by Laurie H. Rogers
This week, I saw a donation stand for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). The stand was located between the in and out doors of a grocery store, and the older veteran standing there must have felt chilled. I gave him a donation, and on the way out, I offered to get him a cup of coffee. He looked like he wanted one, but he demurred, so I just went and got him a large cup with a free refill. He offered to pay me for the coffee. When I refused his money, he put it in the donation cup. This veteran was focused on his mission. He wasn't there for himself, and he behaved with impeccable manners and integrity. I thought – what a difference between a man like that, and so many of those who run our public schools.
As an education advocate, I'm asked regularly how we fix our public schools. After six and a half years of advocacy, I'm no longer confident we can. Solutions exist, and they're neither difficult nor expensive to implement. But most board directors and education administrators won't do those things, and no one can make them. Absolute failure brings them more money, sympathy and power. They're nearly immune now to any consequences, and most seem allergic to accountability or self-introspection. Naturally, this kind of power can go to one's head.
The situation could be rectified, with proper oversight from citizens, legislators and the law. But many school districts spend much time, energy and taxpayer money cultivating uncritical friends – in the legislature, the courts, public agencies, private organizations, small businesses, large corporations and the media. They keep publicly funded lawyers on retainer, and they can spend a bottomless pit of tax dollars, suing for more in the midst of plenty. They wield their considerable power with impunity, and they answer to almost no one. In the midst of their self-interest and lack of humility, most refuse to properly educate or protect the children.
It's quite twisted. I think of these people now as the Edu Mob. I keep asking for someone with oversight to jerk a legal knot in their chain, but it's been years and I'm still waiting.
Certain administrators and board directors come to believe they're invincible, that they have carte blanche to do as they please – to hide information, mislead about money and outcomes, violate open-government laws, and lie right to our face, if necessary – in order to get what they want. I doubt they see their lying as wrong. I'm sure they see it as just the cost of doing business. It isn't honorable, of course, but only those with honor would care about that.
Here are 10 key things districts could do to fix the problems they've created. Match these 10 to the things they actually do.
- 1. Start telling the truth. Assess all students with well-written, at-grade-level tests (so, not with any state tests). Provide citizens with the unvarnished results. Put more effort into telling the truth about academic outcomes than they've put into hiding it. Give completed tests back to teachers and parents so we know how to help the children.
- 2. See the children – and the academic problem – clearly. Feel a concern for the children that transcends a concern for themselves. Recognize that students are being damaged for life by failed academic programs. Feel ashamed and embarrassed. Develop a sense of urgency about helping the children academically. Turn shame and embarrassment into immediate action.
- 3. Buy good textbooks. Buy good textbooks today. If they bought textbooks with a proven track record, they wouldn't need to waste teacher and student time on adoption committees or pilots. Worry more about the academic quality of the textbooks than about whether they align with the unproved, arguably illegal Common Core State Standards, whether they engage in "political/social justice" themes, or whether they contain a gazillion group projects. Buy books that are sufficient, efficient, effective, and crystal clear to teachers and parents. Such books are available; they should buy them now before somebody wants to make them illegal.
- 4. Don't put curriculum and tests online. Many children won't do well with all-online material. Some will find that working online hurts their eyes and even damages their eyesight. Some will be distracted by online options and visuals. Children also learn by writing things down; they don't learn by clicking a mouse. Care more about this than about pleasing the feds, Bill Gates, Apple and other tech vendors – or about pocketing their gobs of bait-money.
- 5. Allow teachers to directly teach. Stop micromanaging teachers. Allow teachers the academic freedom they need to be as good or as poor as they are. Reward effective ones, and fire ineffective ones. Ask parents for input on this. Care more about teacher quality than about pleasing unions or obtaining union support for pet projects.
- 6. Remove distractions from the school day. Stop wasting time on things like excessive testing and test prep, "training" on unnecessary technology, and assemblies where children learn how to sell stuff. Stop yanking teachers out of class for useless "professional development." Give teachers good academic materials and then leave them alone so they can teach it.
- 7. Make class sizes manageable. If districts take in tax dollars to lower class sizes, they should actually lower the damn class sizes and stop lying about it.
- 8. Allow the community to help. Community members can and will volunteer to fill in academic gaps; administrators just need to open the door. No one needs a teaching certificate to tutor a child.
- 9. Cut back on or get rid of curriculum departments. Most administrators in public-school curriculum departments don't teach, and they generally refuse to learn. What they do is tell everyone else what to do. Make them go away. And please, for heaven's sake, do not put any dogmatic reformers back into the classroom.
- 10. Obey the laws. Do it because it's right, and do it always, not just when somebody gets caught.
This is what it takes: Good textbooks, a productive learning environment and caring teachers who can actually teach. It's why good tutors are incredibly effective. But the Edu Mob won't do any of it. Most administrators won't publicly tell the truth or admit there's a problem. They won't assess students with at-grade-level tests and make results public; won't consistently buy or use good textbooks; won't allow teachers to directly teach; won't clear the school day of distractions; won't lower class sizes to reasonable levels; and won't solicit community help on mathematics or grammar.
What will they do? Exactly what they're doing.
- They'll put all curriculum and tests online, without any proof that a) this is an effective way to teach, or that b) it won't damage the children's eyesight.
- They'll campaign hard for bonds and levies and sue for more money, using your tax dollars to do it.
- They'll push for all-day kindergarten in all schools for all children, whether or not citizens like it, and whether or not all 5-year-olds are ready for this.
- They'll apply for charter schools, which they'll run or influence to be run in the same way as the current public schools.
- They'll adopt the Common Core initiatives, sight unseen – blindly tagging along after this obscenely expensive national experiment.
- And, they'll hand you a fistful of excuses as to why they can't do anything else.
The Common Core initiatives come with a creepy data system that is trashing privacy laws regarding children and families. Remember the idea of expunging records when children turn 18, so that new adults can begin with a clean slate? That's pretty much out the window with the Common Core. The feds want cradle-through-career data and information, which they'll share as they please without our permission or knowledge, and which no one will be allowed to expunge.
Despite voting repeatedly to target multi-millions of taxpayer dollars for various aspects of the Common Core, Spokane Board President Bob Douthitt admitted early in 2013 at a district math forum that he doesn't know much about the Common Core. Douthitt also has said the district had no choice but to adopt the Common Core (which is not true), and that Spokane students are graduating ready for college (which is not true for most). His assertions aren't logical. If everything is wonderful, why is he voting to waste our money on changing everything?
Douthitt is running again for the school board. Please don't vote for him.
I had a surreal experience this week. I went in to look at the district's curricular materials, and they look depressingly like they did in 2007. Unbelievably, this district still uses two of the worst math programs on the planet: Investigations in Number, Data, and Space, and Connected Mathematics. The public has online access to the district's "curriculum guides" – which are overarching concepts of what curriculum coordinators expect of teachers, but we haven't been allowed to see the district's "program guides" – the daily administrative dictates to teachers. Those are hidden in Blackboard, which requires a login.
Program guides are public records, however, so I stuck to my guns, and I managed to see some of them this week, along with some of the curricular materials. It's a mound of truly awful stuff.
- If you're a believer in civics instruction, you'll be distressed by the social studies materials.
- If you're a believer in direct instruction to mastery of sufficient standard algorithms, you'll be distressed by the stubbornly crappy math materials.
- If you're a believer in literature and in direct instruction of grammar, you'll be distressed by the English/language arts materials.
- If you think small children should not be taught to embrace alternative lifestyles to which their parents are opposed, or before they even know what a lifestyle is – you'll hate the "human growth and development" materials.
- Everyone should be appalled by the rampant typos, spelling and grammatical errors, incomprehensible test questions, and generally weak writing coming out of the Department of Teaching and Learning.
I asked Superintendent Shelley Redinger if the district will buy better math materials for fall 2013. She said they'll continue to pilot materials. It's clear that Saxon Math will not be adopted in Spokane Public Schools, not even by someone who says she understands the math problem. This, despite Saxon being one of the best elementary math series in the country. Supporting Saxon are solid research, student data, millions of happy homeschoolers, and the majority of math professionals I surveyed earlier this year.
Is Saxon Math the only math program currently available that's sufficient, efficient and effective? No. But the antagonism shown toward it by reformers is not about Saxon; it's about philosophy. Believers in reform math and student-centered learning will never want the same books as will believers in direct instruction to mastery of the most-efficient and most-effective algorithms.
Saxon Math and the kind of instruction within it have been caricaturized and demonized in Spokane by lovers of the current failed approach to math. So, now, the district is waiting for "Godot" – a math program that won't upset those people; that hasn't been written, properly researched or assessed; that's "aligned" with the unproved Common Core; that 50 or so hand-picked people will collectively decide without proof is good enough; that's supposed to make reformers and traditionalists happy; that will be mathematically sufficient; and that will get all kids on track for college. This is a fish-bicycle, an impossible thing. It can't happen.
Whichever new materials they eventually look at will still have to go through another wasteful adoption process, and when adopted, will be yet another experiment on the children.
I expressed concern about the 20,000 students who will be forced to suffer in math for another school year. It's a lifetime to them, I argued. Don't you feel a sense of urgency? I asked Dr. Redinger. They're drowning. She said she feels that urgency.
Maybe. The proof is in the pudding. There's been no proper assessment made of all students, no truth about their struggle made public, no solid math curriculum adopted, no community tutoring program begun, no opt-out offered for all-day kindergarten, and no district push-back made public on the Common Core. Dr. Redinger has made nearly a quarter of a million dollars since July 2012, yet the children still don't have a good math curriculum. Board directors Bob Douthitt and Sue Chapin have been on the board since 2007. Rocky Treppiedi has been there since 1996, Jeff Bierman since 2009, and Deana Brower since 2011. This school board has spent years campaigning for more dollars, and the last two furiously trying to undermine the Public Records Act for all citizens in Washington State. Yet, Spokane children still don't have a good math curriculum.
For years, I've asked the school district to help me begin a free community tutoring program in math so we can get these children to grade level. It would be volunteering to help the children, an offer I've made repeatedly. Former superintendent Nancy Stowell repeatedly refused to allow it. I was publicly criticized for suggesting it.
I began asking Dr. Redinger about it in September 2012. Finally, she invited me in last week to talk about tutoring. I was wary but hopeful. Had she begun a program? Did she want me to start one? Had someone else begun a program I could promote? Nope. None of the above. She handed me a fee schedule for renting a school building. I stared at the fee schedule, as I contemplated her quarter-million-dollar salary. What should I have said? What I thought was: "Seriously? Are you kidding me??"
Apparently, the wants of the monkeys still dictate how the zoo is run. Saxon Math could help fix Spokane's math problem, but reformers don't want Saxon, so it's dead in the water. Instead, the leadership will allow 20,000 children to suffer every day in math while they all wait for a textbook that's yet to be published. Reformers also don't want citizens tutoring in proper math, and they don't want at-grade-level assessments, but they do want the Common Core. Clearly, dealing with their hates and wants still takes priority over the children's needs.
There's so much arrogance and self-interest in public education, many adults now seem money-blind and power-blind to the children. I've begged them: Please care about these children. In return, many of them – including members of the board – call me names. The latest pejorative, so I hear, is "gadfly." It isn't the worst name they've called me.
I don't know how to make selfish people care more about the children than about themselves. It's probably another fish-bicycle. They should be ashamed, but they aren't. They do, however, want you to give them more money and to vote some of them back in. Please don't.
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 Squareâ¢, 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.
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 protected].