Thursday, October 30, 2008

Teachers Are Afraid To Speak Out

When I began researching education, the first people I went to for information were the teachers. They’re on the “front lines” of education; who better to enlighten me than the people working in the classrooms?

I discovered that many teachers are afraid to speak frankly to parents. They’re afraid of being disciplined, or even fired for “insubordination.” The ones who spoke with me tended to speak carefully, watching their words – almost as if the walls had ears or as if people were lurking around the corner.

Some teachers agreed to talk with me if we met outside of the classroom. Several told me they’d already been disciplined for talking with parents. One teacher talked with his lawyer before he talked with me. Almost all of them spoke on the condition of absolute anonymity. Three teachers began to talk with me, then decided the risks were too great to continue. Some agreed to give me the gist of their concerns, but they wouldn’t let me take notes or tape the conversation. Some teachers expressed sympathy for my project yet refused to talk about their experiences. A frequent explanation: “I just have a few more years to go to retirement. I can’t afford to get into trouble.”

This is a common theme elsewhere in the state and the country. Bob Dean, chair of the math department for Evergreen High School in Vancouver, WA, told me he’s familiar with the fears.

“When I discovered how reform mathematics was cheating our kids out of a proper education, I instantly became involved in trying to change that fact. I know that many teachers are afraid to speak out. …. I have seen gag orders put on teachers and intimidation used to silence them. Anyone who dares to challenge the latest educational fad is labeled reluctant, out of touch, and a non-team player.”

A Spokane high-school teacher told me he’d been disciplined – including verbal reprimands and a letter in his file – for telling parents he thought the district’s reform mathematics curricula wouldn’t adequately prepare students for college-level mathematics. He said he doesn’t believe administrators want his professional assessment of the system:

“Perhaps the most discouraging observation of the past eight years is that there is no longer a professional discussion of these and other problems regarding high stakes testing and related curriculum issues. Teachers of an ‘old school’ philosophy who are critical of the so called ‘fuzzy math’ and discovery based learning – both of which are used in support of the WASL – are vilified, ostracized and sometimes subject to disciplinary action. Techniques that work, like direct instruction and drill and practice of basic skills, are ridiculed and those that use them are seen as incompetent and ineffective teachers. … Collaboration has become coercion.”

But talking with parents about their child’s academic situation is part of a teacher’s job. When teachers don’t do it freely and forthrightly, children have lost an important ally, and parents have lost an essential element of public Accountability.

In February 2008, I interviewed Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell. I told her some teachers are worried they’ll receive bad evaluations or be fired for speaking frankly with parents. I added that some teachers believe they’ve been “disciplined” for activity they thought was warranted but that administrators saw as oppositional. This was her response:

“Well, no, it doesn’t surprise me that there are some people who would say that. Certainly, you know, (there is) a wide variety of teachers out there. Some of them very, very successful, and some less successful. And so, you know, people have issues along that continuum. And it’s really the responsibility of principals to work with staff that do have issues along that continuum.

“So if a teacher had an issue about either the math curriculum, or what he or she was teaching, or grade level, or any of that, I can understand that a principal would expect that it would be something the teacher and the principal would talk about rather than the teacher kind of going out there. Because it’s the principal who really knows the teacher, and how good the teacher is, and we all want, you know, excellent teachers.”

Dr. Stowell went on to say that “change is difficult,” and some teachers will embrace new ideas while others will be “more resistant.” Sometimes, she said, the problem can be that teachers “are just not wanting to change.” She said if they have good ideas, however, those ideas should be “shared.” She acknowledged that the district could “do a better job” of developing “feedback loops” as a way for teachers to communicate with coordinators.

To me, it sounds as though Dr. Stowell might be saying that teachers who intend to give parents their honest professional assessment of their child’s academic situation – including comments that could indicate weaknesses in the curricula, school policy or administration – might actually:
  • have other issues,
  • not be "successful" teachers anyway, or
  • just be resistant to change.

Parents, please be aware that – although teachers generally do their best every day in the classroom – many have concerns about being absolutely frank with parents.

Caveat emptor.

The best way to know how things are is to look at what your children know versus what they should know at their age. Have them professionally tested and assessed by people outside of the district. Speak with people who know which skills are required for the future your children envision for themselves. Take steps to fill in the gaps.

Don’t wait until your children are in Grade 12 or applying for college. The longer you wait, the harder it will be. At some point - sooner than you think - it will be too late.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (October, 2008). "Teachers are afraid to speak out." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was also posted November 5, 2008, on at

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Public Accountability Missing in Education

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
-- John F. Kennedy

My philosophy toward authority generally centers around one word: Accountability. In my view, there are two main kinds of accountability: small “a” accountability and capital “A” accountability. In public education, there is a great deal of one and almost none of the other.

Small “a” accountability is accountability to the system. There are statistics, reports, numbers, factoids and figures. These numbers bounce around the organization, heading farther up the chain and occasionally shooting out to the public in the form of headlines. It’s possible that change takes place because of these numbers, but the public usually isn’t involved. The numbers are often supportive and positive about the overall effectiveness of the system.

Capital “A” Accountability is accountability to the public. Administrators speak the truth, even if it feels nasty to hear it or to say it. If things aren’t working, they say so. Employees are encouraged to speak freely and aren’t forced into silence nor bullied into compliance. People are held responsible for their actions and their performance. Records are made public. Pertinent information is welcomed. Administrators acknowledge their mistakes and learn from others. As long as the public remains engaged in capital “A” Accountability, then small “a” accountability is likely to follow.

Public education is a bureaucracy, however, and on the whole, bureaucracies tend to be impermeable and self-serving. In public education, the “public” has been purposefully blocked from the process. The establishment spends billions of dollars each year studying students, teachers, schools and families – dutifully reporting its picked-over version of reality and probably cutting down an entire rain forest of trees to publish the results. All the while, it fails to tell the public it’s in a dark place where high-school students drop out or require extensive remedial help before moving forward with their lives.

Capital “A” Accountability helps maintain corruption-free environments. Articulate, well-reasoned debate keeps the nation strong. I’m willing to fight for that.

In January 2007, I went to a Spokane Public Schools board meeting to ask about test scores. I was told politely that board meetings are business meetings and no discussion would take place. My name was passed to the superintendent, and the meeting went on without me. Later that month, I was invited to meet privately with the superintendent and curriculum director. There, I was told that everything was great – going so well that other states look to Washington for guidance.

In an October 2007 PTA meeting, I asked a Spokane school board member and the acting superintendent (Dr. Nancy Stowell) how parents have two-way conversations with the entire school board in a public forum. It can’t be done, PTA members were told, but we were invited to attend board meetings or to call board members at home. (But there is usually no discussion at Spokane school board meetings, and calling board members at home isn’t in public nor is it the entire board.)

I’ve asked several people if the public can ever have two-way conversations with the entire school board in a public setting, and the consistent answer is, “No.” Consider that the school board manages the budget, approves school policy and procedure, and engages in “community relations” (“Policies,” 1983). If “community relations” doesn’t mean “relating with the community,” then what does it mean?

In a February 2008 interview, Dr. Stowell acknowledged that students and parents don’t have many ways to be “engaged’ in the process.

In March 2008, in a rare display of “glasnost,” the school board invited the public to two forums regarding finalists for the position of district superintendent. One candidate was Dr. Stowell. The candidates had to answer questions publicly (although no follow-up questions were allowed). My question was: How do we get more public forums?

Dr. Stowell laughed a bit when she said, “Well, we aren’t doing this again!” Then she said she supported the concept of better communication between the district and the parents. She asked the group for ideas.

Here’s my idea (which I’ve technically passed on to her three times – four if she reads this blog). Have more forums. Listen to questions, answer the questions, listen to follow-up questions and answer those. Administrators should do it because it’s respectful. Mostly, they should do it because it’s their role in providing capital “A” Accountability.

I wish I could tell you how board members answered public questions at those two forums, but none did. They milled around the edges of the group, talking privately with individuals.

In a September 2008 “online chat,” I asked Dr. Stowell again about “creating opportunities” for the public to communicate with administrators and the school board. Board meetings are insufficient, I said, since discussions usually don’t take place, and private meetings are insufficient since they aren’t in public.

Dr. Stowell repeated that I could attend school board meetings. She added that board members sometimes go into the public “to solicit input” on topics such as bond projects and the budget.

In October, public meetings were held to discuss bond issues. The format was a presentation followed by small-group discussions. I asked the district’s director of communications and community relations if I could go to the forums and ask questions that are unrelated to bond issues. She said the forums were just for bond issues, but that I could take my questions to a school board meeting or I could make an appointment with an administrator.

And there you have it. Over 22 months, I have come full circle, and I have gotten nowhere at all.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (October, 2008). "Public accountability missing in education." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article has also been posted on at

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Parents Can't Get Answers to Questions

Every few months, Spokane Public Schools hosts an online “chat” where parents can “Ask the Superintendent” some questions. The questions and replies are posted on the district’s Web site. In October, a parent sent me his question and the district’s response (which actually came from the district’s secondary mathematics coordinator). His question and the emailed reply were not posted on the district’s Web site.

The parent wrote that his son was getting As in math “without even trying.” He was worried that the program wouldn’t get his son to college. He had spoken with math professors and other concerned parents, he said, and he asked the district to survey parents.

The mathematics coordinator, Rick Biggerstaff, didn’t address the request for a survey. The bolded comments below are drawn from his response; the comments in parentheses are mine:

Enrollment in Advanced Placement classes is increasing, and Spokane “statistically performs very well on the AP exam.”
(AP enrollment statewide is increasing, but lower percentages of students pass AP exams.)

“We do not see our high-achieving students leaving with ‘less’ math than before.”
(What does “before” mean? The current incarnation of reform mathematics was spawned in the 1980s.)

The math standards have “changed 3 times in 5 years.” Spokane’s current math curricula are still aligned with old state learning standards.
(Trying to align reform curricula with constantly changing reform-based standards is like pinning an expensive inadequate tail on a moving inadequate donkey. Who cares if they’re aligned?)

A review of whether current curricula align with the new math standards must wait until January.
(Translation: Don’t hold your breath waiting for better curricula.)

The “level of cognitive engagement in our classrooms” is more important than whether mathematics is presented with a traditional or reform method.
(How math is presented is critically important. Forcing children to reinvent math – as opposed to just teaching it to them – is illogical, time-consuming and ineffective. The children end up “cognitively engaging” about incorrect ideas.)

The district doesn’t plan to change its policy of “student-centered” classrooms, “regardless of content strands set in place by the state.”
(Regardless of what anyone says or does, the district will support constructivist “teaching” methods, where students work in groups to teach math to themselves. Apparently, it does matter which teaching method is used.)

Meanwhile, the parent’s concerns were not addressed.

The entire education establishment is adept at dismissing parent and teacher concerns. (in Maryland) posted an article called “Tactics Used to Maintain the Status Quo.” They generously allowed me to excerpt:

Tactic #1: Tell parents that “You are the only one who complained.”
Tactic #2: Claim that “The research shows that what we are doing is best.”
Tactic #3: “We are the experts. You should trust us to know better than you.”
Tactic #4: Claim that children will suffer if the budget is not significantly increased.
Tactic #5: Accuse critics and parents who ask too many questions of being “against public education.”
Tactic #6: Claim that (the district) is prevented from making changes by the No Child Left Behind Act.
Tactic #7: Avoid taking actions to change the system by ignoring good ideas.
(You can read the entire FrederickEducationReform article on their Web site. The link is noted at the bottom of this article.)

Here Are Other Things I’ve Actually Heard
From the Education Establishment in Spokane and Washington State

  • It’s “elitist” to say that children achieve at different levels, to have programs for the highly capable, or to form classes for similar types of learners.
  • Parents only want a traditional approach because it’s what they had as children. Students find it boring and would rather “discover” thousands of years of math in groups and by inventing their own concepts and methods.
  • Not all children can learn traditional math. Having everyone learn “alternative” methods first gives them “something to fall back on.”
  • People who complain about reform math just “don’t get it.” For example:
    • Parents aren't math smart. They’re obstructionist and stuck in the past.
    • Teachers have their own “issues.” They might not be all that talented.
    • Students have lousy upbringings, raging hormones, short attention spans and poor priorities. Math might not be their strongest subject.
    • Engineers don’t know how to communicate, and math professors don’t know how to teach to children.
    • Advocates are extremist and hypercritical. They have a “hidden” agenda.
  • Parents are not qualified to comment on curriculum choices, but curriculum coordinators who have an education degree and a minor in the specific subject are qualified.
  • Statistics show that things are getting better. We’re upping enrollment in “honors” classes, increasing the “rigor,” “raising the bar” and moving to “the next step.” We’re doing so well, other states look to us for guidance.
  • We don’t need to worry about the highly capable students because they’ll learn anyway. They can work in groups with the struggling students – not to “teach” them, but just to “show” them how to do things.
  • No one needs to learn algebra because not everyone will go to college.
  • Students can pick up any algebra they need in Grade 11 or 12.
  • 60% pass rates might be good depending on where the group began.
  • Children need “21st-century math.” Calculators and computers help them learn math and can even take the place of long division and other arithmetic.
  • We can fix everything with billions more dollars for incentives, technology, instructional coaches, teacher development and initiatives for the disadvantaged.
  • We listen to all feedback. Parents can:
    • present questions at board meetings. (The board doesn’t have to answer questions at board meetings.)
    • talk to administrators. (Administrators politely say everything is fine.)
    • talk with their child’s teacher. (Some teachers are afraid to be frank, or they’re politically careful, or they're too busy to see the whole picture.)
    • talk with principals. (Ditto.)

      I've been asking questions in this district for 22 months, and I have more questions now than when I began. I'd really like to start getting some answers.

      Please note: The information in this post (except for the FrederickEducationReform excerpt) is copyrighted to Laurie H. Rogers. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (October, 2008). "Parents can't get answers to questions." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

      A portion of this article has also been posted on at

      (You can enjoy the entire FrederickEducationReform article at: "Tactics Used To Maintain the Status Quo" If you wish to use the information in the excerpt or any other information from that Web site, please direct your permission request to the operators of that site.)