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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Spokane Public Schools is a "tale of two cities" - and I live in the other one

[Updated Nov. 30 to specify proposed 2012 levy amount.]

By Laurie H. Rogers

On Nov. 10, Spokane Public Schools hosted a lovely “Breakfast for Community Leaders.” The district’s goal was to assure well-connected and like-minded folks in the city that – as the district put it – it’s “better preparing all students for success after graduation.” A few students also were brought in to “share their stories about the effectiveness of that preparation and what high school is like today.”

Superintendent Nancy Stowell began the breakfast by saying she wanted to “put to rest” the “fingerpointing and blame” the district faced during the 2011 board election. Here are a few examples of how she put things to rest.
  • Stowell praised the district for higher graduation rates, saying the next challenge is college readiness. Wasn't college readiness always the goal? Most parents think so. So, the district is letting more of the kids leave, and at some point, they'll start getting them ready for postsecondary life? How does that work?
  • Stowell showed us how enrollment is increasing in Advanced Placement classes. Had she shown AP pass rates -- we also would have seen a precipitous drop in the percentage passing, and an alarming drop in the average AP grade
Stowell spent several minutes discussing the upcoming ballot proposition for the district levy. She said, “We do have a citizen’s group that works to support that levy,” and she introduced Mike Livingston (Kiemle & Hagood), chair of bond/levy advocacy group Citizens for Spokane Schools (CFSS).

In 2009, CFSS and the district lobbied taxpayers to vote for a $288 million bond and a $60 million levy. Stowell said the 2012 levy campaign would begin this week, but actually, it appears as though the district/CFSS talks on the 2012 levy began in 2010, and that district presentations on the 2012 levy began Sept. 1, 2011. Some of the district’s 2009 and 2011 campaign activities have prompted the launching of a formal investigation by the Public Disclosure Commission.

That issue definitely has not been put to rest.

If approved by voters Feb. 14, the 2012 levy will bring in $73.3 million. At the Nov. 10 breakfast, Stowell didn’t mention that in 2011, the levy was $60 million, that in 2002, the levy was just $36.4 million, or that the district budget has exploded since 2002. You might think from her comments that the district has to light fires and tape up shoes just to stay warm.

Stowell said the “community thinks the levy should be going for” extracurricular programs, but that, instead, “primarily, it funds educational programs” such as special education, transportation and English Language Learners. “A little bit of it goes to extracurricular,” Stowell said on Thursday, “but not very much anymore.” She didn’t tell us how much of it pays for administrative overhead, nor did she mention that last year’s levy paid for administrative raises and instructional coaches. She also didn't discuss the district's plans to adopt an untested, unproved, unnecessary, multi-million-dollar federal vision for education.

Folks – there is no money shortage in education. Taxpayers still pay all of the federal, state, and local taxes we’ve always paid. Why are so few education dollars going to the classroom?
  • For 2011-2012, Spokane Public Schools budgeted $493 million for operating costs, capital projects and debt service. This is an increase of $210 million since 2001-2002, and it doesn’t include all of the district’s costs.
  • For 2011-2012, Washington State was budgeting $10.5 billion for school districts and educational service districts (ESDs). This is an increase of about $3 billion since 2001-2002, and it doesn’t include all of the state’s education costs.
  • America now spends $700 billion a year on K-12 education. The federal portion has ballooned to $68 billion, an increase of $12 billion since 2001-2002. This doesn't include the extra $100 billion for ARRA in 2009.
Despite this obscene taxpayer expense, the public system largely fails. There appears to be an inverse relationship:
  • between how much public education costs taxpayers, and how effective it is;
  • between how much it costs us and how much we know about it; and
  • between how much it costs us and how much control we have over how our dollars are spent.
I was interested to hear how all of this money is “preparing students for success,” but I wasn’t invited to the Nov. 10 breakfast in Spokane, nor was I welcome. Eventually, I was allowed to attend, but I was told to behave. The admonishment I received is ironic, considering the district’s behavior at my Feb. 7 math forum.

Shortly after arriving on Nov. 10, I was directed to sit in a chair against the wall – banished to a district Siberia. That put me next to the invited students and their electronics, and away from the tables for the invited “leaders” and district staff. The students and I sat against the wall, watching the others be feted.

It made me laugh. I generally prefer the company of students and robots to that of district staff. The students attending the breakfast are funny, curious, pleasant, and interesting. They’ve achieved good things, and they deserve praise. I liked talking with them. None of this can be said about district leadership.

In my Siberia Against the Wall (SAW), I had a panoramic view of the directors, superintendent, community leaders and district staff. I observed the handshaking, back slapping, the hugs and thumbs up for (board candidate) Deana Brower, and the well-practiced politicking. I heard the superintendent’s parsed statistics, I noted the missing data, and I cringed at the blatant self-stroking and obsequious stroking of others. Other adults noshed on the taxpayer-funded feast, applauded Stowell, and many appeared to leave the room happy, well-fed, and generally convinced.

But over there in the chilly SAW, Stowell’s presentation sounded like this:

"Aren’t we wonderful? You’re wonderful, too. You love us, and we love you, you well-heeled, well-connected people. Despite the unfair criticisms of us, the barriers put in our way, and the hard life we must endure, we’re still fabulously successful. Three students and some robots prove our wonderfulness. Yes, yes, thank you – it is hard, but it’s so rewarding trying to lift up the little people. They’re poor. They don’t speak English. They don’t understand how hard we work for them, but that’s the challenge, isn’t it? We’ve done amazing work by allowing them to graduate. Someday, we’ll have to start preparing them for something. Meanwhile, we need more money."

I’m used to the district’s arrogance, condescension and persistent self-praise. I’m used to the lack of accountability, transparency or apologies from them for having failed thousands of students over the years. I’m used to being treated like dreck on the bottom of their shoe. On Nov. 10, however, I drove away with a deep and abiding anger. Yes, I did enjoy the students and their amazing robotics. There are good things being done somewhere in the district. But I know that those students – those outcomes and programs – are not the norm. That breakfast spread is not the norm. The attendees are not representative of the city. A good number of those attendees don’t appear to see the differences between them and others. Perhaps they’ve justified those differences, or they’ve decided to ignore them.

Dozens of well-known people walked around that room, smiling, shaking hands, seemingly happy and content – and I know some of them don’t have children in school, some tutor their children or supplement the program, and some send their children to a private school.

As I drove home, the issues crystallized for me. This district is a tale of two cities. One city is in that room, filled with upper-crust folks who have options, alternatives, connections, nice offices and nice homes. Many don’t get the issue, refuse to get it – and some will manipulate the system in whichever fashion it suits them so that they don’t have to get it… as they save their own children and grandchildren.

The other city is the one in which the rest of us live. We aren’t invited to those breakfasts. We don’t hobnob at Clinkerdaggers or work out at The Spokane Club. Far from having "pull" in the district, we can’t even get them to listen. Most of us don’t have access to options and alternatives. As we try to express our concerns, the district leadership typically discounts our fears and worries, and treats us with ill-concealed disdain. To them, our children have “challenges.” We supposedly aren’t raising them properly. We supposedly aren’t involved enough, and consequently, our children supposedly are difficult, unmotivated and troublesome.

The three students who spoke Nov. 10 are the students Stowell notices. Even those students – and it made me angry to see it – were being used. After one of the students spoke (exceptionally well), Stowell said to the room: “Well, I tell ya. When we hear from students like that, it reminds us all of the very important work that we’re doing… With students like (her) graduating from our high schools, I think we can all feel a little more relieved and relaxed about our future.”

It was like being in a castle, with a queen, a court, attendants and sycophants. I – a commoner – was grudgingly allowed in but not welcomed. Barely tolerated but not respected. The court attended to the queen, and the queen is good, I’ll give her that – brilliant even – at stroking her court. They oohed and awed, chuckled and clapped. We in the other city – we and our children, our concerns, our worries, and our efforts to make things better – aren’t relevant there. Our children are excuses or a way to get more taxpayer dollars. We parents are viewed as a joke or as an annoying obstruction.

It was a moment of awakening. I’ve had so many of those over five years, but this moment was life-changing. I have fought for five years for arithmetic (and now for grammar) for 28,000 children, interviewed dozens of people, written a blog and a book, held community forums, and communicated with people around the world. This fall, I campaigned for a school board candidate who actually wants to tell voters the truth. She faced off against the nearly solid wall of the Not Accountable: The district leadership, the union leadership, the newspapers, and many in the "upper crust." Even so, she garnered nearly half the vote.

On Nov. 10, I watched the district shamelessly use the children to work the system, feed off the system, and stroke the system... and the system rolled over and purred. It made me want to gag.

I wanted a fulcrum that would move this city, and I found it. I did manage to move much of the city I live in. What I didn't move -- what I can't move, given my current definitions -- is the city that runs the school district. It has its own arguments, research and data. Over five years, I've given that city suitcases of real evidence, and they stuck me in a chair against the wall. Clearly, my definitions have to change.

Please stay tuned. There’s more to say and more to do. Your input -- from the city where you live -- is always welcome and appreciated. I still think we can turn things around for the children, but it's going to take a different approach.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (November 2011). "Spokane Public Schools is a 'tale of two cities' - and I live in the other one." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Nov. 14, 2011, on Education Views at:


Anonymous said...

Laurie, I would like to encourage you to "do the math" on your AP pass rates.
You say, "Stowell showed us how enrollment is increasing in Advanced Placement classes. Had she shown AP pass rates -- we also would have seen a precipitous drop in the percentage passing, and an alarming drop in the average AP grade."
Using your posted data, from 1992 to 2010, I figure the number of students passing in AP classes has increased by 470%. If 73% of 193 students passed in 1992 that is about 141 kids passing, while 55% of 1208 students in 2010 is roughly 664 students passing. Your posted data shows an ever growing number of students passing AP exams since 1992.
You seem to think that we should NOT be pushing more kids into Advanced Placement classes. This seems an elitist attitude to me. Should we ONLY place the cream of the crop students in these classes? Would you like to keep the advantaged, good home life, a lot of family support, upper socio-economic type kids in these classes and have most of them pass? Or should we offer opportunities to every student? You’d rather 141 top tier kids pass than 664 kids of a more diverse population pass AP exams?
What a bigot you are.
Now feel free to post your reply. You’ll probably find a word I misspelled or a grammar error to point out, but you wont actually reply to any content of my comment as you’ve done every other time I’ve posted.

Anonymous said...

OK Jules, since you are apparantly a graduate of a mathematics program like Spokane's I'll try and make this simple for you:

Using your math and logic (which seems to track well with the Distric's spin), let's look at highway fatalities in the US:

In 1898 there were 2 cars on the roads of America. There was 1 fatal accident in 1898.

In 2008 there were 2 million cars on the roads of America. There were 31,110 fatalities in 2008.

Using these figures the way you do I figure the number of drivers being killed on the road has increased 31,110%. If 50% of 2 drivers died in 1898 that is 1 driver dead. If 1.21% of 255917664 drivers died on the road in 2008 that is roughly 31,110 drivers dead. This data shows an ever increasing number of drivers being killed on the road.

Your math ignors the reality that as a percentage of people driving, deaths are down - just as a percentage of those taking AP courses the number of students passing is down. Of course that is fine with the Distric, they get more money and awards based on the number of students taking AP classes - NOT the number passing...

Bigot? Elitist? I don't see Mrs. Rogers or her fellow advocates doing anything bigotted or elitist. They appear to be interested in ensuring that every child has a solid foundation in the basics so that they can crawl out of whatever socioeconomic situation they find themselves saddled with.

Speaking of crawling - you should consider crawling back under your rock, then back into a statistics book...

Ze'ev Wurman said...

Dear Jules,

Between 1992 and 2000, Spokane almost doubled the number of AP-takers (193 to 368) while simultaneously raising the passing rate (3 & above) from 73% to 81%, and the average score rose from 3.18 to 3.45. This is the way a thoughtful and successful AP implementation should look like.

In contrast, since 2000 the number of students more than tripled (to 1208) while the passing rate dropped to 55% and the average score dropped to 2.69. This is an example of indiscriminate packing of students--whether ready or not--into AP classes. If you consider this a success, please consider also that (a) the unprepared students force AP teachers to lower their teaching to accommodate them, while harming the well-prepared students, and (b) the emotional harm Spokane does by placing thousands of ill-prepared students in classes that are much above their heads where they know they have no chance of success. Clearly Spokane does not care about this obvious damage it does both to the ill-prepared students, and to the well-prepared ones, on its way to rise in Washington Post's high school rankings. I hope you do.

While the provided AP data is not sufficiently precise, you can see some of the damage comparing the 2008 and 2010 result. While the fraction of "3 and above" rose by 1 point (54% to 55%), the average score *dropped* from 2.72 to 2.69. What this tells us that the overwhelming majority of those "passing" is at the edge of passing score "3." This is such a low level that, while the College Board considers it passing, many colleges stopped even giving college credit for for it.

I don't think that "throwing" a thousand unprepared or marginally-prepared students at a wall hoping that some of them "stick" is educationally wise approach. Or a moral one. Reminds me of a joke from the 1960s, when China declared war on the Soviet Union. Day 1, one million Chinese casualties. Day 2, a million and a half Chinese casualties. Day 3, Mao calls Khrushchev and ask "Do you give up already?" Spokane is using such "Chinese" approach to education, rather than making sure large number of students is actually prepared to take the AP classes.

Anonymous said...

Post 1 (I had too many characters)

@Jules - I haven't looked at Laurie's AP data today (I have looked at it in the past). Also, I'm in the Olympia School District, not Spokane but we have the same problems here.

I don't remember exactly how Laurie's AP data was worded (how her statistics were labeled) but I remember that she was pointing out that the pass rate was much LOWER than it had been in the past. The pass rate (using the numbers in your post) went from 73% in 1992 down to 55% in 2010. That is a decrease in the pass RATE of 25%. Using your 2010 statistics, that is 544 students NOT passing the AP exams.

Yes, more students are in the AP classes but a smaller percentage are passing the tests (which, in the Olympia School District cost the students/parents about $90 each test).

Anonymous said...

Post 2

It would be interesting to know the total number of students who are eligible for AP classes (sophomores, juniors and seniors) to see what percentage take AP classes. 1208 students doesn't seem that high to me considering how large the Spokane District is.

I assume Laurie and the district consider a 3 on an AP exam as passing. A lot of colleges will not give credit for a 3 although a few will so even some of the students who "passed" according to the district, have scores that aren't high enough to count for college credit.

I am not a statistician but as a parent looking at the Spokane AP statistics, I would be led to the conclusion that almost half of the students are not succeeding in the class (as measured by their pass rate on the AP tests).

If you have a class of 30 students and only 16.5 of them pass the final, would you congratualate the teacher and the students on his/her "exceptional" accomplishment?

BTW, I'm not blaming the teachers. They are having to teach college-level classes to students who are not yet ready for college work and there is a lot of information to jam into 7 or 8 months so they can't afford to slow down. In addition, it takes a lot of studying on a student's own time in order to pass the AP tests and the teacher and parents can't force them to study. If they are not good at studying (in both the homework and test-prep), they are going to have a much more difficult time passing the classes and the tests.

Anonymous said...

Post 3

I have two daughters. One is now at EWU and doing well there. She is a lazy student (does what she needs to get by and that's about it). She only took one AP class in high school (world history as a sophomore) and scored a 2 on the test. After that, she just took regular classes--she realized AP classes weren't for her (and they weren't). She was challenged enough in the regular classes and ended up gaining the skills she needed to succeed in college (at least at a college like EWU--she wouldn't make it at Gonzaga).

My younger daughter is a high school junior and she earned a 4 on her AP world history test last year (after earning a C+ in the class her first semester--she had too much on her plate to handle the homework load--and an A- the second semester). She is currently taking AP Calc AB, AP US history (after attempting to take the regular class but realizing in the first few days she would be bored stiff), and AP English. Those are in addition to chemistry (which has homework most nights), accounting (not much homework) and advanced marketing (rarely has homework). Since she isn't playing school sports this year (but she is bowling in a local league and playing soccer on two rec teams) she has the time needed to devote to the homework those classes generate. We'll see how she does on the tests though because she'll have to study for three of them instead of one this year.

I just wanted you to see that not ALL kids should be taking AP classes. They are there to challenge the students who need the extra challenge. Having two kids, one who will most likely succeed in all her AP classes and one who failed, I don't think you can label me as elitist.

While I don't mind having open access to honors and AP classes (the policy in the Olympia School District and it sounds like Spokane's policy), I acknowlege that AP classes are right for some kids but not others.

Anonymous said...

Post 4

BTW, if a student is already having difficulty in the regular classes and he/she is "pushed" (your word, not mine) into AP classes to make the district look better (yes, that's exactly what I think the district is doing--the Olympia District is doing the same), what does that student gain by failing the AP test (and maybe also failing the class)?

I happen to know an Olympia School District student that happened to and she tried to commit suicide last year and now hates school and is trying to find where she fits in. Since she had to miss a lot of school last year because of her attempted suicide attempt, the district won't let her enter the alternative school this year or another alternative program she is interested in--she had too many absences last year. I wish I could say I'm making that story up but I'm not. She was pushed because she's a low-income minority and the College Board rewards schools that get more minority students to take the AP tests (Olympia High School was rewarded by the College Board--look at the College Board's front page). Pathetic!!!!! The school did it for their own gain and actually damaged the student (and almost cost her her life).

Niki Hayes said...

The only way to beat the power elites is to get or earn enough money to set up a parallel universe to them. That, at least, offers an outlet to those who are deliberately marginalized by those in power. That's what John Saxon did with his unique but traditional math program. In John Saxon's Story, a genius in common sense, one learns how he was viciously mocked, attacked, and stripped of opportunities to participate in education events by the math establishment for 15 years (until his death in 1996). It was his surprise status as a multi-millionaire, math textbook author and publisher that allowed him to take them on in frontal attacks. They hated him. Those who gave his program an honest chance, with thousands of children actually learning real mathematics, respected him because the students loved their successes with Saxon Math.

John won a lot of battles by sheer force of guts and his money, but he clearly did not win the war within math education. That is because the mentality of the leaders in the math establishment is still not held accountable for the giant failure of math and science education in America. Instead, the leaders are allowed to blame their troops (teachers), who are trained in and have had to use rotten equipment for 25 years.

This means, to me, that we do live in two worlds with American school children. There are those subjected to the politically powerful and "connected" Blob that consumes our energy, growing bigger in each community, and those who are schooled in smaller, non-government-controlled schools.

While winning a school board seat to bring about change is good, it's not enough. (That person will be voted down in every meeting but at least it's a voice that can be heard.) We have to go for broke and sweep a majority of the seats, as they did in Marble Falls, TX., if we want to make a lasting difference, at least at the local level. (See

It's not about being a naysayer. It's about being pragmatic and learning what "power" really means when it comes to bringing improvements into our children's world.

John Saxon was the Superman everyone waited for in math education. He was not welcomed, and it was by the same kind of persons described by Laurie in this post. He did leave a legacy, though, and the power elites can't destroy his truth. My admiration for Laurie's fighting spirit continues to grow.

Anonymous said...

I work with freshmen at a university.
"Betrayed" is posting quite a good AP debate ! Thank you for the spark, Laurie. Keep on lighting these fires.
Common sense and experience indicate that AP is not for everyone.

Bruce Price said...

How did Malcolm Muggeridge see all this in 1979??

"Education was the great mumbo-jumbo of progress, the assumption being that educating people would make them grow better and better, more and more objective and intelligent. Actually, as more and more money is spent on education, illiteracy is increasing. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if it didn't end up with virtually the whole revenue of the western countries being spent on education, and a condition of almost total illiteracy resulting therefrom."

Bruce Deitrick Price

Anonymous said...

I suggest adding a facebook like button for the blog!

Anonymous said...

I could not refrain from commenting. Well written!