Friday, August 28, 2009

Blame math problem on administrators

(Updated Oct. 2, 2009)

During the Aug. 26 board meeting for Spokane Public Schools, Razak Garoui, director of Assessment and Program Evaluation, blamed new legislation for the district’s abysmal math test scores. (According to a previous news report, he also said scores were low because students didn’t take the test seriously.)

Listening to Dr. Garoui, I was reminded of a song that was NOT sung by Milli Vanilli. “Blame It On the Rain” was a major hit for Milli Vanilli late in 1989, just before news broke that the duo was only pretending to sing. While suffering through the pretense of Dr. Garoui’s Aug. 26 presentation, I recalled the chorus of “Blame It On the Rain”:

“Gotta blame it on something
Blame it on the rain (rain)
Blame it on the stars (stars)
Whatever you do don't put the blame on you
Blame it on the rain yeah yeah
You can blame it on the rain”

I became annoyed with Dr. Garoui and Milli Vanilli. As a diversion, I found and began to read the August 2009 issue of the district’s newsletter “School Talk.” The issue contains an article titled “It All Adds Up To Math.” In this article:

  • A Shadle Park high school teacher says, “I’m impressed by the students’ depth of understanding, and their ability to communicate mathematical ideas.”
    (Shadle’s pass rate for the 10th-grade math test in 2009 was 47.4%.)
  • A Ridgeview Elementary School teacher says, “Kids are able to apply concepts seamlessly in different contexts. They are excited about math now.”
    (Ridgeview’s pass rates for the 3rd-6th-grade math tests were 62.1%, 56.3%, 58.2% and 43.5%).
  • A Chase Middle School teacher says, “The curriculum does a good job of pushing kids to discover their own understanding. And it also allows time to practice skills and algorithms.”
  • (Chase’s pass rates for the 7th-8th-grade math tests were 52.8% and 55.6%).
  • The article says: “Student scores on statewide assessments are, in some cases, showing improvement. However, there are still students not achieving at the level necessary to demonstrate mastery of standards."
    (No kidding. Nowhere in this happy article is the fact that in 2009, Spokane Public Schools' 10th-grade math WASL pass rate was just 42.3%.)

Following Dr. Garoui’s comments, board member Dr. Jeff Bierman, a physics professor at Gonzaga, commented on the “abysmal” WASL results for mathematics and on the “almost deceitful” district representation of student achievement. That’s when Superintendent Nancy Stowell blamed the low test scores on the teachers. She said the math problem isn’t just about curriculum; it’s about the quality of teaching. She added, “And we have a real problem in this district” with quality teaching.

Wow. Really? That’s probably news to Spokane teachers. The Garoui/Stowell comments are unsupported by evidence. They actually stand in direct opposition to the flood of available evidence on Spokane’s execrable math curricula. After everything she’s heard – over several years and from parents, teachers and advocates – after all of the research and reports she’s received – Dr. Stowell prefers to just blame the teachers.

“Gotta blame it on something
Blame it on the rain that was falling, falling
Blame it on the stars that did shine at night
Whatever you do don't put the blame on you
Blame it on the rain yeah yeah”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard Dr. Stowell blame the teachers. In a 2008 interview, I told her some teachers believe they’ve been disciplined for voicing their concerns, and she said that didn’t surprise her. The district has “a wide variety of teachers out there,” she said, “some of them very, very successful; and some less successful. And so, you know, people have issues along that continuum.” Some teachers just don’t like change, she added – somewhat hypocritically, I thought, considering that, as a whole, she and her fellow administrators seem completely adverse to effective change. These administrators are a nearly immoveable force – stain-resistant, impermeable, opaque and impervious. They’re like a black hole, sucking in all available taxpayer money and emitting no Light At the End of the Tunnel.

Teachers, however, are forced to change. They either change in response to every administrative whim, or they’re forced out. Afraid to voice their concerns, many teachers become silent and submissive. And yet – while doing exactly as they’re told – teachers are still blamed for low test scores.

“We have a real problem” with quality teaching, Dr. Stowell says.

Jim Harrison, 6th-grade teacher at Balboa Elementary School, was neither silent nor submissive. He fought a long and almost solitary fight for better mathematics instruction in Spokane. Parents and students are fond of him. They look up to him and believe he gave them his best. Last spring, Jim’s principal, Pat Lynass, broke WASL testing protocol in Jim’s class in several ways. A district spokesperson said Ms. Lynass will not be disciplined for these infractions. Jim’s class, however, was labeled a “problem.” This year, Jim is on a leave of absence. Next year, he retires.

“You got to blame it on something
(Blame it on the rain)
(Blame it on the stars)
Whatever you do don't put the blame on you”

Teachers, parents and students tend to be blamed because they have little voice. Even as Dr. Stowell and her curriculum coordinators say publicly that no one knows how to solve the math problem – that “no one has a silver bullet” – they refuse to listen to the people who DO know how to solve the math problem.

People all over the world HAVE solved the math problem, just by teaching it properly. That’s all it takes. They teach it. They don’t blame teachers, students, legislators, a fake lack of money, new standards, student hormones, parents, society, or students’ alleged bad attitude. They don’t ask students to learn mathematics by cutting out paper dolls, playing with molding clay and straws, or counting bird calls. They don’t expect children to teach math to each other or to themselves. Recognizing that it’s silly to teach mathematics by not teaching it, people all over the world just get up there and teach it – effectively, efficiently, with little fanfare but with superior results.

In Spokane, it would be refreshing to hear administrators say, “We’ve really screwed this up. We don’t have a problem with quality teaching; what we have here is a failure in administration. We should all leave right now, give up our pay, our bonuses, our travel allowances and our fancy offices. We stink. We should give back several years of pay. In fact, we should pay the students for what we’ve done to them.”

But I doubt we’ll ever hear anything from Spokane administrators acknowledging their responsibility for the mess that is K-12 math instruction. It’s time board members took Dr. Stowell to task. She and some of her employees have said that no one knows how to solve the math problem. This is both arrogant and incorrect. A positive step toward fixing the math problem in Spokane would be for Nancy Stowell, the math curriculum coordinators, their supervisors – and sure, while we’re at it, Razak Garoui – to resign.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:Rogers, L. (August, 2009). "Blame math problem on administrators." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Aug. 31, 2009, on, at:

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