The responses I got that day drove me to more questions. By October, my curiosity had become a calling; by January, it became a book project. This book wasn't what I'd planned to do; it became something I had to do.
My research uncovered the lies, ego and opportunism that have turned public education into a public disgrace. School districts across America have betrayed millions of families. Self-serving, self-important "educators" have tortured the process to death with their off-the-wall theories as they grasp for billions of taxpayer dollars. And despite being filled with the nicest, most caring teachers and principals you'd ever want to meet, Spokane Public Schools (SPS) is nearly a "perfect storm" of what's wrong.
There isn't room here to tell you everything I've discovered, so for now I'll focus on mathematics. (Spokane uses three reform curricula: "Investigations in Number, Data and Space"; "Connected Mathematics"; and "Core-Plus Mathematics.") "Reform mathematics" is the current education fad, but it's less about mathematics and more about how educators want to teach math. Reform is heavy on problem solving, estimation, calculators, computers, group work and constructivist approaches (where children figure out things for themselves). It's typically light on basic arithmetic, practice and direct teaching.
Sadly, students whose teachers depend on reform curricula are less likely to know how to multiply vertically, do long division, manage fractions and exponents, or handle much algebra beyond the basics.
They're likely to add on their fingers, become dependent on calculators and be confounded by the simplest arithmetic. They're likely to estimate and "think outside of the box," but less likely to know whether their estimations are in the right galaxy.
Reform curricula are popular, but not because they work best or because scientific research supports their efficacy. They're popular because they've been promoted around the country as being "exemplary." Here's how that happened.
In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published new standards that focused on problem solving, estimation and calculators, and downplayed "rote use of symbols and operations," "rote practice" and "teaching by telling."
Several of those same authors then developed curricula based on the standards. The National Science Foundation financed several of the curricula, called them "exemplary" and paid to disseminate them around the country. (The NCTM has denied that it advises school districts, uses the word "reform" or is publicly funded.)
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Education solicited commercial mathematics curricula. Proposals were to be based on NCTM Standards. Despite public protestations from 200-plus professionals, the final list was endorsed by Education Secretary Richard Riley and widely promoted.
Which came first, the NCTM standards or colleges of education that promote reform philosophy? I don't know, but they're in sync now.
As this flawed philosophy scuttled around the country, the children's math skills fell through the floor. Ironically, the more children struggled, the harder reform advocates pushed. Meanwhile, standards were revised, pass scores were lowered and assessments became easier. Critical math skills, including long division and multiplication, were deemed "unnecessary." Ninth-grade math class became a game with molding clay and pipe cleaners.
In 2007, Washington's K-12 math standards (which were guided in part by the NCTM standards) were found to be inadequate and unclear. The rewrite of the flawed standards has now cost taxpayers more than $1.65 million.
Now parents are supposed to celebrate because state Superintendent Terry Bergeson has modestly increased math requirements (effective 2013) and will replace the 10th-grade math WASL with end-of-course tests. And despite pitifully low WASL scores (especially in math and science), struggling schools have won state awards for how well they're doing.
That's known as "spin."
So at what point does "spinning" become deceit? I say it's when the intent is to deceive. Estimates of WASL costs are typically partial figures, covering just state costs and the actual tests. Estimated dropout figures and graduation rates typically exclude students whose performance would depress the numbers. Statistics that place Washington at first in this or at the top of that are typically extracted from reports that put Washington in the middle of a nation whose performance is generally abysmal.
Bergeson can pluck, parse and work the statistics until they say what she wants, but the actual data tell a gloomy tale. Ethnic groups and lower-income families suffer, it's true, but don't kid yourself: The gifted and talented are some of the most neglected students in the state and across the country.
Laurie Rogers lives in Spokane.