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Monday, April 30, 2012

Heritage Foundation's Jennifer Marshall calls for parent choice in education

[Note from Laurie Rogers: On March 28, 2012, the Spokane College Women's Association (SCWA) hosted Jennifer Marshall, from the Heritage Foundation, who spoke on education reform. Jennifer gave me permission to republish her remarks. Since Jennifer's presentation was nearly an hour, I excerpted her remarks for this blog post. You can read the entire transcript of her March 28 remarks at this link.]

By Jennifer Marshall

... I want to begin by thinking through what education is all about and then talk about why we’re getting it wrong in the policy world and what we can do about that. … Too many times in policy in America we start out with assumptions that are wrong about the nature of a problem and then we go about slap-dash trying to fix it with the wrong type of solutions, which can end up simply making the problem worse and failing to resolve it. ...

Well, not surprisingly, because of the misdiagnosis of that problem, the so-called solutions have done very little to nothing to solve, and in some cases, have actually hurt the problem. We’re ending up with inter-generational poverty, where poverty gets handed down and dependency on government gets handed down from generation to generation. ...

Education deals ... with the whole person. It’s not … just about handing down information. It is about training a child to love what is good, telling them to understand what is wrong and differentiate right from wrong, good and bad, putting affection in their heart for the things that bring flourishing in our society and in each life. It is ideally education that will help answer the fundamental questions, the most important questions about the nature and purpose of a person’s own life, so helping a student answer who they are, where they’re going, what this life is about. Education should help a child answer that and point them to the authorities in their lives who can help them find those answers and spend a lifetime pursuing them. Education isn’t just about making a living. It’s about making a life. ...

Now, because education is about the whole person, that means it must respect the child in the context of relationships that precede the school … The school needs to respect relationships in the family that precede a child’s coming into the school, and that, too often, is not happening today. We take a child out of context, create a wall really between the educational process and parents’ authority and do damage to a child’s understanding of her place in the world beginning with family and moving on through religious congregations and community to the wider circles of our civic life together. … Those prior relationships are foundational and fundamental and should shape the way that we interact and understand the state’s relationship to us. It’s from those relationships that we get our own understanding of individual rights, individual liberty, and, therefore, the freedom that we enjoy here in this nation. …

This is not a value-neutral enterprise. Education will impart certain values to students. Therefore, we’ve got to be very concerned with what those values are and whether they’re the kinds of values that will maintain the principles on which this country was built, or whether they will be ones that will be eroding it ...

That means that parents … need to be afforded the authority to make judgments about what is going to be best for the education, not just the schooling, but the education of a child. We need to liberate parents to make those decisions. …

Systemic reform, the philosophy that was brought to Washington during the Clinton era, was the idea that education policy in Washington needs to deal with the whole school and leave no area of education off limits to the federal policy makers. Great. And so what we ended up with was Washington trying to act more and more like a school board, remotely trying to deal with thousands of different school districts all with different needs and different student populations, but trying to do this kind of systemic policy making. Well, sadly … it hasn’t worked.

This brought us to the presidency of George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind. … No Child Left Behind was a regrettable further concentration of power in Washington. What it did was to say systemic reform was built around the idea that if you just get states to set standards and align tests to them, then everything else will fall into place. The Clinton era ESEA didn’t have any teeth. Well, No Child Left Behind said systemic reform is the way to go and we’ll add teeth. …

Well, that brings us to today and what the Obama administration is doing. We share this much in common with the Obama administration, we are both not fans of No Child Left Behind, but we part ways after that. The Obama administration would like to fix the situation and fix education policy by creating a set of national standards and national tests to go with them. This has been watched as The Common Core initiative and it’s been portrayed to be a state-led initiative. Well, really it’s been led by associations of states that are not your elected officials, the Council of Chief State Schools Officers and The National Governors Association, and with lots of encouragement and even accelerating funding from Washington from the Department of Education. Specifically, the Obama administration has incentivized adoption of The Common Core initiative, that is, it has gotten states to adopt these national standards through the Race to the Top Initiative.

We have two criticisms of Race to the Top. Number one, it’s a run around Congress. It’s an end-run around Congress. Most administrations that have aggressive, new education policy know that they’ve got to get it through Congress and they work hard to do that and that is what the legislative sausage making is all about. …

What Race to the Top did was to offer 4.35 billion dollars, again, not much in the vast scheme of the whole education bureaucracy … but they have had a grant competition of ... Race to the Top. They have awarded twelve states part of that 4.35 billion dollars. They have made sure that all awards would go to those states that had adopted The Common Core.

Many states tried to get on board to get the Race to the Top money. Many spent countless hours. Some of these applications for Race to the Top funding were 1,000 pages long. … Forty states applied. Twelve states received funding. For the price of handing out 12 awards, the Obama administration was able to get more than 40 states on board with the Common Core initiative and waste all those hours on applying for money that most states never got and never will get. That’s the kind of policy making agenda that we’re seeing at the moment. It’s a very concerning one because it continues to centralize education content decisions. We’ve moved from the idea that states would set standards and tests and that the federal government would have oversight over those, to now the federal government is getting involved in setting and establishing the national standards and tests itself. A vast surrender of local education authority that citizens across this nation should be very concerned about. …

Now, we didn’t believe there was any constitutional role for the federal government to be involved in education in the first place, but as a first, baby step towards getting a constitutional restoration of our education policy at the state and local level, we suggested to just pull the federal government back to saying if you’re a 10% stakeholder, you certainly don’t get to call more than 10% of the shots. What that might look like in policy is instead of having dozens of programs that Washington must comply with, your hundreds of pages of policy making and rules and regulations, why don’t you just let states apply once to the federal government for their K-12 money. Make it efficient. Make it short. Make it simple and let them be on the hook for showing progress on their state tests and their accountability systems. … Let them figure out what their state students’ needs are and how they can best meet them. …

Some of you are probably asking the question, “Well, why send the money to Washington in the first place?” Exactly. And that’s what we hoped such a baby step would demonstrate is “Why are we sending this money to Washington?” Because a dollar that leaves Washington is not a dollar that arrives in the classroom. The best we could tell at the time that Pete Hoekstra was looking at this, it was something like 65, 70 cents on the dollar was making it to the local classroom. That’s quite significant attrition for resources getting to local education needs.

One of the costs of federal intervention then, number one – it terribly erodes good governance. Good governance in education would be responding to those who have true authority, parents and to local taxpayers. Instead, federal intervention has enlarged state and local bureaucracy. When the main federal intervention came in 1965 through ESEA, in the five years following that law, state education bureaucracy doubled. It doubled in those five years. Why did that happen? Because those bureaucracies became like parasites to the federal government. They saw that they could get money if they were watching Washington and dancing to Washington’s tune on education policy. Well, you need people to figure out how to do that.

That brings us to the second problem of how Washington erodes good governance when it intervenes in education. That is that it develops this client mentality on the part of states and localities. The client mentality means that state education officials are looking more toward Washington than they are to their true clients. The people that ought to be their true clients are, of course, parents and taxpayers. But they’re not responsive to those true clients, those true customers, because they’re busier trying to figure out how to get those dollars from Washington. Race to the Top is a perfect example of what we mean by that.

Third, Washington’s intervention disrupts the direct accountability that we want to see to parents and taxpayers. By the way, whenever you hear the word accountability thrown around education policy talks today, stop the person who is speaking and say, “What do you mean? Accountability to whom and for what?” Because we’re not for a vague notion of accountability, which usually means accountability to Washington for everything. We are for accountability to parents and local taxpayers for the use of their dollars and for the education of their children. That’s where the accountability should run. So we have a horizontal accountability that needs to be restored in place of this vertical accountability, the responding up the chain of command to Washington. We need to work on restoring horizontal accountability instead.

The other big cost of federal intervention is that it has created a compliance burden that really saps time and money. First, it diminishes funds in the ways I have talked about, diminishing a dollar that leaves Washington coffers, does not mean a dollar in the classroom, and there is a tremendous amount of wasted human capital. …

Well, where do we go from here? First of all, at the federal level we need to get the feds out of the systemic education reform business and we need to make way for state-level systemic reform. What does that mean at the federal level? That means abandoning The Race To The Top, abandoning The Common Core, and sending dollars and decision making back to those closest to the student. …

As far as state systemic reform goes, we’ve got to get incentives right on the school level and that’s going to need to be in three areas: Accountability, choice, and teacher reforms. Now, by accountability measures I mean transparency and accountability that are tailored for parents and taxpayers, not for bureaucrats in Washington. …

Choice is critically important as an accountability mechanism and as a finance reform. We need to think about different kinds of financing than the way that education is happening right now. Money should follow the students. Right now we are more worried about funding buildings and that’s ridiculous. That is why I began with the nature of what education is. If it’s a fundamentally relational endeavor and it’s about the whole child, well the dollars should be following the child, not the system or the school. So, let’s tailor education finance in that direction, which means providing school choice and letting parents decide where their student and the dollars will go. …

In terms of different models for school choice, we’re very excited about all of them. We’re excited about vouchers, tax credits, and one that we’re particularly watching as it develops because it seems very, very promising is the education savings account. Maybe some of you have heard about this, but essentially the state would allow a parent to have the dollars designated for their child’s education in an account and choose where to spend that money, be it a public, charter, private, religious, on-line, home school, hybrid of any of those. That’s the kind of diversity that we need to see. …

I want to close here with my vision of what I hope we’ll see in our lifetimes on education policy, and that is a real menu approach to how education is delivered in America. I named all those ways that education can be delivered, the public, private, on-line, home school, and so on hybrids of those. … It would be great if we stopped someone on the street and the answer was, when asked what education is: That’s the whole portfolio of decisions that I make for my child based on his or her needs right now to make sure that that child is always learning, always progressing, always developing towards their full potential. Learning how to make a life, not just a living. It would be great they could choose from any of the available options and mix and match to put that together in the right educational portfolio for the unique needs of that child as a whole person in the relational context in which they are. That would be the kind of education policy that would be true to the nature of the endeavor. True to the nature of what education is. …

Jennifer Marshall is the Domestic Policy Studies Director for the Heritage Foundation. She is the author of “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life and the Twenty-First Century.” You can read a complete transcript of Jennifer's March 28, 2012, remarks to the SCWA at this link.

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 about 1,000 words, give or take a few. 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.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

In defense of public-records requesters

By Laurie H. Rogers

"There are laws to protect the freedom of the press's speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press." ~Mark Twain
“If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” ~Malcolm X

It’s true; the media have the power to destroy. But their real job is to uphold truth, accountability and transparency; to inform the people; and to investigate and shine a light on wrongdoing.

Today’s media are struggling to remain afloat. Challenged by blogs and Web sites, and accused of shallowness and bias, traditional media are scrambling to remain relevant and to retain readership. Many have cut space and reporting staff and now depend heavily on wire reports. Basic principles of journalism have been ground into dust under the need to satisfy advertisers and allies. It’s become convenient for media to use “stories” already written by government agencies (including school districts) and corporations. In return, the agencies ask for favorable coverage, which they get.

Interrupting this symbiotic relationship are the citizens. We depend on the media to spend time and money looking into things that sometimes make the media’s allies and advertisers uncomfortable. But when the media refuse to investigate, they’re failing in their prime directives.

Over the last year, media response to multiple attacks on transparent government at state and federal levels was muted. As the Department of Justice argued to be able to lie about the existence of records, as the Department of Education ignored multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about its activities, as the Washington governor argued to be able to withhold records based on “executive privilege,” and as various legislators pushed to basically eliminate the Public Records Act in Washington State – our media outlets – champions of transparency and ethics in others – were virtually silent.

A leaner and more efficient government will not be the result of eliminating laws that promote a transparent or open government (sometimes known as “Sunshine Laws”). Secrecy corrupts, and corruption wants secrecy. The American government is to be “by the people” and “for the people.” Citizens have the inherent right and constitutional right to know what our government is doing. Without laws ensuring open government, we’re likely to wind up with a fascist government.

So far, Washington State has been a leader in open government. In 1972, voters passed Initiative 276, mandating that government agencies provide government records to the public when asked to do so. In 2005, this law was strengthened and encapsulated in the Public Records Act, RCW 42.56. According to the Attorney General, this law is based on three important principles:
  1. The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them.
  2. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.
  3. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.
Since the Public Records Act (PRA) was passed, many exemptions to the law have been added. And this year, there were multiple legislative efforts to pass bills that would have de facto eliminated the PRA for most citizens. As supposed defenders of the First Amendment, of transparent government and of the “little guy” – you’d think the media would be all over that. Instead, local media ignored most of those efforts and attacked citizens on some of the rest.

For example, board directors of Spokane Public Schools made it a 2012 Legislative Priority to de facto toss out the PRA by making it too expensive for most citizens. They asked Senator Lisa Brown to sponsor legislation that would charge citizens the costs of responding to requests for public records.

Senator Brown obliged by introducing SB 6576, which would have required that all school districts charge citizens for (whatever the districts claim are) personnel costs to research, compile and copy public records. But those employees already receive a salary, paid for by taxpayers. What sense would it make for citizens to pay that money again? This action seems spiteful and obstructive. Most private citizens can’t afford the costs associated with making a public records request. Senator Brown’s bill was introduced Feb. 1, with a public hearing Feb. 6, the day after Super Bowl Sunday. Her timing eliminated the ability of most citizens to attend. The bill didn’t pass this year, but a Spokane administrator said they might try again next year.

Also introduced this year were SB 6351 and companion bill HB 2677. Tucked into a bill that pertains to inmates, the language of these bills applies to all citizens. The bills would have allowed all public agencies to threaten the public with injunctions against records requests, to file for injunctions, to limit time spent on fulfilling requests, and to refuse to fulfill further requests from certain requesters.

Also introduced were SB 5062 and companion bill HB 1139. These bills would have removed penalties for the failure of a public agency to provide records, as long as the agency provided the missing records within 30 days of being notified that the records are missing. Requesters would have to KNOW which records were missing. These bills would have allowed public agencies to decline to provide pertinent records, betting that most citizens would not discover that records were missing.

Agencies claimed that they’re overwhelmed with requests or that they’re being targeted by abusive requesters with a vendetta. But a Spokane Public Schools administrator has publicly implied that two citizens who each filed a single request are abusive.

I, too, was implied to be abusive. For more than five years, I’ve done my best to find out what this district is doing with our dollars and our children. Local media seem disinclined to investigate the district, so if I am to be informed and accurate and to NOT spread misinformation, then I must obtain public records. At some point in 2011, it seemed that the district was redirecting all of my requests to Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson. Even a request for a simple report went through him. My polite questioning of this new policy was futile. Anderson told me: “Because of the many laws that regulate disclosure of public documents, I hope you will understand and respect the reasons why the District strives for uniformity and consistency in the intake and processing of record requests.”

Not true. The process for me has not been the process for everyone. Some requesters must go through Anderson; others don’t. Some are threatened with an injunction against their request; others aren’t.

The Public Records Act says agencies must provide the most timely response possible, and the fullest assistance. But, with some requests, Spokane Public Schools now purposefully prints out electronic records, then painstakingly scans them into a PDF. With some requests, the district now withholds records while it notifies thousands of citizens about the request and tells them they can 1) file for an injunction and 2) call the district for more information.

Are you getting the picture? The school district appears to have purposefully made the process more difficult for itself and for select citizen requesters. Now, it complains about how difficult the process is.

The Public Disclosure Commission (which oversees election activity) and the Attorney General’s Office (which oversees the PRA) do not typically initiate legal action against agencies for violations. It’s up to the citizens. Although the PDC and AGO are accommodating and professional, there is no local agency that offers advice or guidance. Citizens must do the best they can to request public records and to file formal complaints. It takes uncommon knowledge, effort and time to do it well.

If push comes to shove, citizens stand little chance against the government’s lawyers, who ironically are paid with taxpayer dollars. It takes knowledge to navigate the laws, and skill and money to navigate the legal system. It isn’t a fair or reasonable battle. Most people will give up, and I suspect that’s the point. Considering the foregoing, those who are willing to wade into the fray should be praised, not attacked, particularly if a public agency goes out of its way to be intimidating or to threaten or bully requesters.

In a Feb. 15, 2012, article, Inlander reporter Nicholas Deshais gave school district administrators the opportunity to publicly imply that three local citizens, including yours truly, are abusive requesters. Deshais wrote:

“Spokane Public Schools handled 34 requests for public records in 2009. Two years later, that number was up to about 90. Mark Anderson, associate superintendent of the district, handles the requests. He lays the blame for this sharp rise at the feet of one group of activists. ‘They probably make up 70 percent of the time, I’d say,’ Anderson says of the time needed to process requests made by Laurie Rogers, Breean (sic) Treffry, and Paul LeCoq (sic), three outspoken critics of the district. ‘The nature of the requests are (sic) getting more and more expansive.’”
Deshais didn't mention that Treffry and Lecoq each have filed a single request. Many other people also file requests, including staff from The Spokesman-Review (SR), Deshais himself and Inlander colleague Daniel Walters. But district spokesperson Terren Roloff said those requests aren’t abusive.

No kidding. It wouldn’t be smart of Roloff to criticize people who support school district positions. In fact, it’s probably smarter of her to nominate them for an award.

Meanwhile, in a March 2012 commentary, the SR’s Shawn Vestal wrote that some “opposition” to the school district seems “less than fully hinged.” Vestal called my work “conspiracy-minded” and “poorly informed” – oh, the irony. He suggested that these efforts are a “fishing expedition” and a “paper chase” over some “vast, vague conspiracy.” Then he gave a grudging acknowledgment that I might nevertheless have managed to stumble over something worth discussing – along the lines of “Even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while.”

Vestal didn’t acknowledge that the newspaper has refused for years to properly investigate the school district. He didn’t say whether he has filed any requests (if it was just one, he’s on par with two of the citizens he criticized), nor did he mention fellow reporter Jody Lawrence-Turner’s numerous requests of the district for data, information and story ideas. Vestal also declined to mention the media’s failed “fishing expedition” last year on local teacher Jennifer Walther. (Convenient, that.)

I haven’t claimed a conspiracy. Vestal suggested I did and then criticized me for it. I also didn’t “object” to being called “a conservative.” In an email, I asked him to support his description of me, which he failed to adequately do. I’ve never actually spoken with Vestal. Why would I? I don’t see him as being on the side of truth, fairness, accuracy or the people.

A school-district employee told me last week that these records requests seem like a “waste of time.” I assure you they are not. Ensuring a transparent government is never a “waste of time.” Two of the records requests have led to a formal investigation by the Public Disclosure Commission.

I will continue to do the job Vestal and so many of his media colleagues are refusing to do. Information is power, and We, the People must have that power. Knowledge is critical to maintaining a free country, particularly in today’s time, when so many in the media appear to see the government as the victim and the people as the problem.


Here is some information on Washington State’s Public Records Act. It’s a people’s initiative, there for the citizens. Even if the media don’t value it, We the People must.

From the Attorney General’s Web site: “Citizens can control their government only if they remain informed about the decisions their government officials are making. That important principle underlies Washington's open public records and meeting laws. The laws, which are now more than three decades old, are intended to give us an informed electorate that can evaluate the performance of elected officials and in order to ensure an honest, competent and responsive government.”

For directions on public records requests, see the AG Web site. The Public Records Act applies to all government agencies, not just to school districts. It helps citizens hold their city, their county, their Public Health District, or any other public agency accountable for its actions.

Please help defend open government in this country. Do not allow our government agencies to conduct the people’s business in secret, as we pay their salaries and entrust them with our children.

If you want to know more about RCW 42.56, the Public Disclosure Commission, public records requests, the records requests I’ve filed, or why I’m doing what I’m doing, please write to me at

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

Rogers, L. (April 2012). “In defense of public-records requesters." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was republished April 16, 2012 on Education Views at:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Has constructivism increased special-education enrollment in public schools?

By Nakonia (Niki) Hayes

As a teacher and administrator for 28 years, I rebelled against the disastrous fad of constructivism that began in the 1980’s. While its drumbeaters declared it was a higher form of intellectualism, it didn’t seem all that “intelligent” to me. Frankly, I thought it would help create failures among all groups of students—regular, special, and gifted.

For those who don’t know what “constructivism” is, it is an educational theory that, in practice, looks like this in America’s classrooms:
  • It is students from kindergarten through high school “discovering” their own answers by using manipulatives, working in groups, contriving “real world” problems through “project-based’ activities, moving and talking –a lot, and surviving in a hierarchy of those students who can lead and those who must follow according to their skills.
  • It is lots of colorful, jazzy pictures in books and on classroom walls that show many different ethnic groups, women, with gender-neutral stories, and with child-directed activities that only require teacher “facilitation.” Children rule the day.
  • It is feminized instruction that supports the goal of public education to provide egalitarianism or equity, especially to girls and minorities. That’s the priority placed over building excellence, since excellence smacks of cognitive exceptionalism. That ability is not appreciated nor encouraged where equity is to be the norm in classrooms.
  • It ridicules practice and repetition as “drill and kill” and believes anything that requires memorization is a waste of time that should be used for “creative” thinking.
  • It focuses on process, not results. “Process” is the actual “product” of learning.
  • It believes that if students are having fun, according to perceived “learning styles,” they will like going to school and they will learn the academics they need to prepare for the world of work.
No one will ever be able to determine how many hundreds of thousands of children, who came from dysfunctional, even chaotic, home environments and who entered the constructivist classroom with its lack of boundaries, no right or wrong answers, and the expectation to “discover” their own answers, were shuffled from the “feel-good, tolerant, and fun system” into special education programs. For some strange reason, these kids were declared “discipline” problems. Perhaps if they had been given structure and safety based on routines that established boundaries, along with consistency from adult leaders who taught them about individual responsibility, they would have learned the hidden “rules” of school. What they also deserved was the power that comes from learning proven strategies, true results every time, and a respect for the academic giants who came before them and developed universal lessons from diverse cultures.

Although I had taught journalism, English and art for several years in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I returned to education in the 1980’s as a special education teacher after working 17 years in journalistic fields. I came to realize that half of my students should not have been placed in that program. Those students were there because of cultural deprivation and poor curricula, not because of organically-caused learning disabilities. Then through the 1990’s and until my retirement in 2006, I taught regular (traditional) math in grades six through twelve in mostly high-risk schools, was a middle school and high school counselor, and a K-12 principal in two very different school districts: One was an Indian reservation and the other in Seattle with a predominantly white, upper-middle-class population. No matter what the environment, however, I learned that my special education training was invaluable with all groups of learners.

For example, many exhibited, even if not diagnosed, the characteristics of ADHD, dyslexia, and SLD (specific learning disabilities). My under-performing gifted kids were in a separate category, although some states do put them under “special education.”


This condition is apparent from birth and must be seen in at least two different environments, not suddenly after one month in kindergarten or shifts to the new puberty-driven warehouse of education called “middle school.” (A sixth-grade teacher once asked me, “When do we get to call it just ‘bad behavior’?”)

Nonetheless, for those who were diagnosed with ADHD, and those who weren’t but who were as inattentive and wiggly, I used the same techniques:
  • Act, don’t yak. The more you talk to an ADHD student, the more he gets lost. That includes working in group projects.
  • Assign them to men teachers, if possible, because men are usually more goal-driven and less talkative. ADHD students want to know the bottom line.
  • If you want to change behavior, change the academics. Make lessons and teaching structured, short, and frequently rewarded. (Even one sticker works.)
  • Keep wall decorations to a minimum. One big, interesting poster is great for discussion and focus. Forget all the ceiling mobiles, color-drenched walls, etc.
  • Give students permission to move their bodies, whether to lie on the floor, sit on a rotating stool, or stand at a bookcase as they write. The more they are in movement with others, however, they can become agitated as they “lose” their direction and perspective on what’s happening.
  • In essence, be clear, direct, and honest (no phony praise). They’ll love you for it.

While there are no studies to prove it, many of us in education believe the “whole language” fad of the 1980’s helped exacerbate a learning condition called dyslexia. This is an organic auditory problem where a child cannot hear the correct sounds of letters. Phonemic and spelling books were closeted during the 1980’s because they were considered too mechanical and boring in their purpose. Instead, children were to be exposed to great literature and discuss their own “personal” stories. (This made learning more “relevant” to them.) Somehow, they would absorb the rules of grammar and spelling. Instead, we produced a generation who could not spell, write simple sentences and read. It was like teaching children to play the piano by ear rather than by learning the sounds of the notes and requiring practice to master those sounds. Since students weren’t taught phonics from a good phonemic awareness curriculum, they couldn’t read. They were then labeled “dyslexic” and shuffled to remediation/special education programs.

Most dyslexics, like ADHD students, reveal a high intelligence once they get past their processing “disability.” Interestingly, constructivists claim to focus on “processing.” Yet they have disdain for concrete, precise, and universal strategies that help correct episodic processing deficiencies.

Specific Learning Disabilities

When special education students are included in regular classrooms, they need structure, consistent rules and expectations, a sense of safety given by regular routines, and teacher-directed learning. This is not the atmosphere found in constructivist classrooms. Of course, the dynamics of a carefully selected, mixed-ability classroom can indeed work with an organized and talented teacher. There are such teachers out there for mixed classrooms. Mostly, there are not because there are few “carefully mixed” classes.

Special Note: The move in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) to bring equity to girls and minorities in math classrooms meant a giant move toward feminization of mathematics instruction. This would be a major blow to boys since the majority of special education placement was already for male students, particularly those with ADHD diagnoses. The NCTM president in 1996 explained in a radio interview that girls and minorities couldn’t learn math like “white males.” The 2,000-year-old discipline of mathematics, created by diverse cultures around the world, was now pronounced as destructive to girls and minorities. Its “traditional” approach of linear thinking, practice, and memorization of multiplication tables, was only learnable by white boys (and Asians).

This meant new materials and methods would avoid any “traditional” teaching methods. Basic skills that required memorization (which helps build memory capacity) were also seen as unnecessary because students could use calculators and computers for short-term expediency. The result has been a hatred for math among all “sub-groups” of students, a $4 billion private tutoring industry mostly for math, and an unyielding failure rate of American students entering advanced math and science studies.

Under-Performing Gifted Students

The push for egalitarianism was also designed to ignore exceptional, or gifted, students. The all-inclusive classroom where special ed students were blended with regular and gifted students produced another fad called “differentiated learning.” This is a teacher’s nightmare to plan. It is, therefore, usually an unproductive environment for most students.

In the inclusive classroom, a teacher ends up focusing on the neediest children because that is the goal for egalitarians. The regular and gifted students are considered able to fend for themselves. They aren’t. They lose academic opportunities and growth. And they lose their patience, as most humans do when their needs are continually dismissed or openly ignored. A gifted student will shut down as much as any special ed student because he hasn’t learned basic and general strategies on how to approach a solution. Neither one wants to look dumb. “Better to be thought that way than prove it,” they say.

One of the saddest stories I heard was from Dr. Ruby Payne, who conducts professional development training for teachers who work with students and adults from poverty. She explained that third-grade African American boys who showed signs of giftedness were often labeled “emotionally disturbed” and placed in special education. (ADHD children’s symptoms also mirror those of gifted children.) Part of that problem resulted from not knowing how to measure giftedness outside of scores on math and reading tests. Another part was in seeing giftedness as exceptionalism and that was to be downplayed. These children then became under-performing or major disciplinary problems as their own needs, often ones that saw them wanting to work alone, weren’t met in the highly interactive, noisy, motion-filled classrooms designed, teachers thought, to meet lower-performing students’ needs (girls and minorities, except Asians).


For almost three decades, I personally saw that when children were given explicit, step-driven instruction with consistent consequences of positive results, along with direct teacher support, they learned their required academics no matter what their gender, race, economic status, or intelligence level. This methodology has now been proven according to an article published this month in the American Federation of Teachers’ magazine, American Educator ( ).

I therefore believe the radical and destructive implementation of constructivist ideology in education has increased the numbers of students in public schools being labeled “special education” or in the development of characteristics of special needs students.

It is unlikely that anyone can ever tally the unbelievable human and financial costs of education fads in America, with constructivism being the Big Daddy of them all. Education decision-makers grabbed onto unproven and unproductive methods with which they trained and evaluated teachers. Government entities like the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education pumped almost $100 million into the new, unproven curricula and training materials in the 1990’s alone. Private businesses and more non-state government groups are now getting into the picture. Billions of dollars are at stake today, yet no one acknowledges the importance of weak and incoherent curricula on teacher training. Meanwhile, the same members of the leadership circle that have brought American students to their knees are still in charge. The question is “Why?”

Since removal of those leaders seems impossible, local districts can at least offer parents a choice within each school: Do they want their child to follow traditional, explicit curricula or that of the constructivist/reform model? Just once, it would be great to hear an honest answer as to why this can’t be done. And it’s not about money.

Nakonia (Niki) Hayes is the author of "John Saxon's Story: A genius of common sense in math education." She is certified and experienced in journalism, counseling, special education, mathematics, and administration during 28 years in public education. She worked in various journalism fields for 17 years, including with two state senators and a U.S. congressman. She also published historical and contemporary articles on American Indians and Micronesia (with the U.S. Department of Interior) during that period. She is director of K-8 Emmanuel Academy for tutoring of reading, writing, and math in Waco, TX, and she tutors in Saxon Math at a local Catholic elementary school. She has a Web site at this address. Email Niki at

This article was previously published on Education Views at: It was republished here with permission of the author. 

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 about 1,000 words, give or take a few. 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.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A statistician’s view of constructivist math programs

By Nicole O. Stouffer

"It's like these administrators never even met a child."
- Nik Stouffer

I’ve had 4 years of undergraduate math courses, two years of graduate math courses, and I have taught graduate-level math courses. I had never seen the "lattice" method, the Egyptian method, or any of these other alternative algorithms until last year when I looked at Everyday Math homework. Students don’t need them, and those methods will not help a student move onto higher mathematics.

I would have been laughed out of my college classes if I used the "partial sums" method to add. I wouldn’t have been able to take differential equations if I hadn’t mastered long division. There is a reason why traditional algorithms (the math methods you learned in school to add, subtract, multiply and divide) are needed. Traditional algorithms are needed to understand higher mathematics in college. It is extremely important that they are practiced until they are mastered. In fact, the new Common Core State math standards recommend teaching the standard algorithms.

You might think there is no reason not to offer alternative algorithms, as long as they also teach the traditional methods, but I have three reasons why the teaching of alternative programs is a problem.
  • It is a waste of classroom time. There are plenty of other items to be covered and practiced, so students should avoid learning inefficient algorithms.
  • Offering children too many algorithm choices is confusing. I have seen kids straddle two methods, not really understanding either of them and becoming frustrated.
  • Students are not permitted to use these alternative algorithms in college-level math.
Everyday Math does not prepare students for middle school math. There is a huge disconnect between Everyday Math and the rest of your child’s academic career.

My advice to parents… Work with your child to reinforce the traditional math algorithms that you learned. E-mail your principal and board directors to urge them to stop the use of these alternative methods in school and start using a more traditional textbook that uses the most efficient algorithms recommended by the Common Core State Standards.


The core principle behind Medford’s K-5 math program, Everyday Math, is based on a style called “spiraling,” where students continually return to basic ideas as new concepts are added over the entire year. Mostly, spiraling makes sense because kids need to return to topics periodically throughout the school year to remind them of what they have previously learned so they can build on it.

Everyday Math and other reform math programs like it do not use spiraling in this way. They don’t allow time for a child to master a skill before moving onto something else. The topics change so rapidly that kids never get a chance to feel successful in mathematics. Just as they are working toward figuring a concept out, Everyday Math will abruptly move onto another concept completely unrelated to the last. By the time a student returns (spirals back) to a concept, the child has forgotten the skill. Mathematics is a subject better suited toward mastery because the nature of math itself is linear and builds upon skills that are mastered in a sequential and logical fashion.

Everyday Math, Investigations in Number, Data, and Space, and other reform math programs have been highly criticized because of the lack of “focus” that comes with incoherent topic changes from excessive spiraling. In fact, the Common Core State Standards insist that a math curriculum be “more focused.” The final report of the 2008 President’s National Mathematics Advisory Panel (NMAP) recommends, “A focused, coherent progression of mathematics learning, with an emphasis on proficiency with key topics, should become the norm in elementary and middle school mathematics curricula. Any approach that continually revisits topics year after year without closure is to be avoided."

Of course, the authors of Everyday Math sent a letter arguing, “the spiral approach should be more effective than a focused approach.” They are right, it “SHOULD be,” but it isn’t because of the way they do it. This is the reason the NMAP recommended it should be avoided. The authors of Everyday Math decided that they were right and everyone else was wrong. So Everyday Math still continues to randomly bounce from topic to topic each week and never allow enough time for practice or mastery. Even though the authors refused to change Everyday Math to be more focused, that didn’t stop them from slapping a label on their book that says “Common Core State Standards 100% Alignment.”

Shouldn’t our students have a focused textbook that actually aligns to the more-efficient methods recommended by the President’s National Mathematics Advisory Panel and the Common Core State Standards?


Everyday Math and other reform math programs require a lot of patching and fixing. I have talked with several teachers who have to rip pages out of the book and completely re-order the lessons and add additional lessons to make Everyday Math work. They have to practically rewrite an entire curriculum because Everyday Math is so poorly designed. After a few years, teachers can work out the bugs and the kinks and realize what to throw away and what to add, but if they move to a different grade level then they have to do this work all over again. It’s is a real problem when substitutes or new teachers have to experience this inadequate program for the first time because they might not realize how bad this program really is until they actually start using it to teach.

Last year, I had an issue with statistics because Everyday Math has watered down the First Grade lessons in probability to the point where they’re actually wrong. As a statistician, I find it frustrating to see statistical words used incorrectly and statistical concepts presented incorrectly. I wrote to my child’s teacher, who referred me to the principal. He told me that the teachers were required to teach to the curriculum and there was nothing that could be done about the fact that the book was teaching something incorrectly. The principal suggested that I “write the authors of the book.” I’ve been told by the Board of Education not to worry about the bad math program because teachers supplement to make it work. But how much can teachers really supplement and change from the set curriculum? And why would we insist on giving them such a bad tool that requires so much work on their part? Why don’t we give the teachers the best tools to teach our kids?

Minimally Guided Instruction

You could tell your children to “Go clean your room,” or you can tell them, “Put your dirty clothes in the hamper, make your bed, and put your toys in the toy box and books on your book shelf.” Which of the two examples would teach your children how to clean their room? The first is an example of minimally guided instruction and the second is an example of guidance-specific instruction.

There might be examples where minimally guided instruction is an effective teaching tool, but learning how to clean your room and learning grade-school mathematics aren’t two of them. Unfortunately, the math programs Investigations in Number, Data, and Space, Everyday Math and Connected Mathematics, expect children to ‘discover’ mathematics on their own with minimal guidance from the teacher. Many elementary school teachers in NJ don’t buy into that nonsense, so they provide the little kids with more guidance. In middle school, in some districts in New Jersey, such as Medford township, offer a pre-math class where the student is taught directly, with worked examples, before they get to the actual math class where the student is expected to ‘discover’ math for him/herself. Does that make sense to you? Me neither. Why wouldn’t the school just use a math book that directly teaches math instead of offering two math classes to cover up an ineffective Connected Mathematics book that uses the failed method of minimally guided instruction?

Don’t take my word for it, Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006) show that minimally guided instruction goes against more than fifty years of research on human cognitive architecture. There is overwhelming evidence that minimally guided instruction is a less efficient and less effective teaching style.

A bigger problem that affects all students is that it takes time for a child to ‘discover’ mathematics, so Connected Mathematics wastes a lot of classroom time ‘discovering,’ instead of directly teaching efficient methods for solving math problems. Compared to other middle school math books, Connected Mathematics actually covers less material. This means that all students, especially the kids who don’t need the pre-math class, could be learning more than what is presented in class.

Unfortunately, the missing concepts will eventually catch up with a student when they enter high school algebra because you can’t learn what is never taught.

Nik Stouffer is a statistical consultant with more than 15 years of experience. She has a Masters degree in mathematics and has taught graduate school mathematics classes. Website:

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 about 1,000 words, give or take a few. 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.