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Monday, December 9, 2013

Good news: District finally admits math problem. Bad news: Board adopts unfinished, unproved curriculum that contains no textbooks

By Laurie H. Rogers

The leadership of Spokane Public Schools (SPS) took a huge step forward at its Dec. 4 board meeting. Unfortunately, it also took a huge step backward. Let’s begin with the good news: the step forward.

On Dec. 4, an administrator and two board directors acknowledged publicly that SPS has a serious problem in math and that much of the problem is due to inadequate K-8 math materials. Hallelujah. Chief Academic Officer Steve Gering called the district’s K-8 math program "weak," and he detailed at length how it doesn't allow for enough teaching and practicing of basic skills. Director Jeff Bierman called the program inadequate; Director Rocky Treppiedi called it a "disgrace."

I almost fell out of my chair. I wish those public admissions had come years ago, in time to save tens of thousands of children from hating math class, tens of thousands of parents from having to pay for tutoring and private programs, and tens of thousands of graduates from having to either give up on math or take multiple remedial math classes.

Not everyone seemed to be on board with these obvious truths. Board director Sue Chapin said her own daughter had done well with the current math program and that good teachers are what matter most. Her comment pretty much blames teachers for the problems – a long-time district strategy that the former superintendent used to great effect. (Nice way to toss teachers under the bus, Sue.)

Despite a few tone-deaf moments like this, however, the district presentation and the leadership responses were light years from any previous district presentation on math I've seen.

The Spokesman-Review could have helped broadcast the district’s sea change in thinking, so that all parents could see the truth and begin taking necessary steps to save their children. This about-face should have been headline news, considering the years of unrelenting propaganda from the district and newspaper about how great the district is, how things are getting better, how the curriculum is NOT a problem, and how dissenters are just haters with a selfish axe to grind. Instead, the SR’s next-day coverage said
not a word about it.

Nevertheless, the first step to beating a problem is admitting you have one, and the district finally did it. The second step is to isolate the causes: in this case, the math materials and method of delivery. However, the board then made a perplexing decision to address the problem by adopting an unfinished, unproved, online curriculum that pushes the Common Core and contains no textbooks.

That’s the bad news, an intolerable echo of every bad curriculum decision over the past two decades. This district seems to have a strange compulsion to adopt unproved curricula in an uncritical echo chamber.

The board meeting was momentous, yet supremely frustrating. It was like listening to an alcoholic finally stand up and say, “My name is Harry, and I’m an alcoholic,” then watching him pull out a flask and take a long drink of whiskey. So it was with Spokane Public Schools. At the end of the evening, I had emotional whiplash. My jaws ached from clenching my teeth.

Despite their public acknowledgement of a serious failure in their math program, no one there took ownership of this academic train wreck. No one said: “For decades, this District has betrayed 27,000+ students, their parents and this community. We were told and told and told, and not only did we refuse to listen to parents, teachers, students, professionals and mathematicians, we actively attacked dissenters, and we punished teachers for telling the truth. We encouraged our friends and allies to publicly attack and reject them too. We ignored parents who cried in front of us, and we blamed them for not being involved. We watched children struggle and fail, and we blamed them for not being motivated. We refused to acknowledge the problem, and we refused to tell the truth even as we helped our own children. We wasted 20 years of your tax dollars out of sheer stubbornness, and we betrayed children.”

Director Treppiedi bemoaned the fact that the math program was allowed to get so bad, but he’s been on the board since 1996. He helped to make it bad. Bierman has repeatedly voted for materials that on Wednesday he called inadequate. Directors Chapin and Bob Douthitt have been rude and dismissive about dissenters. By the time Deana Brower was elected to the board in 2011 (telling voters she was “very pleased” with the district’s direction in math),
she had already asked around about outside math tutoring.

Bierman said last Wednesday, and I agree, that parents shouldn’t have to be nuclear physicists to get their children a good math program. However, one also shouldn’t have to be a director, administrator, or pusher of the levies to obtain the truth or be treated with respect.  My reputation has been purposefully trashed across the city and state for telling parents what the district finally acknowledged on Wednesday to be true. Apologies are in order (and I will accept them by email because I'm a 21st-century kind of gal and also because it means I wouldn't have to talk with them).

But their worst betrayal by far is of the children, who were failed and blamed for decades, day after day after day – a senseless emotional torture. Sadly, more betrayal in math appears to be on the way.
Gering explained that OSPI (state education agency) recommended districts not buy more materials now, but instead wait until publishers "catch up" with the Common Core initiatives. Districts can meanwhile use free "open educational resources," OSPI has said. Gering said the recommendation "creates a problem" for districts. However, more to the point, the recommendation creates a problem for the children, which is why districts should ignore it. Alas, the children appear to carry less weight in many districts than unhelpful recommendations from OSPI.
Meanwhile, an at-grade-level assessment in math should be done on all Spokane students, with the grim results made public. I’ve been asking the new superintendent for that since September 2012. She said “no one wants” a test like that. I told her parents want and deserve a test like that so they can learn the truth and help their children. (If she gave an assessment like that, she must not have made the results public. Pass rates would be abysmal, and everyone would be talking about it.) It takes courage to speak frankly about a failure so massive and destructive, but that’s why she gets the big bucks, and it is the board’s job to tell us the truth.

Instead, the superintendent reportedly
told the newspaper in October that math outcomes are “average” and that “where [the district needs] work is in language arts.” I asked her several times to explain her choice of the word “average” and to tell me what the district is planning for math. After multiple requests, on Dec. 3, the superintendent finally wrote that the district would give a presentation on math at the Dec. 4 board meeting. I guess I was expected to go fetch the answer by leaving my family and wasting hours of my life at a board meeting.

The next morning, I found out she had answered one of my questions – not to me, but to a reporter. The district was considering adopting
EngageNY, a new online program that’s still being put together. It's technically free, but there will be associated costs.

…. Sigh

Looking at the EngageNY Web site, it appears that the creators want it to be a national curriculum. It’s a heavy promoter of the Common Core initiatives, and there are federal tax dollars involved. EngageNY promotes the "Standards for Mathematical Practice," which are connected to the Common Core but which focus on pedagogy. (Districts that focus on the SMP tend to emphasize fuzzy math and excessive constructivism, both of which have failed American students since the 1980s and are at the root of Spokane’s math problem.)

Not only is EngageNY not proved as being effective, it isn't even finished. “Modules” are still being built and modified. Who knows what the final result will be? EngageNY can change its online materials any time, and Spokane parents won’t know. The program is highly scripted, down to minutes, and there are no books for parents. There is no easy way to know what children are learning or to help them learn it.

I reluctantly dragged myself to the Dec. 4 board meeting, where I expressed my concerns. Breann Treffry, another parent, warned the board of the fierce opposition in New York to EngageNY, that some there are calling it Enrage NY. A New York math teacher wrote to our board and begged directors to not adopt this program.

Naturally, the board adopted the program unanimously. They didn’t address its incompleteness or its unproved nature. They praised each other and looked satisfied. This is standard procedure in education, to waste tax dollars and the children’s time and self-esteem on things that aren’t proved as effective, that have no data behind them, that are controlled by people we don’t know, and that are dogged by dissent and controversy. Spokane has done it repeatedly, and it describes the Common Core experiment exactly.

This adoption isn’t logical. Even if EngageNY were complete and a good product, the district isn’t implementing it until 2014. The board also voted to give individual schools the option to not adopt it. They intend it to be a bridge, with another undetermined adoption coming in 2016. The next adoption is to be yet another unproved program that’s based on the unproved Common Core.

If EngageNY is that good, why not make the adoption permanent? If it isn’t, why adopt it? As a heavy promoter of the Common Core, it looks like a Trojan Horse for the CC's political agenda.

In the meantime, the District will continue to torture students with two of the worst math programs on the planet: Investigations in Number, Data, and Space, and Connected Mathematics. (Nice way to throw other people’s children under the bus, SPS.)

Director Bierman, who pushed for EngageNY, said the key is in its implementation. I’ve heard that argument a thousand times. It's a handy way to blame others for a leadership error: "We didn't make a mistake in choosing this product; you just didn't implement it properly." If the program is bad, teachers will again be expected to turn straw into gold, and they’ll be assessed based on impossibilities.

All this district needs to do is buy a proved math program that is solid and mathematically sound, and allow teachers to teach from it. It's really that simple. But the district obstinately refuses to do it. Saxon Math -- an excellent program -- has been demonized in Spokane, but in the real world, it’s a useful tool, like a hammer. It gets the job done, and many frustrated parents end up using it. It got my daughter most of the way through Algebra II by the end of 8th grade, and well enough that she blew all subsequent assessments out of the water.
Unfortunately, deeper pockets than ours are involved, and district ears are attuned to them. All we have is a solid argument and our love for our children. It’s difficult for us to overcome shadowy faces and ulterior motives. Echo-chamber decision-makers often don’t see, or pretend to not see, problems and solutions that, to us, are glaringly obvious. They’ll call solutions the problem, and problems the solution, and they’ll flatly deny successes that others have had with the very solutions they’ve rejected.

All of this could have been part of the newspaper’s
Dec. 4 article or its Dec. 5 brief. (On Dec. 5, by the way, the SR got the name of the curriculum wrong, calling it ExchangeNY. Good job, guys.)

Perhaps there is some in-house dialogue regarding this adoption that the district is refusing to tell us, but I’m tired of having to “read between the lies.” The proof is in the pudding, and their proposed “pudding” is another experiment on children.
They won’t get respect from parents like me until they tell the public the truth and they actually fix the damn math program.

In the meantime, they’re still willing to pretend there’s a larger worthwhile picture that requires sacrificing the children's academics to it. They're still willing to adopt an unproved product, withhold the stark truth from parents, and toss teachers and parents under the Blame Bus.

An administrator hoped last Wednesday that the adoption of EngageNY will help to end what he calls “the math wars.” I wish it would. The children's futures depend on the district fixing its issues, and it's always nice to hope, but hope is not a method. The district’s choice of “method” is likely to fail all of us, including 27,000+ children.

Download the audio of the math-presentation portion of the Dec. 4 board meeting.
Steve Gering presents on math from 0 to 55.46. The presentation is frank and worth hearing.
Gering says the Common Core is not his focus at 29:00.
Rocky Treppiedi asks how the district knows EngageNY will be good at 41:15.
Breann Treffry testifies against the adoption of EngageNY at 56:20.
Laurie Rogers testifies against the adoption of EngageNY at 1:03:55.
Sue Chapin's comments on teachers and "integrated math" at 1:48:10.
Board adopts EngageNY unanimously at 2:05:26.
Gering notes -- truthfully, yet ironically -- that the district would be in a better place now had administrators listened years ago to parent concerns: 2:05:40.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (December 2013). "Good news: District finally admits math problem. Bad news: Board adopts unfinished, unproved curriculum that contains no textbooks." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: