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Sunday, September 30, 2012

A ray of hope for the children in Spokane Public Schools

By Laurie H. Rogers

Will Salas: “How can you live with yourself, watching people die right next to you?”
Sylvia Weis: “You don't watch. You close your eyes.”
-- Characters in the 2011 movie “In Time”

In 2008, I met with Spokane Public Schools’ superintendent, Nancy Stowell, to discuss the district’s weak academic outcomes. Stowell was accommodating, but during our meeting, she consistently sidestepped any critique of the district’s “reform math” curricula or its heavy dependence on constructivism (i.e. discovery learning). Her go-to answer for weak results was to wish for more “alternative” programs to keep students in school. She appeared to see no problems with the district’s delivery of academic content.

I didn’t know how to break through that with her. Over the next four years, I never figured it out. But one thing she said in 2008 stuck with me. While discussing the high number of families leaving the district, Stowell said, “Sometimes I think people don’t want to know (why) because when you know … you have to … do something about it.”

Truer words were never spoken. Nancy Stowell didn’t appear to want to acknowledge the children’s academic suffering. She kept telling the public that things were improving, even as her administration obstinately fought doing what was necessary to fix the problems. That was her failure. Good leaders accept the blame and pass the credit, but Stowell and her administrators had a habit of accepting the credit and passing the blame.

As Stowell exited this summer, the district was still stubbornly clinging to two of the worst math programs in the country – Investigations in Number, Data, and Space and Connected Mathematics – along with a language arts program that doesn’t properly teach grammar, and a cornucopia of additional flawed materials and programs. The children were still being left academically behind – betrayed by administrators who refused to the bitter end to admit their errors and misplaced priorities.

The purpose of a school district isn’t money or power – it’s to teach academics to children. If schools don't do academics well, they have failed. If the children are struggling in academics, if they’re confused, if they cry over their homework, if they begin to hate math around the 4th grade, if they’re embarrassed and panic-stricken about tests, or if they consider dropping out rather than face the daily trauma of an academic program that isn’t working for them… then the adults are supposed to do something about it.

Adults are not supposed to close their eyes to the suffering of children.

Recently, the local paper reported that things had improved in Spokane Public Schools, evidenced, they said, by a slew of rising numbers. And some numbers have indeed risen. Just 38.9% of Spokane’s 10th-graders passed the state math test in 2010, but in 2012, nearly 80% passed.

(Note: The 38.9% from 2010 rose to 41.7% after the results were "cleansed." Also, with the way the tests are structured and the results reported, it's difficult to come up with "a pass rate." Results are based on multiple takes, many students are not reported, and there actually are two tests (EOC Math 1 and EOC Math 2). I'm going with 79% as an overall reported pass rate.)

The 10th-grade state math tests from 2010 and 2012 are different, but all were said to represent the students’ math ability. That’s quite a leap in math ability from 41.7% to 79% – a 189% increase! If only the numbers were valid. A bit of curiosity or skepticism easily shifts aside the façade. Spokane’s fantastical improvement was mirrored in several other districts across the state. Advocates were baffled. We knew that, in many districts, there hadn’t been commensurate improvements in the math programs, and we also knew that many students were not included in the numbers.

This stellar “improvement” in Spokane is – as so many education statistics are – less about improved academic programs and skills and more about a change in accounting. Things were measured and counted differently in 2012, as they are in public education every year. In 2012, as in every year, the thing that matters most (what the children know and don’t know) was hidden. Adult eyes remained firmly shut to the pitiful plight of the students, whose abilities in arithmetic and grammar had not improved accordingly.

Nancy Stowell retired this year. The new Spokane superintendent, Shelley Redinger, said she is willing to meet with anyone. I figured “anyone” had to include me, so I arranged to meet with her in September. I resolved before we met to set aside certain issues and to focus on math, to go in with an open mind and to assume she would listen. As we talked, she did appear to listen and to take my concerns seriously. When our time was up, she took the elevator down with me, on her way to another meeting.

“Are you sure you want to be seen with me?” I asked her, only half joking. She chuckled and followed me out.

That was new.

Dr. Redinger said her administrative style is not a “boot on the neck,” and that she’s absorbing the feedback she’s getting. I told her I would ask my email list to fill out her three-question survey and tell her what they want in an academic program. “Do you want your staff to write that article, or do you want me to write it?” I asked her. Dr. Redinger said I should write it. “I trust you,” she said.

OK. Definitely new.

Can I dare to hope that we finally have a top administrator who listens; who understands the real mission of a school district; who sees the academic problems; whose decisions are driven by students’ academic needs; who can work with people to make the necessary changes for the students; and whose perspective on parents, teachers and taxpayers isn’t muddied by condescension and thinly veiled contempt?

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. I’ve been burned before – repeatedly – and I don’t always catch it when people lie to me. But I didn’t see any sign of disdain in her. No rolling of the eyes. No careful phrasing, as one does with a child. No heavy sighs or long pauses. I came away feeling listened to. That’s new, too.

Perhaps Dr. Redinger knows that the most important work she does is not on behalf of levies and bonds, nor on behalf of the media and her political/social contacts, but rather on behalf of the children. Perhaps she knows that the way to really help low-income families is through the efficient delivery of sufficient academics to all of the students. If that’s her priority, then good things can happen. I’m wary, but I want to give her a chance.

Here’s a good sign: Around the time of Dr. Redinger’s hiring, two key decision-makers in the inaptly named “Department of Teaching and Learning” (Karin Short and Tammy Campbell) elected to leave.

The proof is always in the pudding. The children don’t yet have the pudding they need, but this district has everything it needs to be the best in the country. It has money, an excessively friendly media, good teachers, beautiful buildings, a supportive community, involved parents, and a mandate for change. All it needs is proper curricular materials, an effective learning environment, and breathing space for teachers and tutors to teach students what they need to know. (That would bring true equity and social justice.) Until that happens - until the children have what they need - it's all just talk.

Time will tell, but I’m encouraged. I’ll do what I can to help. Dr. Redinger must succeed; the future of tens of thousands of children rests on her shoulders. Nancy Stowell couldn’t seem to keep herself out of the way long enough to recognize that. Perhaps Dr. Redinger can.

With all of the fake statistics floating around, it's critical to first nail down the truth. A basic-skills math test - such as the Saxon Middle School Placement Test, for example, would quickly clear up the fog. It could be given to all students, grades 4-12, before anything else happens. No calculators, no pre-test preparation, no time limits. It would have to control for students who received outside instruction. The district could do a pre-test and a post-test, and no one would change the test on them in the middle. Otherwise, no one will really know where they began, much less where they wind up.

It's just one idea. Please help Dr. Redinger by filling out her three-question survey. Tell her what you want in an academic program. Don't assume that she knows. Arrange to visit with her, and also for her to have a conversation with you and your colleagues, your church, neighborhood council, organization, business, club, and fellow parents. Traditionally, the community has received presentations from district leadership, but perhaps the new administration will be more interested in a respectful and productive exchange of ideas, and it will be more concerned with what the public actually wants. The district's phone number is 509-354-5900.

If Dr. Redinger is to do what needs to be done for the students, she needs our input and our support. Let’s get this show on the road, folks, and let’s ensure that this time, it really is for the children.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (September 2012). “A ray of hope for the children in Spokane Public Schools." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:


Anonymous said...

Hello Laurie,
I'd already done the questionnaire and made my math comments.
I'm at a local university and advise academically outstanding freshmen. This year 14 of the 21 students who took the AP calc test received less than a 3 (no college credit and required to take the state Math Placement Test) Most had scores of 1. These students were in AP math classes across the state of WA, many are from the Spokane area and east-side schools.
This is the worst AP calc performance I've seen yet. Next year my group of "talented" freshmen will be asked to take the Math Placement Test in May, regardless of any later expected AP calc scores. This would provide time for summer remediation.
The work you're doing is both needed and valued !
Thank you.
A concerned academic advisor.

Marilyn said...

Laurie - I commend you for your wonderful intellect and persistence in your goal. I trust the new School Superintendent will continue to be as willing a listener as she seems to be, and will apply what she hears to the betterment of our children. I work with young adults who not only can't write well, but they can't print well, either, and they can't spell. Your heart just weeps for our country when our school system has obviously sunk so low.