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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hold education bureaucracy accountable, or lose your right to do it

By Laurie H. Rogers

“Villainy wears many masks, none so dangerous as the mask of virtue.”-- Ichabod Crane, in the 1999 film version of “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
"If you're going through hell, keep going."–Walt Disney

Those who still think America’s public schools are focused on academics are behind the times. Money, control and influence are the priorities now. You can tell because of the battle being fought behind the scenes in our school districts over open government.

Citizens who want to know what government schools are doing with our dollars and children are finding that many in leadership don’t want us to know. As we push for information, they’re pushing back. This struggle is taking place earnestly – even fiercely. It’s also happening quietly, largely because the media aren’t much help. (Many of those whose job is to inform the public have become sycophantic defenders of the government and aggressive attackers of the people.)

Media Response to Records Requests and the PDC’s Investigation
Washington State’s Public Records Act provides citizens with the legal right to obtain records from public agencies. This legal right is necessary for transparency and accountability. If citizens aren’t informed and involved in holding governments accountable, governments become corrupt.

In September 2011, I sifted through more than a thousand records from Spokane Public Schools (SPS). It appeared to me that the school district actively campaigned for its 2009 bond and levy and also assisted in a 2011 campaign for a school board candidate (which would be violations of state law RCW 42.17.130). I filed a formal complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission. After reviewing it, the PDC announced it would investigate. That investigation is ongoing.

(It’s important to know that if citizens don’t file PDC complaints, no one will.)

Despite this formal investigation of the second largest school district in Washington State, most media either declined to mention the investigation or have criticized and mocked it. I was labeled as a “loud critic” and implied to be incompetent, a conspiracy theorist and “less than fully hinged.” Certain local media suggested that my motives were improper and self-serving.

In February 2012, a school administrator implied in The Inlander that I’m an “abusive” public records requester. In a phone call asking for an interview, Inlander reporter Nick Deshais said: “I'm doing a story on the Spokane Public Schools trying to change state law to charge reasonable costs for public records requests. They say about 75% of their requests in the last year have come from you, therefore suggesting it is you who are at fault for this request.”

(I would be happy to stack up the number of my requests against the number of Spokesman-Review requests for data, information, quotes, records, ideas, and canned, happy little stories.)

In Deshais’ article, two other citizens also were implied to be abusive, although each filed just one records request with SPS. On May 25, a citizen transferred her request to someone else because of the district’s handling of her request. In an email to the district, this citizen explained:

… the district has made my name well known through a series of e-mails worded in such a way that has raised unwarranted alarm in the public while subtly suggesting members of the public consider taking legal action. The District has also publicly implied that I am an abusive public records requestor, despite that I have made but one request, and although it is my legal right to do so. As a result of these actions by the District, I have been the recipient of hostility from many members of the public, both known and unknown to me. The District has imposed this attitude upon its employees as well, which has directly (led) to negative and hostile encounters … and additionally placed undue stress upon our family.
School District Response to Requests for Public Records
Many people don’t realize that the Public Records Act allows citizens to make records requests anonymously, and without having to explain intent. However, SPS began notifying people about certain requests, repeatedly identifying requesters by name. Administrators told citizens that injunctions could be filed against the requests, and they offered to talk with citizens about it by phone. They told me that people were “concerned” about one of my requests but they planned to keep notifying people unless I modified the request. These actions seemed to me, a requester, to be purposefully intimidating.

The district told citizens, “Unfortunately, the Washington State Public Records Act does not allow public agencies (such as School Districts) to ask why a requester is seeking public record information.” Actually, it’s fortunate that citizens don’t have to explain themselves to public agencies. Public agencies, however, do have the responsibility of explaining themselves to citizens.

SPS has attempted to excuse its notifications by saying it’s trying to protect private email addresses. But last year, I allowed the district to redact email addresses, and the district notified people anyway.

School District Assault on the Public Records Act
In 2011, the SPS board also began an assault on the PRA by making it a Legislative Priority to charge records requesters for the district’s personnel costs to compile public records (as opposed to the copying costs allowed by law). Directors asked for help from Sen. Lisa Brown, and her bill, SB 6576, would have required all school districts to charge those personnel costs. Thankfully, the bill failed, but SPS has indicated it might try for the law again.

Those salaries are already paid with taxes. Why would citizens have to pay them again just to obtain public information? Most couldn’t afford it. Such a law would essentially eliminate citizen access to public records where it comes to school districts – which I suspect was the goal.

SPS claims this Legislative Priority is all about costs. Yet, certain administrators appear to have taken purposeful steps to inflate the costs of responding to public records requests and to make the process more burdensome for them and for citizen requesters.

Golly, What’s In Those Records, Anyway?
SPS administrators persistently claim that their efforts and their levies and bonds are “for the kids.” It’s important to understand how your dollars are being spent. Absorb the bare fact that certain government officials want to charge you for the privilege of knowing what they’re doing.

How much should requesters pay for hundreds of Maxine comics that district employees sent to each other on district time (such as those I received along with records on the levies)? How much for hundreds of outside newsletters, FUSE Washington emails, legislative updates, and correspondence with money advocates – frequently sent and forwarded on district time?

How much should we pay for the district’s incessant and pervasive whining, complaining and campaigning for money – for bonds, levies, simple-majority propositions and other money initiatives and legislation? How much to see administrators purposefully lobby new 18-year-olds (i.e. potential voters on bonds and levies) on school property?

How much should we pay to see if the union and district assisted a school board candidate’s elective campaign, or if the superintendent, associate superintendent, and pro-bond/levy group Citizens for Spokane Schools worked together closely and perhaps privately on “levy/bond promotional matters”? (These issues are at the heart of the PDC investigation.)

How much should we pay for the hundreds of daily communications on district time with the union and the media? (It’s a wonder anyone has time to breathe, much less educate a child.) Just 10 months of communications between SPS and The Spokesman-Review reportedly produced 40,000 records (an average of about 133 per day). How much for public records that were completely redacted (blacked out) for supposedly not being about district business, yet which used district servers and were sent on district time?

How much should requesters pay to learn that the district treats friendly reporters and allies much better than other taxpayers? How much to know that, in return, local media appear to ask little of the district, seeming to prefer happy sound bites over real information? How much to see all of the obsequious fawning over each other when there’s something to be gained?

How much should we pay to see the leadership badger employees day after day after day to vote on the levy, don’t forget the levy, tell your friends and family to vote on the levy, vote, vote, vote, vote, 800 jobs are at risk, maybe yours, too, nothing will look the same if the ballot fails, programs are at risk, but look at what you’ll get if it passes!? How much to find out where those supposed 800 at-risk jobs are? (I asked that question, but SPS either doesn’t know or won’t say.)

How much should requesters pay for multiple copies of electronic records that were purposefully printed out, then scanned back in (in some cases prompting an extra charge for scanning)? How much for records that have all metadata removed, attachments included separately (thus creating more records), recipients missing, BCCs (i.e. blind carbon copies) not articulated, email addresses inaccessible, headers of earlier records missing, and which are now not searchable except by opening every record? How much for the thousands of emails the district sent out regarding these records requests? (Each also is a public record and subject to records requests.)

How much should we pay for information that should be online and easily accessible, but that wasn't or isn’t – such as the board’s Legislative Priorities, late additions to board packets, contracts for the current superintendent and the incoming superintendent, and district instructions to board directors (including a prepared script) on how to help promote bonds and levies? How much to see a list of titles of the curricular materials used in SPS? (In 2009, this list of titles was 56 pages long.)

How much should requesters pay to determine if certain district meetings were held without notice, minutes not taken of certain district and board meetings, pertinent material not posted, or critical decisions made away from the public eye?

This SPS Financial Report – which is provided online – is enlightening. See document pages 52-54.
  • Notice that the category of “Instruction” includes supervision, the Department of Teaching and Learning, principals, and counseling and health services (page 53).
  • Notice that “Public Activities” (which includes daycare and KSPS) cost $8.2 million (page 54).
  • Notice that the district’s interest payments on outstanding capital bonds now total more than $20 million (pages 6 and 20).
  • Notice that the school board now costs taxpayers almost $1 million per year (page 53), and that the board still overspent its budget by $66,420.
  • Notice that “Food Service” cost taxpayers $11.4 million (page 53). How much do you think we should pay to learn that SPS purposefully aims to feed adults with the children’s free meals program, so it can reach a 70% level of participation?
How much to know that – despite persistent claims of budget “cuts” – the district’s operating budget has actually increased by tens of millions since 2002, and the total budget (including capital projects and debt service) has increased by more than $200 million?

Did you know that certain students are counted as more than one student for funding purposes? How much should we pay to see an obsessive focus on increasing FTE (full-time equivalent) revenue, juxtaposed next to a disdain for taxpayers? In thousands of school district records, I’ve seen little administrative concern for the children beyond how they can be used:
Work Now to Keep an Open Government, Or Fight Later to Get it Back
Open-government laws on Public Records, Open Public Meetings and Public Disclosure are key to retaining a transparent and accountable government. Governments (including government schools) that are closed to the people are likely to move beyond the control of the people. Protecting our children, our communities and the Republic begins right here and now by keeping the window open on government activity, including school districts.

I’m trying to help keep that window open. Please stand with me, or stand to lose it all.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is

Rogers, L. (May 2012). "Hold education bureaucracy accountable, or lose your right to do it." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published June 2 on Education Views at:

This article was published June 4 on Education News at:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Renowned STEM high school now includes remedial math

[Note from Laurie Rogers: This article was previously published in The Washington Post on May 25. It is republished here with permission from the author.]

By John Dell

Once upon a time, President Ronald Reagan visited Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to celebrate the creation of a school for students likely bound, by interest and aptitude, for productive lives as scientists, engineers and mathematicians. The president heralded Jefferson as a sign of the nation’s renewed commitment to excellence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

From the outset, the Jefferson admissions policy was controversial. Rather than being open to all students by lottery, as some might expect and others might demand from a school supported with public funds, the process was designed to match students with high aptitude and interest in STEM fields with a demanding STEM-focused curriculum. Located in an area with one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in the world, there was sufficient number of students with truly “nerdy” interests and demonstrated readiness to support such a specialized school.

Over the years, Jefferson attracted promising STEM students and their families from around the region, the country and the world to Northern Virginia. The school also came to attract exceptional teachers, many of whom had PhDs in math and science fields.
  • For more than a generation, three critical elements of Jefferson remained intact:
  • A coherent community of students with an interest and aptitude in STEM.
  • An independent, adaptive curriculum targeted to that community.
  • A teaching staff dedicated to providing a deeper start in STEM areas than is generally available to U.S. teens.
Above all, what made Jefferson special was the extraordinary learning environment created by assembling a critical mass of truly prepared students.

But that was the old Jefferson. Today we have a new Jefferson. At the new Jefferson, students are no longer selected primarily on the basis of their promise in science, technology and mathematics. One-third of the students entering Jefferson under the current admissions policy are in remediation in their math and science courses.

Teachers are spending more time figuring out how to get students over challenges universally conquered at the old Jefferson and less time adapting the program to the changing world of STEM.

At the new Jefferson, a premium is placed on conforming to the methods and structures of the Fairfax County Public Schools system. And at the new Jefferson, some of the most promising middle school math students are routinely passed over, this being just one consequence of an admissions policy more typical of charter schools, where a large portion of admissions decisions result from random selection, albeit from a pre-screened pool.

Make no mistake, admission to the new Jefferson is still highly competitive. But Jefferson students are now selected using an admissions process that is highly random, subjective, and devoid of measures that distinguish students with high aptitude in STEM. This process that is more about memory, language skill, motivation to be successful in college admissions, test prep and just plain luck than the best available indicators of promise as a future scientist, engineer or mathematician.

Jefferson’s teachers are in the process of adapting to the new spectrum of students, but a fundamental shift has occurred. The old Jefferson was never a route to increased STEM achievement in the general school population. Rather, it was created to nurture promising STEM students at just the point where such students come into their real power — where their brains are literally fired up and ready to go. The regional commitment to the old Jefferson, tenuous from the start, has finally been overwhelmed by other agendas. A genuine success has been followed by political failure to embrace and sustain it.

If the success of a school is measured by accomplishments of its alumni, then the old Jefferson was a blazing success. Alumni of the old Jefferson have been creating wealth in the country’s top research universities, technology companies and labs for nearly two decades. Today the hand of Jefferson alumni can be seen making significant contributions in virtually every major STEM field. Some members of the local educational establishment and media have celebrated the passing of the old Jefferson, but elsewhere around the world the manifest efficiency and ­wealth-creation effect of the old Jefferson are well appreciated, leading to adoption and extension of the model.

But for all the teenage nerds in Northern Virginia whose brains are itching to find a community in which to start their journey building the future: Most certainly and, sadly, the old Jefferson has left the building.

John Dell holds a Master of Science and PhD in physics from the University of Maryland. He has taught physics at TJHSST for the past 23 years, including AP Physics-C, Computational Physics, Optics, and Quantum Mechanics. He has been recognized for high school STEM teaching by the U.S. Department of Education in the Presidential Scholars Program, by Stanford and Harvey Mudd Colleges, and the Intel STS. Dell has taught more members of the US physics Olympiad team than any other teacher in the country. He has served as staff in the Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics, and as assistant Director and Director of the Research Science Institute (RSI), a summer science research institute in science and mathematics held at MIT each summer. Dell also has worked with the Center for Excellence in Education (CEE) on occasional interesting projects, the current one being cloning RSI at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology ( KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

Note from Laurie Rogers: For further understanding of the situation at TJHSST, and of the situation in other schools relative to student preparation in math and science, please take a moment to read the comments on the Washington Post Web site.
If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

Monday, May 14, 2012

America's math problem: What is it, why do we have it, and what will it do to America?

[Note from Laurie Rogers: On May 1, a Spokane high school student asked if she could interview me for a pre-AP English paper she was writing on mathematics instruction. Below are her questions and my responses. This student received feedback from others on her questions and decided against posting her essay. It's too bad. It is a good essay.]

By Laurie H. Rogers

1) What do you think are the problems which are going to arise from poor math being taught to current students when they grow up and run America?

Most of the students will not be able to run America. I know you’re asking about math, but math is only the most visible problem in our government schools.

Today’s established workers are beginning to retire. There aren’t enough young Americans prepared to take over the reins. It isn’t just Spokane, and it isn’t just the STEM fields. Reform math, a lack of phonics or grammar, extreme constructivism, deceitful data, politically biased materials and approaches (a Spokane teacher openly advocates in his classroom for “revolution”!), obstructed teachers, questionable elective activity and misspent dollars are national problems.

Our public-school graduates don’t know enough math or grammar, how to work individually, how to analyze an argument, how to properly form and support their own argument, or that they should value truth over consensus. Many can’t read cursive writing – and cursive is important. Increasingly, government agencies and businesses hire from other countries. Colleges give seats to foreign students over local students. Who will run our nuclear facilities, fly our airplanes or be our doctors and engineers? Who will stand up for individual rights, the Constitution, the law, a free press or even truth? Who will run the country? Who will lead it? Who will defend it?

Look at Spokane – at the empty buildings, for-lease signs, empty stores in the malls, and failing businesses. Buildings that fall empty in Spokane frequently stay that way. Many are empty for years. The next generation should be starting businesses in them. Everyone blames “this economy.” This economy requires a ready and eager workforce. Too much of our workforce is undereducated, underprepared and uncertain. You can’t grow a city’s economy or run a community on Gonzaga Prep graduates and those few who manage to escape unscathed from SPS.

Public schools could learn from the military, homeschoolers and certain private schools like G-Prep – but they refuse to do it. How many instructional coaches do you suppose G-Prep has? How many teaching days do military instructors miss for “professional development”? How many people in a “Department of Teaching and Learning” – a misnamed department if I ever saw one – does G-Prep have? How much “discovery learning” do military recruits do? How much money per student does it cost the military to teach a high-school graduate basic math? How much time does it take any of these people to teach what the public schools won’t?

In public schools, administrative incompetence doesn’t result in firing; it results in a flood of excuses, blaming of teachers, and more taxpayer dollars for raises, promotions, awards, grants, studies, conferences, professional development and a de facto federal takeover.

Most public-school graduates will never get the academic skills they need. What will the country do with a workforce that lacks basic skills? This grim situation produces discontent, crime, gangs, drug abuse, poverty, social decay, and eventually – left long enough – social upheaval.

It’s ironic that the district blames poverty for many of its failures. As it blames poverty, it contributes to the poverty problem. Poverty is not the cause of the math problem. It’s the excuse, and it’s exacerbated by an administrative refusal to provide students with basic academic skills.

2) Why is the transition to teaching math in a more effective way taking so long?

It’s taking so long because administrators believe that the thing that needs to happen – direct teaching of efficient, effective and sufficient academic material – is wrong-headed. They do everything in their power, going to ridiculous lengths, to keep it out of the classrooms. Public records indicate that much district opposition to traditional math borders on hysteria.

Therefore, the way things are going, the transition will take forever. The current incarnation of reform math has been around since the 1980s, and it’s coming back – although in Spokane it never left.

The colleges of education continue to pump out teachers and administrators who love reform math, whole language instruction (not phonics), political advocacy (in math), and extreme constructivism. In 2010, I attended the 49th Annual Mathematics Conference in Spokane, where graduate students in the College of Education at UW put on several presentations. One presenter said that children who don’t want to learn math in groups fall into one of four categories: “bad apple,” “jerk,” “depressive,” and “slacker.” When I challenged this, she told the group, “We KNOW that children have to learn in groups. We KNOW that.” I asked a presenter for data on his discovery program, and he said: “Our goal here isn’t to prove anything; it’s to say, ‘How do we move teachers in this direction?’” Another asked why I attended if I didn’t agree with them. Another called struggling children “dummies.” As far as I know, I was the only person asking for proof or challenging their underlying premises about math instruction. Over two days of presentations, absolutely no supporting data was offered, and no one but me asked for it.

Many of their attitudes and trends are abusive to the children, and I don’t use the word lightly. Students drop out or graduate exhausted, bored, frustrated, confused, overworked, frightened, underprepared, sure they’re mathematically incompetent, yet filled with fake bravado … Math skills are the tip of the iceberg. For most of them, the damage is forever. They come out of public schools hating and fearing math, and they pass on that hatred and fear to the next generation.

And yet, decision-makers remain willfully ignorant of the students’ reality. (Read the “Betrayed” chapter on the OODA Loop.) People who don’t have children in public schools can afford to remain ignorant, to not stand up for the children and the taxpayers, and to not tell the people the truth. We have little or no leverage to replace them, and there is almost no accountability for the damage. When a $100,000+ administrator (who’s in charge of the math program), says to the school board, “No one knows how to solve the math problem,” why is she not replaced?

Superintendent Nancy Stowell said to me in 2008: “Sometimes I think people don’t want to know because when [you know, you have to] do something about it.” No kidding. She and her administrators have been told repeatedly that their program isn’t working. Instead of fixing it, they tend to “shoot” the messengers. How can we possibly fix a problem the leadership refuses to acknowledge?

On top of that, the Common Core State Standards – adopted unseen, untested, and largely unfunded by districts and states across the country – are leading districts back into reform math. This was my prediction; it is now fact. Districts are using the CCSS to adopt reform math and whole language programs. They call it a “new” way, but it’s the same recycled, reform, “student-centered,” constructivist, “best practices” garbage we’ve been drowning in since the 1980s.

There are slivers of success out there. But too many self-interested decision-makers are motivated to keep things as they are. Many spend taxpayer dollars getting laws passed to stop the public from knowing the truth or from being able to effect any positive change. They’ve also supported laws to blame teachers for dismal outcomes and to give themselves a free pass.

3) What do you think is the biggest problem with the way modern math is being taught?

Biggest problem #1: The most efficient, most effective algorithms are purposefully not being taught. Biggest problem #2: Administrators are convinced reform math and extreme constructivism would work if teachers would just do it right. From my book:

School districts nationwide have adopted “reform” approaches to mathematics. These approaches downplay (or avoid) “traditional” procedures, equations, practice, and memorization. The teacher is supposed to guide, not teach. Reform depends on constructivism (also known as “inquiry” or “discovery learning”), where students work in groups and on their own to “construct” or “discover” their own knowledge and methods for solving problems. Reform math focuses less on accuracy, efficiency, and achievement than on student-constructed strategies. Reform comes under many names: “problem based,” “standards based,” “inquiry based,” “discovery based,” “student centered,” “NSF funded,” and so forth.In addition, Chapter 5 in my book, “Corner 2: The curriculum” provides an overview that argues that mathematics is really quite simple to teach to children. That overview would be good to quote. Also from that chapter: People who are pro-reform say that reform math programs and discovery learning styles get students to “think mathematically.” With discovery, children supposedly explore, create, make connections, communicate, collaborate, build their own strategies for solving problems, and become “math literate,” all while having fun. A traditional approach to teaching mathematics, they say, doesn’t work, doesn’t meet the students’ needs, and isn’t useful in the twenty-first century. It’s bizarre. Traditional math took us to the moon and constructed bridges, railroads, skyscrapers, computers, microscopes, and airplanes. What reformers have been doing has not worked well for the students. Yet, administrators keep pouring time and money into reform math, letting teachers and students swing as they run into the west looking for that elusive sunrise.4) How will the United States change if math skills with the new generation don’t improve?

I don’t know. It’s no exaggeration to say that the country is at risk. Refer back to my first answer. Who will run our industries and hospitals? Who will protect our nuclear facilities? I began my odyssey because of my daughter. I persevered on behalf of 28,000+ students who aren’t mine. But the deterioration in math skills spans the country. This nationwide educational malpractice puts America in jeopardy. It’s discouraging, but it’s also motivating. I am deeply concerned and worried. I do not want my daughter to live in a country at war with itself.

5) I have always thought there were two main ways to teach math, which were child-centered discovery learning, and traditional, where you do multiple problems and are taught how to do the math. Are there any other ways to teach math?

Some people promote a “balanced” approach, but what does that mean? Some administrators use the term “balanced” to allay concerns while continuing to emphasize reform math.

Math is what it is. There is a most-efficient way to teach it and myriad less-efficient or inefficient ways. Discovery learning is inefficient. Reform math is ineffective. Together, they don’t lead to proficiency in math. But many administrators do not appear to value efficiency, effectiveness, sufficiency, proficiency, or even right answers. In math, right answers are everything. There is little point to “deeper conceptual understanding” if the end result is incorrect, and I challenge the idea that you can have “deeper conceptual understanding” without procedural skills. Therefore, the best method of teaching math will entail the most efficient, most effective algorithms and approaches. That eliminates extreme constructivism and reform math.

Some pro-reformers have created a harsh caricature of traditional math, which they then criticize. Traditional math can be interesting and fun. In fact, if the teaching is efficient, that leaves more time for interesting activities. Why force students to continually waste time in groups trying to re-invent, for example, the Pythagorean Theorem?

There’s a renewed push for online learning. (Bill Gates is all for it – imagine that.) It’s hard on the eyes, for one thing, and not scientifically proved as being more effective than traditional instruction. Additionally, when I tutor, I see the need for a personal touch, for immediate, hands-on feedback and encouragement. Good teachers modify their instruction to suit their students. I use the same materials to tutor as I did for my daughter, but I pause in different places, choose different practice problems, provide more or less practice, and slightly different explanations … Until you get to Algebra II, the majority of students should receive the same math skills.

Below is a description of how I tutored my daughter. It’s part of an email I sent to an advocate friend who asked me to describe my approach for her legislators:


"Our daughter blossomed under Saxon Math, supplemented with older versions of Singapore Math. We sent lessons with her, and she worked quietly and efficiently with them. No calculators until Algebra II. She preferred this approach to the noisy, constructivist classroom. She went at her own pace. When she needed extra time, we paused for extra practice. We tested her regularly to be sure of understanding -- but she didn't view it as testing. She saw it as being sure of herself. Saxon Math is great that way. There is no stress, no confusion, no huge leaps in understanding. It's clear, concise, logical, well ordered, incremental…everything you want in a math program. Well, it's everything PARENTS want in a math program.

"Every evening, I wrote down which questions I wanted her to do, enough for the math period, and she did them the next day. If I knew we wouldn't be able to work on it that night for some reason, I gave her several days' worth. But I never let her get ahead of me. Every night, we went over her work so that I could correct misunderstandings right away. (Compare that to many classrooms, where work sits for a week or more and misunderstandings are allowed to compound.) I added a few drawings for fun. A ghost (me) provided instructions, and a sarcastic kitty (also me) provided humor. It didn't take a lot of time. (Singapore took more time than Saxon, but it was worthwhile. If I had to choose, however, I would choose Saxon over Singapore for the skills and amount of practice in Saxon. But I liked the two together until we hit Algebra I. Then we left Singapore and just stayed with Saxon.) Throughout, Saxon did the heavy lifting.

"In Saxon, the instructions are there. Good process is taught (write the equation, fill in what you know, solve for the variable, answer the question being asked, check your work, do everything vertically so you can see what you're doing, and show the work so you don't have to try to juggle multiple steps in your head). I actually had to reteach this process -- it's one of the problems I have with reform math -- it teaches very bad process that leads to many errors. And it isn't easy to reteach things. It took months to get the bad process out of our daughter. She kept leaping ahead without writing things down, and she's a quick learner, so most times she was right. But she made many errors. Once we got her to do proper process, she settled down and made dramatically fewer mistakes. It's like that with every student I tutor.

"With Saxon Math, there is proper application of concepts, but not foolishness, and no political agenda. Over seven months, our daughter went through Saxon 6/5, 7/6, and Algebra 1/2, plus Singapore Math 5a, 5b, 6a and 6b. It seems like a lot, but there was no loopy group work to slow her down. She just learned it, practiced it, and moved on. Then, over the summer of that year, we finished Algebra 1/2 and began Algebra I. The next year, we let the school handle it. But in 8th grade, faced again with a program we didn't want and a methodology we didn't want, we pulled her out. That year, we finished up Algebra I and began Algebra II. She got about 2/3 of the way through Algebra II by the end of 8th grade. (We probably could have finished it, but we had to deal with Algebra I first. There were important concepts missing from the school's approach to Algebra I. Again, not the teacher's fault -- the district kept dickering with math that year, forcing bad materials on the teachers. The result was almost unintelligible.)

"Math is a logical ordering of skills. It is what it is. Missing skills lead to missing understanding, which leads to wrong answers, which leads to frustration, confusion, and bad outcomes. It doesn't matter about anyone's feelings, or political agendas, or working in groups to "scaffold understanding," whatever that means. It's about getting right answers. Math is a tool. If you use it properly, you get right answers. If you don't use it properly, you get wrong answers, bad outcomes, frustration, confusion, and straight As from the public-school system, whereupon you try to go to college and wind up in remedial arithmetic (which you are likely to fail).

"I don't make this stuff up. Math is the easiest thing in the world to teach to children. Schools say it's hard. It really isn't, not when it's done properly. Saxon does it properly. And I'm not making any money from Saxon. I have a loaning library at my house. I often recommend people buy the older series secondhand from homeschooling bookstores, or off of eBay or Amazon."

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (May 2012). “America's math problem: What is it, why do we have it, and what will it do to America?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Common Core research is "just another piece of misleading advocacy"

By Ze'ev Wurman

"What Schmidt is doing here borders on the dishonest."
- Ze'ev Wurman

Last week Bill Schmidt, of Michigan State University, rolled out in a highly publicized national press event the “key conclusions” from his recent research. We can’t see any of the underlying research, as Schmidt did not publish it. Its supposed findings, however, already got so much uncritical exposure and praise from the usual suspects that it is important to put Schmidt’s words in their proper context. And that context seems more problematic than organizations like Achieve, or Chiefs for Change, who sponsored this research, would like us to believe.

I have reviewed Schmidt’s presentation, and these are some of my observations.

1) First, we should note how carefully Schmidt hedges his bets. His first (and last) slide says that the Common Core Standards for Mathematics "[c]an potentially elevate the academic performance of America's students" (with the emphasis on the “potentially” in the original).

It is hard to imagine a more sweeping disclaimer—almost anything can "potentially" elevate academic performance. More money; more professional development; more unionization; more school choice; more selectivity in choosing teachers; better textbooks; better parent education via public campaigns; better movies from Hollywood that will improve character education and discipline of youth; and so on.

2) Schmidt repeats in multiple slides that parents and teachers support the Common Core Standards and claim to be familiar with them. A large fraction of teachers even supposedly believes it is prepared to teach them.

I can believe that teachers heard about them, but I doubt many have any real basis for liking them, or for claiming to be prepared to teach them. Other surveys found that most teachers and parents don't really know or understand the actual content of the standards and the implications of teaching them. After teachers actually try teaching them in the classroom and we see the assessments, maybe we could put more trust in these surveys.

3) On slide #2 (not including title page), Schmidt gives the old picture (from TIMSS '95 and '99) of topics progressions based on the so-called "A+" countries (TIMSS very high achievers). In the next slide (#3) he shows state "averages" generally following this pattern (due to his own influence a decade ago, to some degree). But then, on slide #4, he shows the Common Core mapping. It looks, at first glance, similar to the previous overall shape. Upon closer examination, however, we see that the order of the topics has changed, and a few new ones show up!

This sleight of hand is doubly troublesome because Schmidt, during the press conference, repeatedly referred to “looking at the pattern” that emerges and the “coherence” it implies. He never mentioned anything about rearranging old topics or adding new topics for the Common Core categorization. Clearly, the “coherent pattern” that is supposed to emerge is completely different if one re-arranges the sequence and the nature of the topics.

To observe how misleading—and, frequently, simply wrong—Schmidt is, one should closely compare slides #2 and #5. See this chart for a visual explanation. The left panel on the chart is Schmidt's slide #2. The right panel is his slide #5, where he reordered topics and semi-randomly added "dots" to indicate a better match to the A+ countries. The middle panel is how his chart #5 should have really looked like, taking his own -- even if sometimes wrong -- analysis of CC and putting the A+ "dots" on top. Do you see a "coherent progress and alignment" in the center? I don't.

For example, the “3D Geometry” topic is taught in the A+ countries in grade 7 and 8. In contrast, Common Core teaches this topic starting in grade 1(!) and until grade 8, with a two-year break in grades 3 and 4. To hide this, Schmidt moved this topic from the bottom in slide #2 to close to the top in slide #5.

With respect to “Measurement Estimation & Errors” and “Number Theory,” not only were these topics significantly moved between slides #2 and #5 to hide the fact that Common Core starts teaching them in grade 2 (while the A+ countries teach them only in grades 7 or 8), but also slide #5 wrongly (and misleadingly) marks the A+ countries as if they teach them starting already in grades 4-5, further minimizing the visual difference between them.

To convince yourself, simply check those same topics on slide #2. Another example is “Functions” that are handled by the A+ countries in grade 8, while Common Core topic (called “Patterns, Relations, & Functions” in slide #5) teaches them starting in grade 4 for a full five years, up to grade 8.

There are many more examples of such mislabeling between slides #2 and #5, such as “Properties of Whole Number Operations,” “Fractions,” “Percentages,” and more. All this does not speak kindly of the focus and coherence of the Common Core, and does not show a progression closely similar to that of the A+ countries.

Specifically, here is what Schmidt says (minute 14 of the press conference):

Using the very same TIMSS methodology of coding we took the documents from the Common Core and coded those. And I just want to make a one really important point, all of which is saying it is not somebody’s opinion whether the Common Core’s good or bad or indifferent. They really simply were graduate students given the job of coding and finding out what topics were taught at what grade levels. … Here is the graph that represents the CCSSM and you can see a very similar sort of shape to this to what you saw with the earlier slide with the A+ or the top achieving countries so this alone suggests a great deal of conformity between the two sets of standards.
Note his misleading use of “very same TIMSS methodology.” This means that the methodology of assigning standards to topics is the same, but not the order of the topics, or the topics themselves. Yet it is clearly his implication that they are identical when he urges us to “see a very similar sort of shape to this to what what you saw with the earlier slide with the A+ countries.”

What Schmidt is doing here borders on the dishonest. He switches the underlying topics and their order and then urges us to watch “a very similar” pattern, never mentioning that the pattern represents completely different underlying topics on the different charts—just as a magician makes sure the audience watches his face and not his hands.

If Schmidt’s misleading way of reorganizing topics and mislabeling what A+ countries do was not enough, one cannot even trust his underlying categorization of the standards. For example, he marks “Constructions Using Straightedge and Compass” as taught in grade 7 by the Common Core. Yet the Common Core clearly does not teach it before high school geometry. In grade seven the Common Core only expects students to draw shapes with ruler and protractor, not with straightedge and compass. This major difference between informal and formal geometrical constructions somehow escaped those “graduate students” who coded the standards “using the very same TIMSS methodology.”

4) In slide #5 we see that Schmidt, even with the tabulating errors, finds about 15% (18 of ~130) of the A+ standards in different grades than Common Core, sometimes two grades apart. Some of the Common Core topics are not in A+ countries and vice versa. But not all standards are made equal—not every topic is as important as the next, as any mathematician will easily tell you.

Except that Bill Schmidt, a statistician, does not go there—he’s after simplistic statistical correlation of badly classified standards.

5) An even bigger issue with the new list of categories is that we don’t know how these categories were put in place, and we still have no idea of the relative importance of topics. Was the categorization created long ago as the result of Schmidt’s research on curriculum over the last decade? Or was it custom-made for the Common Core? If it’s the latter, the whole comparison is meaningless and serves effectively only as advocacy research. It is easy to “tune” the categories so that they will show excellent alignment between standards of high-achieving countries and Common Core, or show a pseudo-coherent progression pattern by rearranging the topics.

I don’t know the answer to that, but at his talk, Schmidt did not mention what caused him to make the changes, or when.

6) Slide 6 shows a number-of-topics table, and other than observing a general reduction among the states between 1995 and now, there is little to say. It doesn't show that the Common Core is significantly "slimmer" than the state average, and certainly doesn't show that the Common Core is slimmer than any given state.

All this, even if we were sure that reducing the number of topics is of cardinal importance -- which we are not! One can easily accept that having a huge number of topics per grade is a problem, but at the same time, once you get to below 20-25 it is quite unclear that 21 is better than 25 and worse than 17. Could be just the opposite! This slide is yet another example of Schmidt's statistical leanings rather than his understanding of content -- it pretends to say something meaningful yet throws up mostly meaningless data in the air.

7) Slide #14 is probably the most indicative of the overall weakness of this whole story. Schmidt’s research is supposed to show “alignment” between Common Core and standards of high-achieving A+ nations, and hence “conclude” that Common Core will lead us to higher achievement because of that alignment. Yet here we see California at the top of the scale being Common Core-like, and Massachusetts being somewhere in the middle of the pack.

One does not need a PhD in statistics, however, to realize that Massachusetts had made extraordinary progress with their “mediocre” (by his measure) standards, while California made only a mediocre progress with its “exceptionally-aligned” standards. This, yet again, brings up Tom Loveless’s recent argument that the correlations (standards => achievement) are small and the causality argument is highly problematic.

Schmidt tries to address this visible problem in his story by developing a new measure of congruence that adds the rigor of state’s cut-scores, arguing that, in some mysterious way, cut-scores are reflective of the quality of the standards themselves. With this correction, Massachusetts suddenly moves up on his scale of congruency, and this is supposed to explain why it achieves so well. Yet adding cut-scores to a measure of the quality of the standards is unsupported by logic or reason. Cut-scores may indicate the seriousness that the state attaches to student achievement, its level of expectations from them, and possibly its quality of curriculum implementation. But cut-scores have little to do with the quality of the standards themselves.

This seems yet another example of creating a fancy statistical “measure of congruence” to “prove” a statistician’s point, while hiding the fact that this measure has neither educational nor policy logic behind it.

(As an aside, it is interesting that Schmidt studiously avoids mentioning cut-scores of the Common Core; we don’t know how high—or low—they will be set, and this is potentially a huge area of contention; it’s hard to see how Massachusetts and Mississippi will agree on common cut scores.)

To conclude, Bill Schmidt centers his argument around two themes: that the Common Core standards are similar to those of the A+ countries; and that states with standards more congruent to the A+ countries show bigger progress on the NAEP. To make the last claim work, Schmidt redefines “congruency” to include cut-scores for no logical reason. Both claims are unsupported by his own data and, in addition, his own data is riddled with errors.

Yet, the Chiefs for Change already tout that, “Dr. Schmidt’s research shows that state leaders are on the right track. Common Core State Standards have the potential to raise student learning and performance across America. Most importantly, they are competitive with the standards found in the highest achieving countries.”

What Dr. Schmidt presented is just another piece of misleading advocacy research, brought to you and paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and channeled through the friendly services of Achieve (which received a recent $375K grant for advocacy from the Gates Foundation), the Foundation for Excellence in Education (which received a recent $1M grant for advocacy from the Gates Foundation), CCSSO (which received $9.5M last year from the Gates Foundation to promote the Common Core), and Chiefs for Change (funded by the Foundation for Excellence in Education).

Ze'ev Wurman worked over 30 years in the high tech industry, most recently as the Chief Software Architect with Monolithic 3D, a semiconductor start-up in the Silicon Valley. He has a long involvement with mathematics standards and assessment in California and served on the 1997 Mathematics Framework Committee and on the STAR Mathematics Assessment Review Panel since its inception in 1998. He was a member of the 2010 California Academic Content Standards Commission that evaluated the suitability of Common Core’s standards for California. He was a member of the Teaching Mathematics Advisory Panel to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Between 2007 and 2009 Wurman served as a Senior Policy Adviser to the Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development in the U.S. Department of Education. Wurman has B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees in Electrical Engineering from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology.

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Heritage Foundation's Jennifer Marshall calls for parent choice in education

[Note from Laurie Rogers: On March 28, 2012, the Spokane College Women's Association (SCWA) hosted Jennifer Marshall, from the Heritage Foundation, who spoke on education reform. Jennifer gave me permission to republish her remarks. Since Jennifer's presentation was nearly an hour, I excerpted her remarks for this blog post. You can read the entire transcript of her March 28 remarks at this link.]

By Jennifer Marshall

... I want to begin by thinking through what education is all about and then talk about why we’re getting it wrong in the policy world and what we can do about that. … Too many times in policy in America we start out with assumptions that are wrong about the nature of a problem and then we go about slap-dash trying to fix it with the wrong type of solutions, which can end up simply making the problem worse and failing to resolve it. ...

Well, not surprisingly, because of the misdiagnosis of that problem, the so-called solutions have done very little to nothing to solve, and in some cases, have actually hurt the problem. We’re ending up with inter-generational poverty, where poverty gets handed down and dependency on government gets handed down from generation to generation. ...

Education deals ... with the whole person. It’s not … just about handing down information. It is about training a child to love what is good, telling them to understand what is wrong and differentiate right from wrong, good and bad, putting affection in their heart for the things that bring flourishing in our society and in each life. It is ideally education that will help answer the fundamental questions, the most important questions about the nature and purpose of a person’s own life, so helping a student answer who they are, where they’re going, what this life is about. Education should help a child answer that and point them to the authorities in their lives who can help them find those answers and spend a lifetime pursuing them. Education isn’t just about making a living. It’s about making a life. ...

Now, because education is about the whole person, that means it must respect the child in the context of relationships that precede the school … The school needs to respect relationships in the family that precede a child’s coming into the school, and that, too often, is not happening today. We take a child out of context, create a wall really between the educational process and parents’ authority and do damage to a child’s understanding of her place in the world beginning with family and moving on through religious congregations and community to the wider circles of our civic life together. … Those prior relationships are foundational and fundamental and should shape the way that we interact and understand the state’s relationship to us. It’s from those relationships that we get our own understanding of individual rights, individual liberty, and, therefore, the freedom that we enjoy here in this nation. …

This is not a value-neutral enterprise. Education will impart certain values to students. Therefore, we’ve got to be very concerned with what those values are and whether they’re the kinds of values that will maintain the principles on which this country was built, or whether they will be ones that will be eroding it ...

That means that parents … need to be afforded the authority to make judgments about what is going to be best for the education, not just the schooling, but the education of a child. We need to liberate parents to make those decisions. …

Systemic reform, the philosophy that was brought to Washington during the Clinton era, was the idea that education policy in Washington needs to deal with the whole school and leave no area of education off limits to the federal policy makers. Great. And so what we ended up with was Washington trying to act more and more like a school board, remotely trying to deal with thousands of different school districts all with different needs and different student populations, but trying to do this kind of systemic policy making. Well, sadly … it hasn’t worked.

This brought us to the presidency of George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind. … No Child Left Behind was a regrettable further concentration of power in Washington. What it did was to say systemic reform was built around the idea that if you just get states to set standards and align tests to them, then everything else will fall into place. The Clinton era ESEA didn’t have any teeth. Well, No Child Left Behind said systemic reform is the way to go and we’ll add teeth. …

Well, that brings us to today and what the Obama administration is doing. We share this much in common with the Obama administration, we are both not fans of No Child Left Behind, but we part ways after that. The Obama administration would like to fix the situation and fix education policy by creating a set of national standards and national tests to go with them. This has been watched as The Common Core initiative and it’s been portrayed to be a state-led initiative. Well, really it’s been led by associations of states that are not your elected officials, the Council of Chief State Schools Officers and The National Governors Association, and with lots of encouragement and even accelerating funding from Washington from the Department of Education. Specifically, the Obama administration has incentivized adoption of The Common Core initiative, that is, it has gotten states to adopt these national standards through the Race to the Top Initiative.

We have two criticisms of Race to the Top. Number one, it’s a run around Congress. It’s an end-run around Congress. Most administrations that have aggressive, new education policy know that they’ve got to get it through Congress and they work hard to do that and that is what the legislative sausage making is all about. …

What Race to the Top did was to offer 4.35 billion dollars, again, not much in the vast scheme of the whole education bureaucracy … but they have had a grant competition of ... Race to the Top. They have awarded twelve states part of that 4.35 billion dollars. They have made sure that all awards would go to those states that had adopted The Common Core.

Many states tried to get on board to get the Race to the Top money. Many spent countless hours. Some of these applications for Race to the Top funding were 1,000 pages long. … Forty states applied. Twelve states received funding. For the price of handing out 12 awards, the Obama administration was able to get more than 40 states on board with the Common Core initiative and waste all those hours on applying for money that most states never got and never will get. That’s the kind of policy making agenda that we’re seeing at the moment. It’s a very concerning one because it continues to centralize education content decisions. We’ve moved from the idea that states would set standards and tests and that the federal government would have oversight over those, to now the federal government is getting involved in setting and establishing the national standards and tests itself. A vast surrender of local education authority that citizens across this nation should be very concerned about. …

Now, we didn’t believe there was any constitutional role for the federal government to be involved in education in the first place, but as a first, baby step towards getting a constitutional restoration of our education policy at the state and local level, we suggested to just pull the federal government back to saying if you’re a 10% stakeholder, you certainly don’t get to call more than 10% of the shots. What that might look like in policy is instead of having dozens of programs that Washington must comply with, your hundreds of pages of policy making and rules and regulations, why don’t you just let states apply once to the federal government for their K-12 money. Make it efficient. Make it short. Make it simple and let them be on the hook for showing progress on their state tests and their accountability systems. … Let them figure out what their state students’ needs are and how they can best meet them. …

Some of you are probably asking the question, “Well, why send the money to Washington in the first place?” Exactly. And that’s what we hoped such a baby step would demonstrate is “Why are we sending this money to Washington?” Because a dollar that leaves Washington is not a dollar that arrives in the classroom. The best we could tell at the time that Pete Hoekstra was looking at this, it was something like 65, 70 cents on the dollar was making it to the local classroom. That’s quite significant attrition for resources getting to local education needs.

One of the costs of federal intervention then, number one – it terribly erodes good governance. Good governance in education would be responding to those who have true authority, parents and to local taxpayers. Instead, federal intervention has enlarged state and local bureaucracy. When the main federal intervention came in 1965 through ESEA, in the five years following that law, state education bureaucracy doubled. It doubled in those five years. Why did that happen? Because those bureaucracies became like parasites to the federal government. They saw that they could get money if they were watching Washington and dancing to Washington’s tune on education policy. Well, you need people to figure out how to do that.

That brings us to the second problem of how Washington erodes good governance when it intervenes in education. That is that it develops this client mentality on the part of states and localities. The client mentality means that state education officials are looking more toward Washington than they are to their true clients. The people that ought to be their true clients are, of course, parents and taxpayers. But they’re not responsive to those true clients, those true customers, because they’re busier trying to figure out how to get those dollars from Washington. Race to the Top is a perfect example of what we mean by that.

Third, Washington’s intervention disrupts the direct accountability that we want to see to parents and taxpayers. By the way, whenever you hear the word accountability thrown around education policy talks today, stop the person who is speaking and say, “What do you mean? Accountability to whom and for what?” Because we’re not for a vague notion of accountability, which usually means accountability to Washington for everything. We are for accountability to parents and local taxpayers for the use of their dollars and for the education of their children. That’s where the accountability should run. So we have a horizontal accountability that needs to be restored in place of this vertical accountability, the responding up the chain of command to Washington. We need to work on restoring horizontal accountability instead.

The other big cost of federal intervention is that it has created a compliance burden that really saps time and money. First, it diminishes funds in the ways I have talked about, diminishing a dollar that leaves Washington coffers, does not mean a dollar in the classroom, and there is a tremendous amount of wasted human capital. …

Well, where do we go from here? First of all, at the federal level we need to get the feds out of the systemic education reform business and we need to make way for state-level systemic reform. What does that mean at the federal level? That means abandoning The Race To The Top, abandoning The Common Core, and sending dollars and decision making back to those closest to the student. …

As far as state systemic reform goes, we’ve got to get incentives right on the school level and that’s going to need to be in three areas: Accountability, choice, and teacher reforms. Now, by accountability measures I mean transparency and accountability that are tailored for parents and taxpayers, not for bureaucrats in Washington. …

Choice is critically important as an accountability mechanism and as a finance reform. We need to think about different kinds of financing than the way that education is happening right now. Money should follow the students. Right now we are more worried about funding buildings and that’s ridiculous. That is why I began with the nature of what education is. If it’s a fundamentally relational endeavor and it’s about the whole child, well the dollars should be following the child, not the system or the school. So, let’s tailor education finance in that direction, which means providing school choice and letting parents decide where their student and the dollars will go. …

In terms of different models for school choice, we’re very excited about all of them. We’re excited about vouchers, tax credits, and one that we’re particularly watching as it develops because it seems very, very promising is the education savings account. Maybe some of you have heard about this, but essentially the state would allow a parent to have the dollars designated for their child’s education in an account and choose where to spend that money, be it a public, charter, private, religious, on-line, home school, hybrid of any of those. That’s the kind of diversity that we need to see. …

I want to close here with my vision of what I hope we’ll see in our lifetimes on education policy, and that is a real menu approach to how education is delivered in America. I named all those ways that education can be delivered, the public, private, on-line, home school, and so on hybrids of those. … It would be great if we stopped someone on the street and the answer was, when asked what education is: That’s the whole portfolio of decisions that I make for my child based on his or her needs right now to make sure that that child is always learning, always progressing, always developing towards their full potential. Learning how to make a life, not just a living. It would be great they could choose from any of the available options and mix and match to put that together in the right educational portfolio for the unique needs of that child as a whole person in the relational context in which they are. That would be the kind of education policy that would be true to the nature of the endeavor. True to the nature of what education is. …

Jennifer Marshall is the Domestic Policy Studies Director for the Heritage Foundation. She is the author of “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life and the Twenty-First Century.” You can read a complete transcript of Jennifer's March 28, 2012, remarks to the SCWA at this link.

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.