By Laurie Rogers
Last week, I went to a Spokane Public Schools math presentation at Indian Trail Elementary School. It was billed as a forum in the school newsletter and on the reader board outside of the school. It was not, in any way, a forum. It was a tightly controlled 20-minute presentation that offered no data, little information, allowed for no parent input and was patronizing in tone.
At one point, parents were asked to define math to the person next to us. (The principal said he would not offer his definition.) We also were told to describe to our neighbor a math experience we'd had. These conversations ended right there, thus being pointless. We watched a video of several small children talking about the importance of math. The kids were cute, but the video was long. It was made clear to us that math is hard, parents don't get it (see slide 7 of the presentation), "traditional math" is no longer useful, and math is intimidating to all. Printed materials reinforced the idea of parent incompetence, with students supposedly "taking the lead" and teaching their parents.
Parents were warned to stay positive about math, however, despite our supposed fear and lack of skill, and we also were told what a "balanced" program looks like – as if that's what Spokane actually has.
What a ridiculous, condescending mess. The person who put this presentation together should be fired immediately.
Initially, the principal told us that questions could be asked, but when a parent raised her hand to do that (before the end of the presentation), she was told to write her question on a piece of paper. Another parent's hand was in the air for a while until I called out, "Excuse me! This parent would like to ask you a question." That parent said she wanted to hear the first parent's question. The principal said there was no time. Voice inflection is a subjective thing, but I'm not the only one who was shocked at the principal's snippy tone.
Hovering around the "forum" were three central-office administrators – elementary math coordinator Kim Dennis, and executive directors Irene Gonzales and Lorna Spear. Dennis and Gonzales did not answer questions, disappearing immediately after the presentation. A few parents waited to ask questions of the principal. He had to be called back into the gym, and he appeared reluctant to come back or to stay. Spear showed up briefly to herd the principal back out of the gym. Almost $400,000 in base salary for these four individuals, and not one wanted to answer a question from a parent. Clearly, the district doesn't understand the meaning of the word "forum."
Dear District: At "forums," attendees are supposed to be allowed to get a word in.
After my five years of math advocacy; after the "Betrayed" blog and the "Betrayed" book; after several math forums last year; and after the people's complaints in school board meetings, emails, and letters to the editor – you would think Spokane Public Schools would change course on reform math. District staff still talk about how basic math has "changed," (no, it hasn't), and still wax poetic about how students learn better when they struggle through it, get things wrong initially, work constantly in groups, and learn inefficient methods first. The district remains willfully, sublimely ignorant.
Last week's non-forum at Indian Trail is just one of several in the district. Their goal isn't to learn something – it's to prove something. Unfortunately, that "something" isn't true, which is why the presentations tend to be weak, pitiful and patronizing, with wrong information, leaps of logic, lots of dead space, multiple appeals to parent emotion, and zero actual data. The district knows the community is increasingly concerned about math. These "forums" appear to be their response to those concerns – and to my forums from last year. It seems they want to convince us that we're wrong.
A year ago, from January through March, two STEM professionals and I put on several public forums in Spokane, all designed to talk about Spokane's execrable math curricula. These reform curricula, used in Spokane now for a few decades, have been criticized across the country since their inception. In spite of concerns from parents and mathematicians, Washington State followed along with reform math, as most states did. Millions of taxpayer dollars in Spokane, and billions across the country, have been wasted and continue to be wasted on these inadequate materials. Our children's futures – and the country's future – have been devastated by how math is approached in our public schools.
Here is one example I've seen. In this instance, a 4th-grade teacher was teaching the adding of fractions by connecting the fractions to money. Each denominator had to fit into 100 so it could be part of a dollar. The children were to change numerators correspondingly. The numerators were brought down to the next line, but the denominators weren't brought down, so the fractions suddenly became whole numbers (although they were actually parts of a dollar). The numerators were added, and the result was turned into a decimal, by mentally dividing it by 100. (This was a separate step, which leads one to think the 50 cents and 25 cents were thought of as whole numbers.) At any rate, the decimal was changed back into a fraction, the fraction was reduced, and it was plunked back at the top as the answer. I saw no actual work done on the white board. Like this:
½ + ¼ = ?
50 cents plus 25 cents = 75 cents
50 cents plus 25 cents = .75
½ + ¼ = ¾
This is just ignorant. The children seemed lost. This is a poor method, using poor process, and it won't work well for problems like 1/8 + 1/3. There is no excuse for this. It was painful to watch. I looked sadly at those little kids, aware that most of them are probably doomed, mathematically speaking.
So, last year, my colleagues and I wanted to talk with the public about reform math, about the history of these materials and about how the efficient math algorithms have been purposefully perverted, undermined and dismantled. We wanted to hear parent experiences, to offer a look at real student data, and to suggest avenues for how parents can save their children. For maximum public access, we made the forums free and held them at public libraries. This meant we had to let in whoever came.
Parents and grandparents came to the Spokane forums and expressed concerns. The Spokane school district also came – a large, intimidating block of people whose presence scared potential allies into silence. At the time, I didn't know this block of people had been purposefully gathered.
District administrators spent working time and public resources building a schedule of people to come to our forums. They pushed repeatedly for staff attendance and wrote "talking points" for them. Clearly, they did NOT want us to talk about the math curriculum. At our Feb. 7, 2011, forum, administrators tolerated and encouraged abysmal behavior from their staff. We three volunteers – who brought solid data, noble intentions, and concern for the children – were mocked and interrupted, and told that student outcomes were "irrelevant." District staff continually pushed us off our topic of choice, interrupting us to do so. When we tried to quiet them, we were accused of interrupting. District personnel who might have spoken up in our defense were silent.
Never in my years of advocacy had I ever seen such rudeness. Far from reining it in, district leadership initiated it and kept it going. Could we have handled the Feb. 7 forum better? Sure. We learned from that experience, and it would not go that way again. In my view, however, the district administrators responsible should have been fired on the spot.
On Feb. 7, Spokane administrator Tammy Campbell interrupted me three times in the first 18 minutes of my presentation. Asked to be quiet, she talked over top of us and other community members. Associate Superintendent Karin Short interrupted me to tell parents I was misrepresenting student outcomes. (It was district data I was writing on the white board.) A district staff member twice said I might be the reason student scores had dropped. When I tried to get Campbell to answer a question about student outcomes, she refused. The next day, The Spokesman-Review criticized us and called us district "antagonists" – without ever speaking with us or offering any helpful information to the public.
Instead of disciplining Campbell and Short, the district leadership, and Board Director Bob Douthitt were filled with sympathy. Immediate plans were made to hold district math forums (to present "our message," as Douthitt put it, where, supposedly, "some truth" would be provided).
And there you have it: math "forums" like the one last week at Indian Trail Elementary School, where cute kids replaced real information, where parents weren't allowed to ask questions in public, and where $100,000+ administrators wouldn't answer questions or even stick around.
Do Spokane taxpayers feel respected now? Do they believe their taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely?
Over the last few months, the district has been promoting its $73 million levy, up for a vote Feb. 14. The Public Disclosure Commission has launched a formal investigation of Spokane Public Schools' election activity in 2009 and 2011. The PDC probably could investigate 2012 activity as well.
Should we trust the district? Should we believe them? Should we think they have the best interests of our children and grandchildren at heart? See the remedial rates (and the success rates in those remedial classes) of recent Spokane graduates who attended Spokane Community Colleges. Should we believe that our students are leaving Spokane Public Schools well educated and ready for post-secondary life? Should we believe that the quality of education in Spokane is fueling the local economy, providing job-ready, innovation-ready graduates? Should we think it's OK that the district threatens the public and teachers over an alleged 800 education jobs and various enrichment programs, while they spend our tax dollars on more administration, bigger salaries, an unnecessary, unproved data system and an unproved, arguably illegal federal plan? Is the district listening to us, to me, to the community or to the law?
Those who say yes to all will probably vote for the levy. But those who see the district as wasteful, deceitful, manipulative, bullying, law-breaking, and/or clueless about math, grammar and other necessary academic skills, probably will take a close look at their levy ballot when it comes out Jan. 27.
I believe the district does listen to money. Maybe that's the only thing.
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. 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 protected].