By Laurie H. Rogers

[Note from Laurie Rogers: This is part 2 of a series of articles on Celesta, a grade-11 student in Spokane, WA. I interviewed her for a June 4 episode of “Cut to the Chase,” a local radio show hosted by Rob Chase for the ACN Network. Part 1 of the series described Celesta as lacking multiple basic skills in mathematics. Part 3 will discuss community efforts to help students like Celesta ... and the district’s response to those efforts.]

Celesta is an 11th grader in Spokane Public Schools who carried a 3.6 GPA, got As in all of her math classes, passed all of her math tests and who did so well she was placed last fall into honors pre-calculus. Unfortunately, she and many of her pre-calculus classmates lack proficiency in basic math skills (including long division, multiplication facts, the number line, and fractions).

Over a few days, I called Spokane’s middle and elementary schools to find out how they would help students like Celesta. I didn’t do anything silly like go undercover or assume a pseudonym; I just called them all as a concerned community member, offered my first name and gave them the scenario noted above. Then I asked them, “How do (I, you, we) help these students?”

You won’t believe what I was told.

Most district employees expressed concern, but it often came out in accusatory, unhelpful ways. Most had nothing to offer students like Celesta. There usually was a long pause on the other end of the line after I described her situation. Several expressed doubt about the truth of the scenario.

“How could that be?” they asked.
“I would just be appalled if that were true,” a high school counselor said.

I don’t understand their shock and surprise. The counselor who said he would be appalled should already be appalled that his school had a pass rate on the 2010 state math test of less than 30%. Students needed just 56.9% to pass that basic-skills test, and more than 70% of the 10th graders at his school couldn’t do it. The district’s overall pass rate for 10th grade math was just 38.9%. Four of the six middle schools had pass rates of less than 50% on the 8th-grade math test; two were at less than 40%.

Either these counselors and administrators already know of the low pass rates and of the district’s policy of socially promoting students regardless of what they've learned … or they don’t know. Why on Earth wouldn't they know? It’s their job to know.

So I took a deep breath and assured them calmly that the girl is real, her story is true, and I was wondering what the district had in place to help students like her. Nearly all recommended that she be tested for learning disabilities.

I haven’t tested Celesta for a learning disability. I have only tested her for proficiency in basic math skills, and she tested into 5th-grade math. It does seem odd that she would be in honors pre-calculus, with a 3.6 GPA, having passed all of her tests and with straight As in math – if a learning disability had kept her from learning basic math skills.

A middle-school counselor said something must have “slipped" Celesta's mind before she hit the pre-calculus class. I’ve heard that wild assumption before. Other administrators claim it about other students, also without proof, and in 2010, an administrator at Spokane Falls Community College said the math problem at SFCC isn’t because students didn’t learn enough math in K-12 – it was because they’d just forgotten it.

According to Celesta, at least half of her class has the same problem. Her pre-calculus teacher must continually stop teaching pre-calculus, she said, so he can teach basic skills. He showed them long division. He showed them the number line so they could subtract a negative. I asked the district employees: Did ALL of these honors students just forget? This observation was met with more silence.

A middle school principal talked about how poverty is such an issue for the students. This is the district’s go-to answer for student outcomes. In February, a district employee stated at one of my community forums that if we fixed the poverty problem, we would fix the math problem. But I had said nothing to anyone about Celesta’s home life. I asked Celesta for her reaction, and she was offended.

“I’m not that poor,” she said. “I’ve always had everything I needed. For someone to tell me I’m failing because I’m poor, that’s a little ridiculous.”

While there are strong correlations between family income and student achievement, poverty isn’t the problem with math. We could give every low-income family a million dollars and this district’s math program still wouldn’t have enough math in it. I noted to Celesta that lower-income families have fewer resources to pay for tutoring and outside help, and she expressed frustration.

“I don’t see why we need tutoring if the school is doing their job,” she said. “Why do I need to go to Sylvan to learn what [the district] should be teaching me? Why do I need extra help? Why aren’t they just teaching [it to me] in the first place?”

Why indeed? Why do district counselors and school administrators not have a firm grasp of the depth of the district’s deficiencies in math? “How can that be?” I kept hearing. Do they not see the low pass rates? Do they not see students struggle and fail, yet get passed through – and even be placed into advanced math classes? Do they not know about the district’s high remedial rates and dropout rates? Do they not see the district-wide anxiety over math, and the district-wide dearth of procedural skill? They should because I see it, and I don’t get paid taxpayer money to see it.

A high school counselor then decided Celesta must have been cheating to get her 3.6 GPA if she now has issues in pre-calculus. Startled, I said, “Pardon me?” He said, “Yeah, she must have cheated or lied. Or, maybe,” he added helpfully, “she’s had a traumatic brain injury.”

I asked Celesta for her reaction.

“It makes me feel sad that they’d jump to that conclusion,” she said. “I know I’m a good student. I know I work hard. I know that I’m smart and that it’s really hard for me right now that I’m struggling. And for someone to tell me that I have a learning disability or my brain has been damaged because I don’t know math because I wasn’t taught? It’s pretty hurtful. It’s not my fault. I have to go to public school every day. That’s what I have to do. It’s not my choice to be there, and it’s not my choice to do the lesson plan. I’m learning what they’re teaching me. If I’m not learning it … when I am a very attentive student, and I’m there, and I’m trying … Is it my fault?”

Celesta said there never was any indication that she or her classmates were struggling, that they had learning issues, or that there were gaps in skills. This year has been a shock. It isn’t that pre-calculus is so hard, she said. It’s just become clear to her that she and many classmates are missing basic math skills that they need to be successful in that class. She fought hard and wound up with a final grade of C.

“Even if I study really hard, and I go in and get help, and I get extra help from my old math teacher,” she said, “I just seem to always hit a 60% on all my tests, no matter how confident I feel about them. … Before this year, everything was fine. I would get my tests back and maybe I’d get a 3 out of a four, and that still isn’t very OK with me. I always strive to do the best. Usually, I’d go in and try and retake, but in pre-calculus we cannot retake tests. That’s what really kills me. I can’t try again. … I just have to accept that I’m failing.”

Well, I don’t accept it.

I’ve found that it takes about two months, an hour a day, five days a week, to properly tutor a student through one grade level in K-8 math. Celesta is missing about six years of basic skills. She’s leaving for the summer, and I’ll try to help her by email. It will be a challenge. She’s 17, and it’s the summer, and she’s visiting family. We plan to connect when she comes back in the fall. It’s daunting, but I’m willing to fight for her if she’s willing to fight for herself.

Math was always a strong suit for Celesta, one of her favorite classes. Now, she isn’t interested in taking any more math classes. But if she doesn’t, her dream of earning a business degree is over.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is
Rogers, L. (June 2011). "District blames Celesta for gaps in math skills - (part 2)." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published June 9, 2011 on at:

Friday, June 3, 2011

Who cares about Celesta? - (part 1)

By Laurie H. Rogers

[Note from Laurie Rogers: This is part 1 of a series of articles on Celesta, a Spokane high school student whom I interviewed for “Cut to the Chase,” a radio show hosted by Rob Chase for the ACN Network. The show is located at 630 on the AM dial. This interview will air locally Saturday at 6 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and on Sunday at 10 a.m. Part 2 of these articles will discuss the district's response to my queries about how to help her.]

Celesta is a high school junior in Spokane Public Schools. She’s a good student – “attentive,” she says. But she’s missing basic math skills, and she’s struggling to get through her 11th-grade math class.

Celesta has a dream. She wants to be a business owner. She plans to attend university and get a degree, with a major in business and a minor in accounting. She says she wants to “run some kind of business of my own. I want to be in charge.”

Celesta has one more year before she is supposed to graduate and go to college. Without intervention of some kind, when she takes college entrance exams, she's likely to test into arithmetic. She’ll have to pay for several non-credit-bearing remedial math classes before she even begins college math classes. She'll be at risk of failing those remedial math classes. Almost 50% of the students who take those classes at our local community colleges do not pass them.

You wouldn’t expect Celesta to be in this position. Currently, she carries a 3.6 GPA. Up until 11th grade, she passed all math tests and got As in all math classes. She’s always been considered to be a good student. In fact, because they all did so well in their math classes, she and more than two dozen other students were placed into honors pre-calculus. There was never any indication before this year, she said, that they had gaps in math skills, or learning issues, or that they were struggling in any way. None was considered to be a special education student.

Celesta said she and many of her classmates aren’t proficient in algebra or geometry, but the problem is deeper than that. Their pre-calculus teacher must continually stop teaching pre-calculus so he can teach basic math skills to his class.

“Pretty much every day I hear him say, ‘Well, you should have learned this already, but we have to go over it,’” Celesta says. “It makes me feel stupid … He’s not really that sweet about it. He’ll be like ‘I’m teaching this lesson and half of you are gonna get it and half of you won’t, and a quarter of you will never get it.’ And I just feel like that quarter that’s never gonna get it.”

I tested Celesta a few weeks ago using a basic skills test, and she tested into 5th-grade math. However, her lack of proficiency with multiplication facts and division puts her into 4th-grade math. This year is the first year she’s ever seen long division, she says. Her pre-calc teacher showed the skill to his class, but there hasn’t been time to learn it to mastery. A deficiency in division inhibits students in any number of mathematical procedures, including determining averages, isolating variables, and simplifying fractions.

Celesta also doesn’t know her multiplication facts. This honors student couldn’t tell me what 6x8 equals. She didn’t know what a radical is. She expressed doubts about her ability to convert from fractions to percents to decimals. On the pre-algebra portion of my test, she got one answer out of 20 correct.

“I wish that I would have got direct instruction in the first place,” she says. “I feel like it is a better approach to math, and that if I did learn it that way in the first place, I would be very successful right now. But because I don’t know that, I need to sit there and pretty much have someone baby me, as much as I hate to admit it.”

If Celesta tests into remedial math at Spokane Falls Community College, she might not get direct instruction there, either. Not long ago, SFCC began offering its remedial math classes with an approach that looks a lot like the approach that has already failed Celesta.

How many young people in our communities are in Celesta's position? The district implies that Celesta's story is rare, but Celesta isn't alone or even unusual. In fact, students in her position are now the norm in America's public education system. I hear stories like hers all of the time. Every day. All day.

When I talk with younger people in my community -- in restaurants, fast food venues, and businesses around town -- they'll eventually confide -- somewhat sheepishly -- that they dropped out of college because they couldn't get through remedial math, or that they struggled in school but hope to go back. It hurts my heart to hear their doubts about their own abilities. I know those doubts were fostered in them by a self-serving bureaucracy that refuses to acknowledge its massive error in math. I try to reassure them, but it's a lot to explain in a few minutes. They go away, still certain that they just couldn't cut it.

Whenever I pay for purchases and wait for change, I watch the younger crowd stumble to do it correctly, often making mistakes, then not understanding as I count it back for them. And math isn't their only weakness. Their handwriting (usually just printing) is atrocious, their spelling is imaginary, their punctuation and grammar non-existent. This is not their fault. This is the district's fault.

And Spokane Public Schools isn't alone in having failed these people. The problem is mirrored across the country - from border to border and from coast to coast. When I talk with others about this -- teachers, parents, students, advocates -- their stories are the same as mine. They saw the problem, many spoke up, all were patronized and dismissed, and their district's administration just rolled over top of them. And the children in their communities continued to be failed.

Who cares about Celesta and all of these other poorly-educated children? Caring about them means caring about our communities and about our country. They are the face of our future, and they are not prepared.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is
Rogers, L. (June 2011). "Who cares about Celesta? - (part 1)." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published June 6, 2011 on at: