Saturday, January 17, 2009

I say it's the curriculum

(Updated February 5, 2009):

The mathematics curricula in American public schools represent perhaps the biggest problem with American mathematics achievement, yet many administrative, legislative and media conversations about mathematics don’t mention them.

On Jan. 15, 2009, for example, four “big education thinkers” offered “a few words” to President Barack Obama on how to improve education (Toppo, 2009a). In their original response to the question, these thinkers might have waxed poetic about the curriculum, but in the published article, curriculum isn’t mentioned.

On Jan. 20, 2009, an article discussed the $142 billion dollars that will be lopped off the $825 billion economic stimulus plan and delivered to public schools over two years (Toppo, 2009b). The $142 billion for education is huge – reportedly more than “health care, energy or infrastructure projects.” The money apparently comes with “strings” attached, but if one of the strings is to improve the curriculum, the article doesn’t mention it.

Education administrators keep talking about how they need billions more dollars to improve public education. They talk about money for technology, teacher pay and incentives, special education, smaller classes, all-day kindergarten, programs for “struggling” students and more teachers and staff. I rarely hear them mention any plans to fund improvements in the curriculum. It’s difficult to even get them to criticize the curriculum. At times, it’s almost as if they’ve been in a cult.

“It’s about the curriculum,” I say.
“We really need education to be fully funded,” they say.
“It’s the curriculum,” I say.
“Most of our district families are lower income.”
It’s the curriculum,” I say.
“We just need better coaching support for the teachers.”
It’s the curriculum, curriculum, curriculum, curriculum!”
“If our teachers could just get more professional training… If the state would just stop messing with the standards… If our kids just didn’t have so many challenges … If we just had more alternatives that would interest the students…”

Arggh! It’s like trying to force together the north poles of two magnets.

In October 2007, Spokane Public Schools officials said the drops in student enrollment were bewildering (Leaming, 2007e). The district had lost more than 2,000 students since 2001 (“School,” n.d.), and officials speculated about possible factors such as jobs, demographics, new construction north of the city and lower-cost housing. They did not publicly speculate about parent dissatisfaction. (The question is important, considering that the 2006 enrollment drop of 350 students reportedly cost the district $1.6 million in revenue) (“Funding,” n.d.).

In a belated effort to find out why enrollment was dropping like a rock in a bathtub, district officials decided to hire a demographer to conduct a study. In a May 2008 online “chat,” Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell said the demographer projected another drop of 375 students, “mostly at the secondary level,” for the 2008-09 school year. Enrollment was projected to turn around in 2013, “depending on economic and housing trends” (“Chat,” 2008b). She didn’t mention the demographer’s recommendation that the district do a survey of families and brokerage firms to determine “perceptions of local schools” (“Regular,” 2008b, p. 9).

I think Spokane administrators already had some indication of parent dissatisfaction. When I met with the district director of communications and community relations more than a year ago, she showed me partial copies of small exit surveys that had been done. Some of the questions were vague and the data pools were small, but the results were intriguing. On one survey, the reason parents gave most often for leaving was “Choice,” the second was “Home school,” the fourth was “Better for student,” the sixth was “Continue at another school” and the ninth was “No reason given.” (“Dissatisfaction with the curriculum” was not an option.)

On another survey, the top reasons given for leaving were “Other reason” (by more than a 3:1 ratio) and the top clarifying explanation was “better academic program.”

On the third survey, the top reason given for sending a child to a Spokane Public School was “live close to the school.” The top reason given for sending a child to a school that is not in the district was “quality of schools.”

These surveys should have piqued someone’s interest.

Following the demographer’s recommendation, a telephone survey of parents was done between Aug. 26, 2008 and Sept. 5, 2008. Drawing from a list of 1,368 student transfers between Feb. 21, 2006, and Aug. 15, 2008, interviewers completed 294 interviews, asking about 24 questions in each. The report was completed in September 2008; its margin of error is +/- 4.5% (“Spokane,” 2008). The results were telling.

Five of the top six schools having out-of-district transfers were high schools. Five of the district’s 7 middle schools also were listed in the top 14. A whopping 79% of students who left went to: the Mead School District (located north of the city); online for virtual options; or to the West Valley School District. (Private schools as a destination were not included in the survey.) Parents were allowed to cite more than one reason for leaving the school district. The top 5 reasons that were cited:

  • 33%: Quality of curriculum does not match your expectations
  • 26%: District class sizes too large
  • 22%: A transfer will make student more accessible to parent’s work
  • 21%: Desired coursework is not offered in the district
  • 21%: Student doesn’t feel connected to his/her current school


  • 87% of the respondents said no one from the district had contacted them to offer alternative options for schooling;
  • 59% said there was nothing the district could do to interest them in returning.

(On a positive note, in 104 cases, respondents made suggestions for improvements – including improving the curriculum – and 68% of those making suggestions said they might return if the improvements were made.)

I’m not surprised. Early in 2008 when I met with Dr. Stowell, I told her it seems to me there is no connection between parents’ frustration and the district’s perception of the situation. Dr. Stowell replied that when administrators receive complaints, they’re “always trying to figure out, ‘So, is this, like, a couple (of) people? Is this bigger than a couple (of) people? Is it issue-centered?’”

She said she knew families would appreciate more opportunities to be heard. “We’re never going to be for every person exactly what they want, I don’t think, but certainly there are lots of things I think we could do differently based on what we hear from our community.” She also mused that, “Sometimes I think people don’t want to know (why families are leaving) because … when you know, … you have to do something about it.”

On Jan. 14, 2009, I emailed Dr. Stowell to ask her what the 2008 telephone survey indicated to her and where she thought the district should go from here. I believe she should have a clear sense now that the district curriculum is a serious problem for a large number of families.

What she and fellow administrators choose to do about that remains to be seen.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (January, 2009). "I say it's the curriculum." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was also published January 22, 2009, on at

No comments:

Post a Comment