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Laurie Rogers: Spokane’s Leaders Adopt the Unproven After the Failed
Laurie Rogers writes that decisions about curriculum in Spokane are puzzling, as the Board seems to build one failure on the foundation of another.
[Editor's note: Ms. Rogers is not affiliated with Spokane Public Schools, and this editorial does not constitute official communication from the District.]
“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
– Patrick Henry
Several top leaders of Spokane Public Schools appear to believe they don’t have to publicly justify their decision-making, or even respond to questions about it.
My questions about adopting unproven CCSS materials
On June 11, I asked 11 Spokane school district leaders (six administrators and five board directors) for their rationale for adopting unproven Common Core curricula on top of the failed curricular materials the district already has. The administrators, from the Department of Teaching and Learning, collectively get more than half a million taxpayer dollars per year in base salary. Five didn’t respond, one didn’t answer the questions, and four of the board directors said the board president would answer for them.
Therefore, from 11 district leaders, I received one answer (and in my opinion, it isn’t a very good one).
My questions aren’t difficult. I didn’t ask how the universe began, why God allows evil to exist, or how to build a rocket. I didn’t ask how to climb mountains, survive a nuclear attack, or create world peace. Here’s the gist of what I asked:
- Why is Spokane Public Schools preparing to spend several million taxpayer dollars on untested, unproven, and largely unseen curricula based on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)?
- Why is the district adopting CCSS-based curricula on top of its already failed curricula?
- Why would this district not get rid of its current failed curricula, and adopt already proven curricula that carry a known price tag?
The main problems with the Common Core initiatives: Expensive and unproven
I don’t know why any of America’s 14,000 school districts would buy unproven products, but many do. Government schools are infamous for buying unproven and failed products (and for kicking out failed products just so they can buy other unproven products.) The CCSS initiatives (including standards, tests, and curricula) are all unproven products. The federal government is forcing the CCSS on citizens, along with a creepy and intrusive data system that’s designed to collect data on children (and their families) from pre-K “through work force.”
Those of us in the real world avoid buying unproven products. WE don’t have pots of other people’s money to play with, so we look before leaping. We kick tires and look under the hood. We don’t buy things with an unknown price tag, and when we screw up with other people’s money, there are real consequences to us.
Not so for the public Edu Mob. It keeps trotting in a sweaty mass after every stray-dog, “Best-Practices” idea that somebody stuck in a dissertation or strung together with taxpayer dollars. But when the ideas fail, the Edu Mob doesn’t suffer. Failure brings them sympathy, money, programs and more staff.
I’ve yet to see a strong argument in support of the CCSS initiatives. Few legislators, school boards, administrators or foundations have made any effort to publicize real numbers on the total cost to taxpayers. The few estimates I’ve seen were so low-balled, they were insulting. And claims of the Standards’ increased rigor also are doubtful; many districts are using the CCSS to adopt weak curricula; they’re adopting unproven curricula on top of the weak curricula they already have; or they’re modifying the structure or content of the CCSS, with the new version also being unproven.
Very little in government education appears to be solidly supported by legitimate studies or student data. It’s how the Edu Mob has unsuccessfully (but lucratively) done business for years. In other fields, studies and pilots are done to determine effectiveness before products are purchased. Not so with the Common Core initiatives—there’s just this intense and determined rush to make it all happen now.
For the beleaguered American taxpayer, this is a big deal. When you multiply by millions, dollars add up fast.
- If every school district in Washington State spends just $5 million on every aspect of the CCSS – standards/tests/curricula/
professional development/travel/data system/administrators/etc. – Washington taxpayers would spend $1.475 billion on this unproven program.
- If every school district in the country spends just $5 million on every aspect of the CCSS, American taxpayers would spend $70 billion on this unproven program.
- But, for most districts, $5 million is a minute fraction of what it will actually cost for everything. SPS already budgeted more than $5 million for just the data system and the K-8 portion of the math curriculum.
The implications of these numbers are staggering. The CCSS initiatives could financially bury the country.
And we can forget any possibility of the CCSS at least ending the iron grip reform math and extreme constructivism have on public education. The Edu Mob loves reform math and excessive constructivism. And why wouldn’t it? Let’s see: 20 years of wasted taxpayer dollars, failing children, high remedial rates, and low abilities in math – all producing sympathy, money, programs and staff for the Edu Mob. What’s not to like? I’ve come to believe that nothing can kill reform math. People say only cockroaches would survive a nuclear attack; I think reform math would survive, too.
Superintendent’s response to my questions about the CCSS
At a June 4 Spokane Public Schools (SPS) budget forum, I asked Superintendent Nancy Stowell why the district would adopt unproven curricula based on the CCSS. Stowell didn’t answer the question, instead saying that, with the Common Core Standards, the district would be comparable to other districts. But the district won’t achieve comparability with other districts, for at least two reasons.
- Stowell said SPS is shifting the Common Core standards around (as if anyone in the district is qualified to do it, and as if SPS hadn’t already completely screwed up its academic program).
- Stowell said SPS won’t get rid of its current curricula. (These are some of the worst curricula on the planet. Many other districts either don’t have them, or they have different failed curricula.)
Therefore, valid comparisons aren’t just unlikely – they’re impossible. That won’t keep districts from making comparisons; it’s such a handy way to deflect criticism.
I asked Stowell again why SPS would adopt unproven products, and her answer was that SPS isn’t ready to buy and is just “banking” the money. Her explanation contradicted district staff, board directors, the budget presentation, and even Stowell herself. Everything else said and done points to decisions having been made – if not on specific curricula, then certainly on the premise of buying unproven curricula that are allegedly based on the district’s unproven version of the unproven CCSS.
This district leadership is planning to pile the CCSS curricula on top of its already failed curricula, as if the result won’t be a stinking load of you-know-what.
Administrative response to questions on the CCSS
With respect to my June 11 questions, Associate Superintendent Karin Short was the only administrator to reply. She said I should go see her for an answer, she answered a question I didn’t ask, and she offered information from other people. But she offered no actual explanation. I followed up with Short on June 23. To date, there has been no reply.
Short has played this game before. In November 2010, I tried to find out if the district planned to replace its failed K-8 math curricula. Short played coy for months, refusing to answer in writing. Twice, I took her obstruction to the school board, where Director Sue Chapin blamed me for wanting the answer in writing. In March 2011, I finally managed to wrest an answer from Executive Director Tammy Campbell, who said the K-8 math curricula wouldn’t be replaced for at least two years. (It appears that “two years” in edu-speak translates into “Never,” in English.)
Also in 2010, I tried to get details on the district’s new high school math program so we could make decisions. I couldn’t get the details from secondary math coordinator Rick Biggerstaff and was forced to file a public records request. The results, which cost me $29, promoted reform math, bastardized the newly purchased Holt math materials, and were pitifully flimsy and inadequate.
It doesn’t surprise me that administrators refuse to explain themselves to a citizen. Who can or will make them do it? In SPS, people in charge of the math program have actually gone to the board and said that no one knows how to fix the math program. And a board director agreed.
Board responses to questions on the CCSS
On June 11, three board directors initially didn’t reply to my email regarding the CCSS. Rocky Treppiedi said Board President Bob Douthitt would answer for him, but from Sue Chapin, Jeff Bierman and Deana Brower, there was nothing. Nada. Zippo. Dead silence.
Douthitt wrote to me: “… [P]lease tell me the answers that I have heard given to you (sic) on this question several times over the past year …” This, Douthitt said later, would be so he would know that I “actually listen and learn…” Besides needing a forklift to set aside Douthitt’s condescension, how am I to tell him what he’s heard me be told? I could only tell him what I’ve heard, and the only answer I’d heard on this question was on June 4, from Stowell. Douthitt claims that I’ve been told and told and told. I don’t know what he’s talking about. I only just discovered that CCSS curricula would be adopted on top of the current curricula.
Calling my request a “big charade,” Douthitt nevertheless promised an answer for the week of June 18. Then, he changed his mind and said the board might prepare a resolution in August (rather than “simply” answer me, the person who asked the question).
This board has already adopted resolutions on math – on June 10, 2009, and May 11, 2011. Neither adequately answers the question: “Why would this district spend taxpayer dollars on unproven products?”
I asked the other four directors: “Is (Douthitt’s response) your answer as well?” Brower answered vaguely, then declined to clarify. In the end, all four – Sue Chapin, Jeff Bierman, Brower and Treppiedi – said Douthitt would respond for all.
These directors appear to disagree with me on their responsibilities as elected officials to be individually answerable and accountable to citizens. I had asked each for their argument. If the question is too hard for them – or if they just got up one morning and said, “Hey, let’s go spend millions of taxpayer dollars on something we’ve never seen” – they could at least have the courtesy to say so. There are only so many reasons why they refuse to explain themselves. Pick your poison:
- They don’t know why they’re doing it.
- They don’t want to say why they’re doing it.
- They don’t want to tell me why because they know I will tell you.
- They resent being asked to support their decision-making.
- Several of the above, or
- All of the above
I’d never actually heard a Spokane board director or administrator (other than Stowell) publicly explain the rationale for adopting the unproven CCSS curricular materials on top of the current curricular materials.
- Either the current materials and supplements are good and should not be modified (and therefore the public was deceived about the supposed need for new materials),
- Or the materials and supplements aren’t good and they should be modified (and therefore the public was deceived about how successful they are).
Either way, taxpayers are being handed something smelly.
Despite the district’s 56-or-so pages of titles of curricular materials and supplementary materials, SPS achieves weak academic results. District-built materials are worse, so I hear. A change is in order, but not to more unproven products with an open price tag. Normal people don’t buy houses, cars or even toothbrushes this way. Proven curricula are available and should be adopted. The children should be taught the material that’s in them, and those who wasted 20 years of taxpayer dollars, and damaged the future of 560,000 children should face consequences. Golly, what does it take for these people to be embarrassed?
On July 1, I received another email from Douthitt. His attached 8-page letter is too long for a blog post, but it’s linked here in entirety. (The two math resolutions also are linked above, so the whole thing is here.) In his letter, Douthitt wrote:
In a nutshell, individual districts such as SPS do not adopt or reject CCSS. That was a responsibility that the legislature delegated to OSPI. Once a standard is adopted, whether we on the SPS Board “support” it or “don’t support” it, or whether the standard is part of CCSS or is unique to WA is immaterial. Our responsibility is to do our best to get students to meet or exceed the state standards, whatever they might be.
This statement, while technically supportable, ignores the role that SPS had in dumping the CCSS on taxpayers.
A very brief history of the CCSS adoption
The CCSS were part and parcel of the federal Race to the Top “grant” program (RTTT). School districts had the opportunity in 2010 to reject the CCSS by rejecting RTTT and by publicly advocating against both. Most did neither, instead feverishly latching onto RTTT so they could vie for limited federal taxpayer dollars (which most didn’t get).
The Spokane board voted in 2010 to support RTTT. That vote, which I publicly opposed, helped to make the CCSS a reality. Before the Common Core Standards were written, SPS administrators were already preparing for them. Before the Standards were released, OSPI (the state education agency) stumped across the state in support of them. Legislators flatly rejected any attempt to stop the CCSS train wreck, and here we are. Had districts rejected RTTT, it’s possible the CCSS would now be a dim memory.
Unfortunately, the chain of command on public education no longer starts with the school district. It now starts at the top, too far away for citizens to have any effect, much less get answers. Who now has oversight over the learning standards in our schools?
- Not the federal government, which still says education is a state responsibility, and which repeatedly claims that the CCSS were a “state-led” initiative.
- Not OSPI, the state education agency, which says Washington is a “local control” state (and so operations are up to school districts), but that the CCSS are “coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).”
- And not Spokane Public Schools. Douthitt wrote that if I “think CCSS is a bad thing,” my argument is “properly” “with the legislature and OSPI, to try to obtain a repeal…”
Great. Our children and our tax dollars are now at the mercy of Not Up to Me.
Douthitt said SPS has a responsibility to teach to the standards “whatever they might be,” but that isn’t what SPS did or is planning to do.
- Washington State’s math standards, revised in 2008, advocated for basic procedural math skills. SPS gave lip service to that new emphasis, while retaining its curriculum and emphasis on extreme constructivism. SPS thus continued to deemphasize basic procedural math skills.
- This district appears to have no intention of teaching to the CCSS. According to Stowell, the district plans to alter the CCSS by changing the order of certain standards.
- SPS also plans to prioritize standards that are preferred by administrators. So-called “Power Standards” are to be “guaranteed,” while standards deemed to be “complementary” will be presented to a “lesser degree.”
- View pages 78-100 of this PDF on Spokane’s Power Standards, which I received as a result of a 2011 public records request. Many of the standards this district deems to be complementary (not guaranteed to be taught to mastery) are basic procedural math skills.
- And, oh please, do take a moment to watch this brief video in which district committee members explain how they “filtered” the Power Standards. This video explains so much.
This district is adopting an unproven product, then modifying the product until it’s become another unproven product, then preparing to adopt curricula that can’t possibly be based on either.
And where are things now? Well, this is how things are now between Laurie Rogers and the Spokane school board. This is what passes in Spokane Public Schools for transparency, accountability and respect for citizens. Most of my questions remain unanswered, including why the district plans to adopt unproven products on top of its already failed products.
This sort of thing is happening across the country. Taxpayers will continue to pay through the nose for a new version of academic failure. Unproven and failed products will continue to be purchased and then supplemented with more unproven and failed products. Many district “leaders” will act with impunity, blame everyone else, and then clam up when someone asks an uncomfortable question – while perhaps trying to eliminate citizens’ ability to know the answers.
When will we have school districts that focus on what’s best academically for the children? When will the children’s best interests come first? And when will We, the People get some damn help around here from someone in the state with oversight?
These are more questions for which I have no answers.
Laurie H. Rogers has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and a master’s in interpersonal communication, emphasizing the evaluation of argumentation and logic. In 2001, she founded Safer Child, Inc., a nonprofit child advocacy information resource. In 2007, she narrowed her advocacy to public education, and in 2010, she founded Focus on the Square™, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving American K-12 education.
Laurie is the author of the blog “Betrayed,” located at http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/. Her book Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do about It (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011) is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She and colleagues in Spokane, WA, have begun a new informational Web site called Partnership for Kids, located at http://partnershipforkids.org/
Besides serving on the executive committee for Where’s the Math?, Laurie has a background in finance, journalism and child advocacy. She has volunteered in schools – tutoring children in literacy and math, and teaching chess, argumentation and knitting. She lives in Spokane with her husband, daughter and two cats.
Contact Laurie Rogers at email@example.com.
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