Monday, November 5, 2012

In defense of direct instruction: Constant constructivism, group work and arrogant attitude are abusive to children

By Laurie H. Rogers

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. … Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."
-- C.S. Lewis

Many educators believe children should learn math by struggling and failing, inventing their own methods, drawing pictures and boxes, counting on fingers, play-acting, continually working in groups, and asking several classmates for help before asking the teacher. This process of learning is called constructivism (also known as “discovery” or “student-centered learning”). Developed in the early 1900s, it was foisted on the country about 30 years ago, along with reform math curricula.

Proponents call constructivism “best practices” (as if calling it that can make it so). The supposed value of heavy constructivism is one of the most pernicious lies told today about education. Having listened now to students, parents, teachers and proponents of reform, I’ve come to see heavy constructivism as abusive to children. I don’t choose the word lightly.

I’ve heard proponents say outrageous things rather than acknowledge that children don’t prefer constant discovery and group work. At a 2010 math conference, a presenter said that children must learn in groups (“We know that,” she said), and that students who don’t want to do that fall into one of four categories: Bad apple, jerk, slacker or depressive. I was the only one in the room to challenge this; everyone else got into their little groups and prepared stupid skits about bad-apple children.

Welcome to the arrogance of public education. In the midst of “It’s all for the kids” and “We really care about those little kiddoes,” math class has become brutal and cruel.

My teenager said: “Educators talk as though students refuse to be taught, like we’re a dog that can’t be potty trained to use the outdoors. I mean, it’s not like we want to remain uneducated. It’s not like we want to be stuck in high school forever. We want to escape. We want to learn. When we say that we want something, we’re not trying to keep ourselves uneducated. So if we don’t want to work in a group, there’s probably a good reason. Maybe one of us has had a bad day, and we just don’t want to deal with other people. I mean, we all have those days. Maybe two of the people in the group are having a fight and you know that the whole day is going to be more about the fight than it is about the homework. There are so many reasons to not work in groups, besides issues with concentration and work level.”

Younger children don’t necessarily know why they don’t like something. Games can be fun, and reform classes are full of games. Some games are fun for a while; others are confusing; none leads to math proficiency. But students must play games, work in groups, explain things in several different ways, invent and discover, write paragraphs about math, draw boxes and circles, discuss math at length with classmates, play-act, use manipulatives, and take all day to get practically nowhere. The process can be excruciating, not just for natural leaders and quick learners, but also for children who are slower to learn; who feel sad, angry, shy or troubled; who are autistic, English-language learners or newer readers; who have behavioral issues; or who just don’t enjoy working in groups.

When did it stop being OK to be an individual?

Children who learn an efficient method at home and who pass it on to classmates also can find themselves being reprimanded. In today’s constructivist class, children must not deny their classmates the chance to struggle and fail. Students often aren’t even allowed to use the efficient methods their parents taught them, not even if those methods work better for them. They must suffer and fail along with everyone else. Naturally, they can come to resist the constructivist approach, whereupon they will be blamed for lacking motivation. Parents who resist it are seen as problems.

Parents know about connections between student frustration and deteriorating motivation, but proponents of reform are trained to not listen to parents. They say to parents: “You want those methods because they’re what you had as a child, but please don’t teach them to your children. It will confuse them.” Later, those parents will be blamed for their lack of involvement.

After a few years of reform math, many children decide they hate math. I’ve seen this attitude in second graders, third graders, fourth graders, and students from fifth grade on up. They’ve forgotten that they used to like math, that math is cool, that they used to be good at it. Suddenly, math is a huge problem. They need special help, intervention, a special ed program, counseling, drop-out prevention programs, and meetings with parents, teachers, a tutor or a mentor. Their life is spiraling out of control in front of their eyes, but in constructivist classrooms, there is nowhere to hide. Any problems are in plain sight, in front of every classmate.

I asked my daughter what effect it can have on students, to be failing a basic math class. She said:

“It can either have the effect of ‘I’m not good enough.’ You know, ‘The teacher’s spending all of this time on me, and I’m still not good enough.’ And kind of a depressing effect. Or it can be ‘Well, I’m bad at this, so who cares. I might as well skip school.’ Either way, very few students would thrive under that.”

About the idea that students must struggle and fail in order to learn math, she said:

“If 99% of the adults who said that were reversed back in time and put in a discovery classroom, they would have the same opinion that 99% of the kids do. …Saying that kids need to learn in groups and saying that kids need to struggle is so absolutely ridiculous and cruel to kids. School is supposed to be a refuge. It’s supposed to be the place where dreams come true and you can do anything. And it’s the start of your dreams. If you’re going to be an astronaut, if you’re going to be a lawyer, or change the world, school is where it starts. And you’re crushed before you even get half-way in the door.”

Children won’t typically say to adults, “I don’t like reform math” or “I don’t like constructivism.” Children tend to internalize problems and to blame themselves. They take their cues from the adults around them. So, they might say, “I’m not very good in math.” “I’ve never understood math.” "Math is hard." “Math isn’t my thing.” And I have heard that repeatedly, from an alarming number of students of all ages. What’s actually a failure in K-12 education has turned into a self-esteem problem for the children, to a point at which they literally panic over simple calculations. Their self-doubt and lack of skills can follow them forever, limiting them in innumerable ways – dark shadows on their life.

“I don’t get it” can quickly turn into “I hate math,” which can turn into “I hate school” which can turn into “I don’t want to go to school today,” which can turn into illness, dropping out, or behavioral or emotional issues. You’ve heard of “early warning signals” for dropping out? A known warning signal is failed math classes. But many schools gloss over that fact, while obstinately refusing to do the one thing that needs to be done: Allow the teachers to directly teach sufficient math to the students.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask the children. Take their difficulties to the district and listen to those adults blame everything on you, your children, your children's teachers, social issues, money, evolving standards, or some other stray-dog excuse. Then, fume just as I do, as those adults turn a blind eye to your children’s misery.

A mom wrote to me last week: “The reform math is tearing my child's self confidence, and her second-grade teacher told me last week that she sees the instant terror or fear on my daughter’s face when she asks them to bring their math materials up for their lesson. I can’t imagine feeling this way in school. … I never have felt so fearful of a subject as I see in my daughter’s face when I say let’s do math homework. Math to her is like a plague and she very easily starts crying because it is so puzzling in her mind. She is a very bright girl and makes straight As in every other subject.”

In constructivist classes, group work is the name of the game. Some math classes are taught entirely through group work. My daughter explained the problem she had with constant group work:

“The leader of the group has the responsibility of keeping everyone in line and on task, and making sure everyone in the group learns. And generally, the leader is going to be someone who cares about whether everyone learns. But the leader has no ability to make the end result happen, and no authority, and everybody knows it. You’re trying to teach people who know they’re not going to remember it or understand it, so they don’t see a point. And when people get frustrated with it, it feels like a personal failure. And through all this, you’re still not getting the math concept down.

“If you’re in the middle, then you’re just trying to get by. You’re just trying to survive around the mix of the two extremes. It’s more of a busywork, and if you’re asked in three or four days what you were working on, then you probably won’t remember.

“And if you’re on the lower end, then it just sucks. You’re so embarrassed that somebody has to teach you, you’re probably not paying attention at all. And you’re going to pass off your ‘not paying attention’ as you being deliberately so. You’ll just write down what you’re told, depending on how many problems and how short of a time you have.

“I mean, I love how the schools keep saying, ‘Don’t plagiarize, don’t cheat,’ but they practically force half the kids in their classes to do it, to get something down before the time to turn in worksheets is up. If they were going to give us a terrible method of solving stuff, they could have at least told us how to use that terrible method. And they never taught us how to work in a group.”

Where is the teacher in all of this, I asked her? Teachers are to be a “guide on the side,” she said, not a “sage on the stage.” Many pro-reform teachers have rules like “Ask three (classmates) before you ask me.” This means children must always admit to several classmates that they don’t understand. It can change the nature of relationships and cause children to become resentful or dependent on others.

I’ve heard adults call children who are having trouble in math “the low group,” “unmotivated,” “selfish,” “dummies,” “typical teens,” “lazy,” “problems for teachers,” or students of “low cognitive ability.” I’ve known children who were assessed as special ed, but when their parents got them direct instruction from someone, the children suddenly stopped being special ed.

I’ve known Honors students who didn’t know basic arithmetic. Last year, I called every middle school and high school in my city to find out how to help a specific student who was in that position. Only one person in 12 schools criticized the curriculum -- but just lightly and only after first suggesting that the student be tested for a disability. Instead, I was told that the student couldn’t be real, probably should be tested for learning disabilities, likely forgot what she was taught, must have lied or cheated, or perhaps fell on her head and developed brain damage.

Ponder that for a moment. Brain damage. Are you angry yet? Are you seeing the abusive nature of this? I have long thought that proponents of reform would truly say and do anything rather than criticize their precious program.

I’ve seen high school graduates panic when asked what 6x8 is. I’ve seen children cry over math, and heard many students say that their math-inclined parents can’t help with math homework. In 2010, just 38.9% (later “scrubbed” to 41.7%) of Spokane’s 10th graders passed a simple state math test that required just 56.9% to pass. Local administrators dismissed what was obviously their failure with: “That number is irrelevant.” And to them, student outcomes are irrelevant. The real priorities in reform aren’t testable: Group work, struggling, failing, discovering and “deeper conceptual understanding.”

You’d think administrators would want to know the truth about the children’s math ability, and that they’d want us to know. You’d think when children are struggling and failing – they wouldn’t say, “Yes, that’s what’s supposed to happen.” You’d think they’d do everything in their power to kick out failed approaches and to buy a good curriculum RIGHT NOW. You would be wrong.

School districts love committees, so whenever there’s a change, they form a committee. It needs 60 people who aren’t you, plus sticky notes, Power Point presentations, butcher paper, highlighter pens and taxpayer-funded food. The committee takes six months to come to fake consensus, plus another six before a new curriculum arrives. Much professional development is required, and the new curriculum is reform and constructivist because that’s “best practices.” They just know that it works. (Well, not for your child, but that’s probably because your child’s in the “low” group.)

I asked my daughter how she thinks students learn math best. She said:

“I think we all have an individual way of learning best. I think that, in trying to create an individual way of learning, the schools have created an even smaller box. But I think kids want to be told what we’re supposed to do. We want to be given a set of parameters and a set of rules. I believe we want to be heard, because that’s the biggest thing. Whether or not we learn best with this format, we should be able to say that and tell that to our teacher or the principal or whoever would listen. But if nobody listens, then whatever way actually works, educators will never know.”

I asked her if groups of K-12 students really can “discover” good process and efficient methods. She said:

“I’m sure that at some point, some adult discovered good process because otherwise, we wouldn’t have it, but asking a child to do that, especially in a group, especially when we’re tired, and we don’t really care that much about it because we have homework, and it’s a sunny day outside, and it’s lunch, and especially if we’re only 10 or 11… You’re asking a child to essentially create a nuclear bomb with a marshmallow and a set of pliers and no instructions. It’s never going to happen.”

I asked what she would say about this approach to a room of educators, if she had the chance. My daughter was quiet for several seconds. Then she said softly and carefully:

“I would say that they have taken people who are my equal or better in how smart they are and how well they learn, and how nice they are and not as sarcastic. And they have screwed them over. And they have taken their futures and stomped them into the dust. It makes me really, really mad.”

Thank you for speaking up, daughter. It makes me mad, too.

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

Rogers, L. (November 2012). “In defense of direct instruction: Constant constructivism, group work and arrogant attitude are abusive to children." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Nov. 6, 2012 on Education News at:

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In defense of proper process: Reform methods lead to lost information and incorrect answers

By Laurie H. Rogers

"Prior planning, plentiful preparation and proper process prevent poor performance."
(modifed version of old military adage)
Whenever I tutor students who were taught math via reform-math methods, one of the first things they have to do is learn a structured and consistent way to write down problems and calculations. Their experiences with reform math have left them with poor habits, leading to many errors and muddied understanding.

Repairing poor process isn’t a small undertaking. By the time reform-math students get to middle school or high school, entire books of math content are missing and many poor habits are ingrained. Developing good habits, therefore, is Job One, and it takes months and months of reinforcement before an efficient process becomes habitual. (That’s in addition to the actual math procedures, which also must be taught and learned.)

It’s harder to “unteach” a poor process and replace it than it is to teach an efficient process from the beginning. The Law of Primacy says students tend to learn best what they learned first – even if what they first learned was wrong-headed. Once students learn something, they tend to go back to it, as a habit and an instinctive first reaction. This is one reason why proper process should be taught from the beginning. Unteaching requires extra dedication, patience, diligence and consistency. It’s hard work to change bad habits, but it can be done. And with mathematics, it must be done. It’s so important to instill good habits and efficient methods. Clarity is critical to accuracy; students who wish to be accurate in math must be focused on clarity as they write down their work.
How Things are Done in Traditional Programs
Traditional math methods tend to unfold vertically on the page because working vertically allows students to easily bring each aspect of an equation down to the next line. This is the clearest way to view work and to ensure that critical pieces are neither forgotten nor lost in a chunk of writing. The work is done incrementally to avoid confusion, just one or two steps per line. Mental math is done only for very basic calculations; other calculations are done on the paper so as to minimize error and allow for checking of work.

I teach students to solve math problems on the left side of the page and do calculations on the right. Space is left between problems so that we can clearly see the pairing of the problem and the work that went with it. We don’t try to squeeze it all into some arbitrary snippet of space.

Pencils are used, not pens, so that mistakes can be erased and corrected. Students learn to check their work and to catch their own errors before I do. I don’t allow a calculator until Algebra II because basic arithmetic skills should be practiced and reinforced. (If the textbook is good, with reasonable problems that focus on skills and not on excessively complicated problems, then calculators are largely unnecessary and can actually be counterproductive.)

The emphasis is on “showing work” in a tidy and clear manner so that students, parents and I can see how the answer was derived and where something might have gone awry. Like this:
As students progress, simple arithmetic and multiplying by -1 can be done in one’s head. This approach is crystal clear and easy to check. Naturally, reform math programs tend not to do it this way.
How Things Have Been Done in Reform Math
Besides the nature of reform math programs – inherently confusing, word-heavy, picture-heavy, game-heavy, time-and-labor-intensive, and ultimately limiting – students also are encouraged to adopt poor habits and ambiguous notation. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen.

Not only do students not know sufficient mathematics, but their work tends to be sloppy and riddled with errors. They aren’t taught to write neatly, check their work or correct as they go. Their attitude toward accuracy is casual; toward math in general, it's negative and stressed. Motivating them to replace bad habits with good ones is a challenge that takes time, positivity, creativity and much intensive labor.

I don’t blame the children. I’ve heard administrators, board directors and teachers do that by saying things like “They’re just not motivated.” Or “They don’t care about math.” Or even “This is a low group.” I see a lack of motivation, yes, but I don’t blame students for it. They learn what they’re taught. If what they’re taught is boring, incomprehensible, time-wasting, hard on their self-esteem, confusing, or stupid – they won’t be motivated. Sadly, although the situation isn’t their fault, it is their problem. For most of them, this early learning will haunt their lives forever. It’s our problem, too. Graduates who have poor habits and insufficient academics are not capable of picking up the reins of the country.

I’ve been able to correct some or all of the bad process in a handful of students, but I am only one tutor and there are about 28,000 students in this district. Most will go back to their regular classes, where good process is not allowed and is even criticized, and where bad process is reinforced.

Here’s what I’ve witnessed in students going through (or graduates of) reform-math programs.
  • They lack nearly all critical arithmetic skills. Some can’t tell time or say how many days are in each month. They don’t know their multiplication tables, long division, the number line, how to subtract negatives, how to work with fractions, how to convert between decimals, fractions and percentages, how to isolate a variable, how to solve an equation, how to read a problem, or how to show or check their work. Many count on their fingers.
  • They're all pretty much math-illiterate and math-phobic. They don’t just lack skills; they also have zero confidence. One high school graduate panicked when I asked her to solve 6x8. Some cried over their math homework. They all tend to think the problem in math is them, and this embarrasses them. Some have actually apologized for taking up their teachers’ time.
  • Asked to do some math problems, these students will often just plunk down an answer with no attendant calculations.
  • If they do calculations, the work tends to be indecipherable – scribbled along the side, in a corner, or wandering around the page, in tiny print, too small for anyone – including the student – to read.
  • Some students will automatically erase their work so no one can see it, or do it on a different sheet that is to be tossed out.
  • Equations, if there are any, are often written horizontally (not vertically), with many “ = “ signs, sometimes with arcs, lines or arrows drawn to connect math terms.
  • Many pictures and boxes are drawn because, in reform math, one correct and efficient method isn’t enough and can actually lose the student points.
  • Because calculations often aren’t shown or aren’t done in a structured, vertical format, important pieces of an equation are neglected or forgotten, such as an all-important negative sign or a stray multiplier.
  • Incorrect answers tend to remain on the page alongside correct ones. Picking out the work and the answer is difficult.
  • Homework and worksheets often come from the teacher with no room for calculations because calculator use is expected. Extra worksheets often aren’t even to be graded. They're handed out for students to do if they want, but no one plans to review them.
  • Students tend to reach for their calculator for the simplest of calculations, but the calculators don't consistently bring them correct answers. Fantastically wrong answers aren't questioned; students seem to have no idea of what a reasonable answer would be.
  • Students are expected to “discover” important concepts – such as the slope of a graph, the point-slope formula or the Pythagorean Theorem – at home with their homework. “I can’t look for something if I don’t know what it is,” a student said to me, tearfully.
  • Students aren't taught to work vertically; show their work; check their work; or to value efficiency, logic, correctness, neatness or legibility. They're not taught to carefully assess the problem for what it's asking, or to see if their solution actually answers that question.
  • They're not taught to enjoy math, nor to enjoy the process of determining a correct answer. Instead, they learn to fret over math, to fudge answers, estimate, depend on the calculator, lean on “partners,” give up, get it over with, and accept whatever the “group” says is right, before blessedly escaping out the door.
  • Students are taught that “close enough” is “good enough.” One student said her teacher told the class that angles within five degrees of the correct angle were close enough. (But in the “real world,” a mistake of five degrees can send you in a wrong direction or even kill you.)
  • Last, but certainly not least, students are taught that their parents cannot help them. “Don’t teach your children traditional methods,” parents are told in open houses or on the first day of class. “It will only confuse them.” Imagine that – a failed education program actively interferes with parents helping their children. And then, that same program turns around and blames parents for not being involved enough.
Many people nowadays are dismissive of efficiency. I’ve heard that “Process doesn’t matter; it’s the results that count.” But one doesn’t consistently obtain good results without proper process. Those who prefer “deeper conceptual understanding” over correct answers have a flawed understanding of what math is and what it’s used for. In the “real world,” math is a tool used to get a job done. Correct answers are necessary. That means that proper process is necessary. In the real world, “deeper conceptual understanding” is reflected by being able to properly use a tool to get a job done correctly and efficiently. In math, that ability is gained through instruction, practice and mastery of sufficient skills.

Given proper instruction, a few people will come to love the field of mathematics and will want to delve more deeply into it, but for most of us, getting a deeper conceptual understanding of math is like getting a deeper conceptual understanding of a hammer. Math obviously is more complex than a hammer, but the principle is the same. For most of us, math will never be a philosophy; it’s a tool, and we need to learn how to use the tool. Once we know how to use the tool, then we go about using it.

Understanding the basics of math cannot come without proper process and correct answers. Reformers don’t appear to believe that statement, but their disbelief doesn’t change its truth.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (October 2012). “In defense of proper process: Reform methods lead to lost information and incorrect answers." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Nov. 1, 2012, on Education News at

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In defense of the number line: Reform methods for teaching negatives fail on decimals, fractions ... and negatives

By Laurie H. Rogers

Because every time you use the Charged Particles Method to teach negatives, a brain cell commits suicide.

It’s simple to teach mathematical positives and negatives to a child. It’s been done successfully with the number line around the world, in private schools, homes, tutoring businesses and online. Unfortunately, many schools in America no longer teach the number line, don’t teach it to mastery, or they cloud any fledgling understanding of it by emphasizing other, less-effective methods.

First, I’ll explain the number line. Then I’ll show you what’s being emphasized in its place.

Traditional Math Method Used to Teach Negatives

The Number Line
A number line is a straight line with a series of real numbers listed at intervals. Typically, "zero" is a point in the middle, negative numbers are listed to the left of zero, and positive numbers are listed to the right of zero. Arrowheads are placed at each end to show that the line and numbers continue indefinitely. Each point is assumed to correspond to a real number, and each real number corresponds to a point. Like this:
(Comment: A number line is flexible and comprehensive. It can be drawn with integers, fractions, decimals, irrational numbers or a combination thereof. It can illustrate zero, positive and negative numbers, and small or large numbers. It provides an effective visual for adding and subtracting positive and negative numbers. It can be used to articulate changes in measurements, temperature, money, time or quantities. It’s clear, efficient and functional. It’s easy to draw, explain and understand.)
Naturally, people who love reform math prefer to not use the number line. Various alternate models are used that are not efficient and not comprehensive. Here are a few.

Reform Math Methods Used to Teach … Uh

These models (with myriad variations) are common to reform curricula. The examples illustrated below are quoted (with permission) from materials originating from two public entities: Henrico County Public Schools and the Georgia Department of Education. The wording is theirs. Please notice that the Georgia materials are said to be based on the Common Core State Standards.
Story Model
In this model, children are given a story that supposedly illustrates a mathematical calculation or equation.
Example 1: “If you have spent money you don't have (-5) and paid off part of it (+3), you still have a negative balance (-2) as a debt, or (-5) + 3 = (-2).”
Example 2: “Getting rid of a negative is a positive. For example: Johnny used to cheat, fight and swear. Then he stopped cheating and fighting. Now he only has 1 negative trait so (3 negative traits) - (2 negative traits) = (1 negative trait) or (-3) - (-2) = (-1)”
(Comment: Stories and problems do help to apply math skills that have already been learned, but - as a teaching method - the Story Model provides no real mathematical understanding. The story in Example 2 also attributes adverse characteristics to negatives. In mathematics, a negative is simply a lessening of a quantity, not an adverse characteristic.)
Charged Particles Model
In this model, imaginary items are added to replace items that are already there: “When using charged particles to subtract, 3 – (-4) for example, you begin with a picture of 3 positive particles.”
“Since there are no negative values to ‘take away,’ you must use the Identity Property of Addition to rename positive 3 as 3 + 0. This is represented by 4 pairs of positive and negative particles that are equivalent to 4 zeros.”
“Now that there are negative particles, you can ‘take away’ 4 negative particles. The modeled problem shows that the result of subtracting 4 negative particles is actually like adding 4 positive particles. The result is 7 positive particles. This is a great way to show why 3 – (-4) = 3 + 4 = 7.”
(Comment: How does a child make the leap from 3 particles to 11 particles? Where is the explanation of what's actually happening? As I was typing in the Charged Particles Method, my brain felt like it was melting. Brain cells began to give up and die. My daughter had to rescue me with chocolate.)
The Stack Model and The Row Model
In the Stack Model, students draw boxes on top of each other in “stacks” and then count them. In the Row Model, students draw boxes in “rows” and then count them. Subtraction for the Stack and Row methods means creating pairs, as in the Charged Particles Method, then “adding zeroes,” crossing out items, and redrawing boxes over and over. This figure illustrates the solution to 3 - (-4) = ?
(Comment: The children will draw a lot of boxes, but they will not come to understand negatives.)
The Postman Model
In this model, a story is provided that supposedly leads students through understanding negatives. Children are to act out parts using manipulatives and props. The concept can be done with other scenarios, but this example from Henrico County School District is based on a mail carrier:
“A postman only brings financial mail. Sometimes she brings bad news, e.g., a bill for $5 = –5. Sometimes she brings good news - a check for $5 = +5. If she brings both you get two pieces of paper but zero dollars. You always start a zero with a cash drawer full of matching checks and bills that equal zero dollars. So if she brings me two checks for $5, no sweat, she helps me by $10, answer = +10. Similarly if she brings me 2 checks for $5 the result is 2 • –5 = –10. Now here is the tricky part: –2 • + 5 = ? Well the – sign means takes away from me. But if we start at zero how can she take anything away? This is where the cash drawer of matching checks and bills saves us. We just take away 2 checks and are left with 2 bills to pay. –2 • + 5 = –10. Similarly, if she takes away our bills, she helps us and the money we would have used to pay the bill can now be spent on bubblegum. –2 • + 5 = +10.”I think the second “2 checks for $5” is actually supposed to be two bills for $5. Please also remember that young students are the intended audience. The story suggests using a bag filled with Monopoly money and paperclips. Students pretend to deliver mail, cash checks at a bank and pay bills. At some point, however, the mail carrier makes a mistake, and the story goes on to say: “If it was a check, that would be subtracting a positive. To get the check out of the bank, you would have to pay the bank (which would make you lose money). If it was a bill (taking away a negative), you can keep the money attached to the bill and give the bill back to the mail carrier. This would show that taking away a negative would give you more money.”(Comment: There is so much wrong with this example, the explanation and the reasoning behind it, it's hard to know where to begin. The process is complicated; the financial philosophy is suspect. And what does that second paragraph even mean?)

The Balloon Model
In the Balloon Model, things are moved up (added) and down (subtracted). This concept can be done with anything that moves up and down (airplane, elevator, swimmer, etc.), but in the Balloon Model, sand bags represent negatives, and air bags represent positives. This illustration shows -3 + 4 = 1.
(Comment: The Balloon Model is a vertical number line, but it labors to be more relevant by using a balloon (or elevator or airplane or the sea). Thus, the concepts don't match up with what happens in "real life." The biggest problem: "Up" and "down" is not equivalent to "more" and "less."

Balloon Model: In real life, subtracting a sandbag lessens weight, while adding a sandbag adds weight. In the model, however, subtracting a sandbag somehow makes a quantity larger, while adding a sandbag makes it smaller. In the Building and Airplane models, nothing is added or subtracted to make a quantity larger or smaller; the movement up and down is mechanically driven. In the Sea Model, you could say that blowing air out of one's lungs (subtracting air) makes a person sink, although the change in weight would be negligible. But how does one add air under water?

Where in these models is infinity? Where are fractions and decimals? Where is zero located? At ground level? If so, are negatives below the ground? Since when have balloons and airplanes flown, elevators descended, and swimmers paddled below the ground?)

The (Hey, let's call them) "Net Changes" model
In reform curriculum Investigations in Number, Data, and Space (aka TERC), students are taught to think of “net changes,” rather than addition and subtraction. Students use manipulatives to act out the "changes." They count things and keep tallies.

If you search the term “negatives” on the TERC Web site, you'll have a difficult time finding actual negatives, but games about thinking about negatives are explored. Actually, take a few minutes and skim through the 1st Edition units for TERC. This is the approach to K-6 math that has helped to kill off math proficiency in the United States.

(Comment: Looking through the TERC Web site, you can see the end of mathematics ... and possibly all of life as we know it. The school district in my city still uses this curriculum, despite my best efforts to change that.)

Each of the reform math models illustrated here is missing one or more critical concepts, such as zero, negatives, fractions, decimals, large numbers, and/or infinity. They don’t adequately explain negatives, or show that the larger the negative number, the smaller the quantity. They don’t handle all scenarios. Perhaps some are “fun” for a very short while; others are probably no fun at all. Time spent on these models wastes time, builds frustration and creates misunderstandings. Instead of clearly cementing concepts about addition, subtraction and negatives, the children are filling paper bags or talking about “negative” traits.

Without an understanding of the principles behind the number line, students can’t add and subtract negative numbers with proficiency. Without that capability, algebra, geometry and calculus will be beyond them.

I don’t know why so many people in public education seem not to respect the need for efficiency, effectiveness, sufficiency or student proficiency. Math is a tool, used in the "real world" to get a job done. Time is important; efficiency is vital; correct answers are critical. Those who can use math properly will be hired over those who can’t. There is no time in the “real world” to discover methods, struggle with basic math, or constantly ask a “partner” for help. But math reformers seem to think they have all the time in the world. To them, math isn’t about efficiency and correct answers; it’s about struggle, failing, striving and playing games. Many reformers truly believe that if the teaching was efficient, the lesson failed. Thus, they’re motivated to not just prefer the inefficient models, but to actually eliminate efficient models, to mock them and to label them as counterproductive.

Help your children gain a solid grounding in math by teaching them the traditional methods, such as long division, vertical multiplication and the number line. Traditional methods were developed and honed over thousands of years by very clever adults so that they would be efficient. More-efficient models will be developed, no doubt, but the reform models I've described are not better models.

Don’t let anyone convince you that efficiency and effectiveness in math are unnecessary or counterproductive. People who actually use math (outside of a K-12 classroom) don't believe that.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (October 2012). “In defense of the number line: Reform methods for teaching negatives fail on decimals, fractions ... and negatives." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:  /.

This article was republished October 25, 2012, on Education News:

Saturday, October 13, 2012

In defense of vertical multiplication: Reform methods stumble over decimals

By Laurie H. Rogers

On Oct. 7, I wrote about the difference between division done via a traditional method, and division done via a reform method. The reform method that I illustrated doesn’t work in all situations. It doesn’t handle decimals well, or efficiently manage larger numbers. A pro-reform-math professor who used the reform method to divide 396.3 by 16 was never able to get the correct answer despite several attempts and a white board filled with numbers.

This week, I’m explaining the difference between multiplication done via a traditional, vertical method, and multiplication done via two, different reform methods. The traditional method is clear and efficient; the reform methods are neither. First, we’ll review the traditional method.

Vertical Multiplication (traditional math): 1,642 x 849 = ?

The traditional model quickly and efficiently provides a complete and correct answer: 1,394,058. This traditional model works well in all situations, including problems containing decimals or large numbers. With this method, it’s easy to keep track of one’s work and to check for errors.

Now, let’s look at the reform approaches.

1. Cluster Method (reform math): 1,642 x 849 = ?

If I were to use the Cluster Method, I might begin by saying this:

“I know that 1,000 + 600 + 40 + 2 = 1,642. And, I know that 800 + 40 + 9 = 849.
So, I could say that (1,000 x 800) + (1,000 x 40) + (1000 x 9) + (600 x 800) + (600 x 40) + (600 x 9) + (40 x 800) + (40 x 40) + (40 x 9) + (2 x 800) + (2 x 40) + (2 x 9) = ?
Using ‘mental math’ to simplify, I can say that 800,000 + 40,000 + 9,000 + 480,000 + 24,000 + 5,400 + 32,000 + 1,600 + 360 + 1,600 + 80 + 18 = ?”

In most reform classrooms, I would be given a calculator. I would plug in the numbers, and I might get a result of: 1,365,258. If I were a student, I would turn in this answer, and it would come back marked incorrect. I would have no idea of why it’s incorrect, and neither would my teacher. I might never find out that I plugged in 3,200 instead of 32,000.

Clusters also can be done after factoring the multipliers, but I doubt reformers would use the Cluster Method to solve problems containing this many digits. They would recommend using a calculator. The entity doing the calculating, in that case, would be the calculator and not the student. Little actual learning or practicing would take place.

A serious limitation of the Cluster Method is in the decimal. If either multiplier contains a decimal, how does this method handle it? The children would be stumped, and out would come the calculator.

2. Lattice Method (reform math): 1,642 x 849 = ?

With the Lattice Method, children are asked to draw a grid, with diagonal lines intersecting each square in the grid. Students write one of the multipliers along the top, and the other vertically down the right side. Students then multiply each integer of the multiplier on the top with each integer of the multiplier down the side – placing answers in the intersecting squares. (The tens of each answer are written in the upper part of each square, and the ones of each answer are written in the bottom part of each square.) The students then add diagonal columns, beginning on the lower right of the grid and moving left, writing the ones along the bottom and carrying the tens always to the left. Like this:

You can see that 1 x 8 = 8, 6 x 8 = 48, 4 x 8 = 32, and 2 x 8 = 16, and so on. The answer is alongside the left and bottom of the grid: 1,394,058. However, it’s difficult and time-consuming for children to accurately draw these grids and diagonals. Any mistakes made in drawing the form, filling in the squares, or adding the diagonals will muddy their understanding. Checking one’s work can be done with this method, but with so much going on in the grid, it’s more difficult to do.

And again, what if the problem contains a decimal? Where on the grid does a decimal go? If a problem contains larger numbers, the grid also must be larger, resulting in more squares and diagonals, and more possibility of error. What if the multiplication problem resides within an equation, or within a division problem?

Let’s take a moment to examine that last one. Using traditional math methods of division and multiplication to divide 6836 by 98, it would look something like this:

The traditional methods of division and multiplication efficiently provide us with a correct answer. These methods also are flexible. If a remainder is required, the remainder is there after the second step. If a fraction is required, the fraction is easily gleaned from the remainder. And if a decimal is required, the work continues through the desired number of decimal places.

Now, let’s use a reform method of division and the Lattice Method of multiplication. (If the student can do multiples of 10, it might look more like “a.” If the student can’t do multiples of 10, it might look more like “b.”)

a)                                                                              b)

Remainders are handy when students begin learning about division. As they progress, however, the format of the answer also should progress. Division problems that don’t divide evenly should be completed with a mixed fraction (reduced to its simplest form), or with a decimal (rounded to two or more places). The mixed fraction can be gleaned through this reform method. 69 R 74 can be written as
which is reduced to

A serious limitation of this process, however, is again in the decimal. What if the answer to this problem must be in decimal format? Children will be stumped on how to multiply their way to a decimal.

What if there is a decimal in the dividend (the number being divided) or in the divisor (the number doing the dividing)? (It's true that students can temporarily move or remove decimals, but it’s easy to forget to put them back, as the pro-reform-math professor unwittingly demonstrated.)

When I mention these limitations to reformers, I’m told that students should use a calculator. “Everybody’s going to use an electronic device anyway,” I’ve been told. Who do those reformers see as the builders of the electronic devices? (Obviously not anyone who went through an exclusively reform math program.) This flippant referral to calculators is ironic, since reformers are always claiming that traditional instruction turns children into “little computers.”

If only using calculators for everything at least produced math proficiency. Calculators are everywhere in reform programs. They permeate public education, all the way to kindergarten in some districts. If calculators were sufficient for producing good results, we would have good results, but we don’t.

Forget the numbers we get from the education establishment, and look at the sinking abilities of students and graduates. Most of these students frequently or always use calculators in place of paper and a pencil. Look at the weak pass rates on college entrance exams for which calculator use is allowed. Calculators are handy tools once skills have been learned, but an over-reliance on calculators during the learning process inhibits learning. Over-reliance turns into dependence; dependence prevents students from developing skills and necessary number sense. At that point, the much-vaunted Holy Grail of reformers – i.e. “deeper conceptual understanding” – is out of reach.

You can see why so many Americans struggle now with division and multiplication. The current incarnation of reform math has been around for about 30 years. Many students and graduates are now math-illiterate and math-phobic – panicked at the thought of doing simple calculations. The failure of reform is obvious to all except the reformers and the unaware.

If any other institution operated this way – pushing failed products and ideology around, long after their failure was proved 700 ways from Sunday – the people would rise up, consumer groups would be up in arms, there would be inquiries and a class-action lawsuit, and the media would slice and dice those responsible for the mess. Unfortunately, most of the media remain stubbornly ignorant, their eyes closed to the children’s misery.

Sadly, the Common Core initiatives are bringing back reform math to many districts that had managed to kick it out. The media are again bleating – as they did in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s – “Oh, look! A new way to teach math! It doesn’t look like the math you had as a child, but it will improve conceptual understanding and be more fun!” Blah, blah, blah. It seems that every time math advocates manage to get somewhere in a district, some idiot with a BA in English and a doctorate in education brings bad process right back in – often assisted by the local newspaper.

It’s shocking that reformers continue to get away with damaging the children like this. Reformers still love reform – after 30 years of failure. They refuse to see, appearing to care more about their pet theories and their ego than about the children.

Until the de facto federal takeover of public education manages to block all escape, parents can still walk away from reform math by finding different schools, by hiring tutors, or by homeschooling. The children get one shot at a good K-12 education. At some point, the rubber must meet the road. At some point, the students need that math. Parents must make sure their children have it.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (October 2012). “In defense of vertical multiplication: Reform methods stumble over decimals." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: /.

This article also was published on the Education News Web site at:


Sunday, October 7, 2012

In defense of long division: Pro-reform professor capably shows why reform math doesn't work

By Laurie H. Rogers

How do you divide one number by a different number? I was taught to do it using long division. Long division is considered to be a “traditional” algorithm (or methodology). It looks like this:

Our children, however, aren’t being taught long division (or aren’t being taught it to mastery). They’ve been taught various “reform math” approaches, such as this one:
This reform approach is alleged to increase understanding of division, supposedly showing students WHAT division is. Reformers claim that traditional long division isn’t “intuitive” and that children struggle to learn it. (Never mind that an entire country was built on long division, that children around the world learn long division, that homeschoolers and private schools tend to teach long division, and that long division is a more-efficient method. People who are pro-reform math do not like long division and generally won’t teach it.)

What’s the big deal about that? Sure, the reform method is clunky, eking its way to the answer rather than getting there efficiently. So what? The field of public education appears to love it, so why not teach it to the children and not worry about it? Here’s why.

The reform method doesn’t work well with larger numbers. It isn’t efficient. It doesn’t include decimals. It adds too many steps, allowing for more possibility of error. It’s difficult to later switch students from that method to the more-efficient algorithm. And – most important – the reform method often leads to wrong answers. Despite what reformers seem to think – a correct answer is the entire point of a mathematics calculation. Math is a tool that we use to get a job done.

Not long ago, I was explaining this reform approach to some college folks. A young math professor was listening in, nodding his head and saying, “Uh, huh. Uh huh,” in that encouraging way people do when they’re in agreement. “You don’t sound shocked,” I said to him. And he wasn’t. He praised the reform approach and appeared to prefer it. I was surprised, but I thought perhaps he wasn’t familiar with its complications; he claimed to be seeing it for the first time. So, I asked him to do a problem for me.

Dividing 396.3 by 16 is simple for those who were taught long division. However, for those using the reform approach, the decimal poses a problem. Using long division, this is how the problem is done:

Long division efficiently provides a complete answer to the problem. On the white board that day, however, the young math professor used the reform method. His answer: 247 remainder 9. Whoops.

I pointed out the inadequacy of his answer, so he wrote more at the top of his work. His new answer was this:

I also commented on this new answer, so he kept writing. His next answer was this:

Not only was this additional information confusing, it was still incorrect. Later, he fixed his initial subtraction error (43 – 32 = 11, not 9), but didn’t complete the problem. His final answer was this:

Someone in the room (not me) wrote a huge question mark next to his work.

Math advocates will not be surprised to know that this person never budged on his assessment of which approach was better. He stubbornly maintained that the reform approach is easier, leads to more understanding, and should be the method taught to small children. He said the traditional approach is not “intuitive,” that children can’t learn it, and that division should be done with calculators anyway.

We stared at his garbled work on the board. When I asked him – politely, I swear – how the reform approach is “simpler,” he responded defensively: “I’m not the enemy.” Every time I reminded him that his answer was not complete, he would say, “I’m not advocating for this. I’ve just seen this for the first time today.” But then he would continue to advocate for it. He never wavered in his support for the method, despite his incorrect work and unfinished solutions. It was stunning. But this is reform math, and this is typical of reformers.

Division isn’t the only problem in reform math. I tutor students who come to me not understanding negatives and positives because – instead of being taught the number line – they were taught reform methods such as the building model and the balloon model (going up is positive, and going down is negative). Where in these models is zero? Where is the concept of infinity? Where are fractions and decimals? The number line contains all of it, but reformers purposefully avoid using the most-efficient methods such as the number line. Who loses? The children.

Many children also haven’t been properly taught fractions, they don’t know how to convert from fractions to decimals to percentages, they don’t know basic formulas such as the Pythagorean Theorem, the point-slope formula or the quadratic formula. They don’t know speed/distance/time ratios. Many don’t even know their basic multiplication facts, how to read an analog clock or a ruler, or how many days are in each month (which is critical to calculating calendar time).

Young children do NOT need to know why an algorithm works. They need to know the most efficient ways to get correct answers. Young children should NOT be forced to struggle and get things wrong initially. It causes them to become frustrated and to lose heart – whereupon reformers blame them for not being motivated. Who could possibly be motivated when faced with garbage like this?

Math is a tool to get a job done – unless, as my daughter noted wryly – 4th graders are beginning a PhD in number theory.

The dearth of basic skills is bad enough, but graduates also continue to struggle. Without long division, how do they divide a polynomial? Many math programs have deleted it from the curriculum. Not necessary, they say. Long division, not necessary. Basic math facts, not necessary. Fractions, not necessary. What’s important to reformers are fuzzy concepts for which they can’t be held accountable: “Deeper conceptual understanding,” “critical thinking,” “collaboration,” “real-world application,” and “self-discovery.” When you see those terms in your child’s math program, grab your babies and run.

This is what the children in many public systems face – stupid approaches from clueless people. Simple problems are made to be clunky, inefficient, and incomprehensible. These approaches will damage their futures forever. You would think that 30 years of absolute failure would have killed off reform math, but the fervor of reformers for fuzzy math is nearly cult-like, and their opposition to the efficiency and effectiveness of traditional math borders on hysteria. Reformers have no real support for their approach, no scientifically collected data to support it as being better than traditional math, but they will not let go of it, claiming that reform math would work if teachers would just do it properly.

Sadly for the children, reform math is now seeing a resurgence, due to the federal imposition of the Common Core initiatives. Many pro-reform-math decision-makers are using the Common Core to implement more reform math. It boggles the mind.

I stood next to this professor, listening to him claim something akin to “the moon is made of green cheese and pigs fly.” His process was inefficient and nearly incomprehensible, and his answers were incorrect, yet he preferred it. His face had the same blank look I’ve seen before on reformers – stubborn and closed -- in denial of what was right there in front of him and obvious to everyone else.

I gave up trying to talk with him. I know from experience that the indoctrinated will not listen. Weak outcomes, angry parents, frustrated community members, a nationwide mathematical Dark Ages, and millions of suffering children will not break through their certainty. Alas, this professor is not the only math professional to have accepted the Kool-Aid. Spokane Falls Community College uses reform approaches in some of its remedial classes, and there are others.

The traditional approaches to mathematics were developed by brilliant adults over thousands of years. It’s astonishing that all of that work is being tossed out for methods that are proved to be flawed – in proper studies and in student outcomes. It’s alarming that a dogmatic commitment to reform math appears to be worming its way into departments of mathematics.

Without intervention, there soon will come a day when few Americans know any math at all. At that point, American dependency on foreign professionals will be complete. What will happen then to our children?

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (October 2012). “In defense of long division: Pro-reform professor capably shows why reform math doesn't work." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: /.

This article was published by Education News at:

This article also was published by Education Views at:

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A ray of hope for the children in Spokane Public Schools

By Laurie H. Rogers

Will Salas: “How can you live with yourself, watching people die right next to you?”
Sylvia Weis: “You don't watch. You close your eyes.”
-- Characters in the 2011 movie “In Time”

In 2008, I met with Spokane Public Schools’ superintendent, Nancy Stowell, to discuss the district’s weak academic outcomes. Stowell was accommodating, but during our meeting, she consistently sidestepped any critique of the district’s “reform math” curricula or its heavy dependence on constructivism (i.e. discovery learning). Her go-to answer for weak results was to wish for more “alternative” programs to keep students in school. She appeared to see no problems with the district’s delivery of academic content.

I didn’t know how to break through that with her. Over the next four years, I never figured it out. But one thing she said in 2008 stuck with me. While discussing the high number of families leaving the district, Stowell said, “Sometimes I think people don’t want to know (why) because when you know … you have to … do something about it.”

Truer words were never spoken. Nancy Stowell didn’t appear to want to acknowledge the children’s academic suffering. She kept telling the public that things were improving, even as her administration obstinately fought doing what was necessary to fix the problems. That was her failure. Good leaders accept the blame and pass the credit, but Stowell and her administrators had a habit of accepting the credit and passing the blame.

As Stowell exited this summer, the district was still stubbornly clinging to two of the worst math programs in the country – Investigations in Number, Data, and Space and Connected Mathematics – along with a language arts program that doesn’t properly teach grammar, and a cornucopia of additional flawed materials and programs. The children were still being left academically behind – betrayed by administrators who refused to the bitter end to admit their errors and misplaced priorities.

The purpose of a school district isn’t money or power – it’s to teach academics to children. If schools don't do academics well, they have failed. If the children are struggling in academics, if they’re confused, if they cry over their homework, if they begin to hate math around the 4th grade, if they’re embarrassed and panic-stricken about tests, or if they consider dropping out rather than face the daily trauma of an academic program that isn’t working for them… then the adults are supposed to do something about it.

Adults are not supposed to close their eyes to the suffering of children.

Recently, the local paper reported that things had improved in Spokane Public Schools, evidenced, they said, by a slew of rising numbers. And some numbers have indeed risen. Just 38.9% of Spokane’s 10th-graders passed the state math test in 2010, but in 2012, nearly 80% passed.

(Note: The 38.9% from 2010 rose to 41.7% after the results were "cleansed." Also, with the way the tests are structured and the results reported, it's difficult to come up with "a pass rate." Results are based on multiple takes, many students are not reported, and there actually are two tests (EOC Math 1 and EOC Math 2). I'm going with 79% as an overall reported pass rate.)

The 10th-grade state math tests from 2010 and 2012 are different, but all were said to represent the students’ math ability. That’s quite a leap in math ability from 41.7% to 79% – a 189% increase! If only the numbers were valid. A bit of curiosity or skepticism easily shifts aside the fa├žade. Spokane’s fantastical improvement was mirrored in several other districts across the state. Advocates were baffled. We knew that, in many districts, there hadn’t been commensurate improvements in the math programs, and we also knew that many students were not included in the numbers.

This stellar “improvement” in Spokane is – as so many education statistics are – less about improved academic programs and skills and more about a change in accounting. Things were measured and counted differently in 2012, as they are in public education every year. In 2012, as in every year, the thing that matters most (what the children know and don’t know) was hidden. Adult eyes remained firmly shut to the pitiful plight of the students, whose abilities in arithmetic and grammar had not improved accordingly.

Nancy Stowell retired this year. The new Spokane superintendent, Shelley Redinger, said she is willing to meet with anyone. I figured “anyone” had to include me, so I arranged to meet with her in September. I resolved before we met to set aside certain issues and to focus on math, to go in with an open mind and to assume she would listen. As we talked, she did appear to listen and to take my concerns seriously. When our time was up, she took the elevator down with me, on her way to another meeting.

“Are you sure you want to be seen with me?” I asked her, only half joking. She chuckled and followed me out.

That was new.

Dr. Redinger said her administrative style is not a “boot on the neck,” and that she’s absorbing the feedback she’s getting. I told her I would ask my email list to fill out her three-question survey and tell her what they want in an academic program. “Do you want your staff to write that article, or do you want me to write it?” I asked her. Dr. Redinger said I should write it. “I trust you,” she said.

OK. Definitely new.

Can I dare to hope that we finally have a top administrator who listens; who understands the real mission of a school district; who sees the academic problems; whose decisions are driven by students’ academic needs; who can work with people to make the necessary changes for the students; and whose perspective on parents, teachers and taxpayers isn’t muddied by condescension and thinly veiled contempt?

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. I’ve been burned before – repeatedly – and I don’t always catch it when people lie to me. But I didn’t see any sign of disdain in her. No rolling of the eyes. No careful phrasing, as one does with a child. No heavy sighs or long pauses. I came away feeling listened to. That’s new, too.

Perhaps Dr. Redinger knows that the most important work she does is not on behalf of levies and bonds, nor on behalf of the media and her political/social contacts, but rather on behalf of the children. Perhaps she knows that the way to really help low-income families is through the efficient delivery of sufficient academics to all of the students. If that’s her priority, then good things can happen. I’m wary, but I want to give her a chance.

Here’s a good sign: Around the time of Dr. Redinger’s hiring, two key decision-makers in the inaptly named “Department of Teaching and Learning” (Karin Short and Tammy Campbell) elected to leave.

The proof is always in the pudding. The children don’t yet have the pudding they need, but this district has everything it needs to be the best in the country. It has money, an excessively friendly media, good teachers, beautiful buildings, a supportive community, involved parents, and a mandate for change. All it needs is proper curricular materials, an effective learning environment, and breathing space for teachers and tutors to teach students what they need to know. (That would bring true equity and social justice.) Until that happens - until the children have what they need - it's all just talk.

Time will tell, but I’m encouraged. I’ll do what I can to help. Dr. Redinger must succeed; the future of tens of thousands of children rests on her shoulders. Nancy Stowell couldn’t seem to keep herself out of the way long enough to recognize that. Perhaps Dr. Redinger can.

With all of the fake statistics floating around, it's critical to first nail down the truth. A basic-skills math test - such as the Saxon Middle School Placement Test, for example, would quickly clear up the fog. It could be given to all students, grades 4-12, before anything else happens. No calculators, no pre-test preparation, no time limits. It would have to control for students who received outside instruction. The district could do a pre-test and a post-test, and no one would change the test on them in the middle. Otherwise, no one will really know where they began, much less where they wind up.

It's just one idea. Please help Dr. Redinger by filling out her three-question survey. Tell her what you want in an academic program. Don't assume that she knows. Arrange to visit with her, and also for her to have a conversation with you and your colleagues, your church, neighborhood council, organization, business, club, and fellow parents. Traditionally, the community has received presentations from district leadership, but perhaps the new administration will be more interested in a respectful and productive exchange of ideas, and it will be more concerned with what the public actually wants. The district's phone number is 509-354-5900.

If Dr. Redinger is to do what needs to be done for the students, she needs our input and our support. Let’s get this show on the road, folks, and let’s ensure that this time, it really is for the children.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (September 2012). “A ray of hope for the children in Spokane Public Schools." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Federal education plan puts students' personal data and family privacy at risk

By J.R. Wilson

When enrolling or filling out forms during the school year, parents give schools personal information about themselves and their child. A school employee enters the information into the school office computer. No thought is given to this since computers are a good way to store, organize and manage data. Most parents don’t realize the data don’t stay in the school office computer. The computer is networked and shares data with other computers. This information, or data, once it is entered, becomes a part of a district or multi-district database that is uploaded to a state longitudinal data system at least once a month.

Are parents informed this is happening with personal information they provide? Are parents asked permission or consent for their information to become part of a database beyond the confines and use of the brick and mortar school? Should parents be made aware of this practice? Should they be required to give consent?

State Longitudinal Data Systems, Purposes, and Prohibition

The state longitudinal data systems are for preschool through grade 12 education and post secondary education or P-16. Basically, states are collecting data on all preschool through grade 16 individuals. It is interesting to note for the purposes of data collection, the “P” for preschool means birth to school. They want to collect data from the time of birth through an individual’s career.

Federal legislation calls for the collection of data to include:
  • gender,
  • ethnic or racial groups,
  • limited English proficiency status,
  • migrant students,
  • disabilities,
  • economically disadvantaged,
  • assessment results,
  • demographics,
  • student-level enrollment,
  • program participation,
  • courses completed,
  • student transcript information,
  • transfers, teachers,
  • family income.
Will state longitudinal data systems collect data beyond what is called for in legislation? What is the purpose of the data collection? How will it be used? What will be next? Collecting prenatal data? The pre-conception-gleam-in-the-eye data? In addition to the state longitudinal data systems containing far more information on students, parents, and teachers than necessary for educational purposes, I believe the system will eventually include information on all taxpayers, with or without kids, so they may be held adequately accountable for how others spend their hard-earned tax dollars.

There has been a push for state longitudinal data systems for many years. As early as 1965, the initial Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) mentions providing support for collecting and storing data and using automated data systems. Federal legislation and programs encourage or require data collection systems and the development of state longitudinal data systems. These include:
  • Goals 2000
  • Educate America Act
  • Improving America’s Schools Act
  • No Child Left Behind
  • America Competes Act
  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
  • Race to the Top
Each state has a State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) and names its SLDS a little differently to suit its own creativity. As an example, Oregon has Project ALDER: Advancing Longitudinal Data for Educational Reform. Washington has CEDARS: Comprehensive Education Data and Research System.

The early stated purposes for data collection were to determine things like graduation rates, job placement rates, and program effectiveness. The Race to the Top grant program created mandates for data systems to be used to inform decisions and improve instruction. While this is laudable, it is questionable as the driving need for data collection. An abundance of available data and research findings has been ignored in the reform education decision-making process. Many reform measures being pushed from the federal level on down have no evidence of effectiveness -- some have evidence of negative effectiveness -- yet continue to be foisted upon the states and local districts to implement.

Are our decision makers "Confusing Evidence and Politics"? Do they really have our students’ academic interest as a top priority? Does anyone know how to make effective decisions based on this information? Will the information be so overwhelming as to be useless except for cherry picking to support pet programs? Who will benefit most? Our students? Private corporations? Non-profit corporations? Individuals and groups in positions of power and authority?

Our society’s moral and ethical values might have slipped to the point at which individuals and groups in positions of power and authority feel it is appropriate to publicly release information that most people feel is confidential. Recently, state officials in Oklahoma posted private educational records of several students online. This information might not have come from their state longitudinal data system, but think of the control and power such information provides, especially if one is able to personally identify individuals. When "Big Brother" has the informational goods on the public, are people likely to speak up? Or will they maintain a cautious place in line?

There is a prohibition on the development of a nationwide database of personally identifiable information (PII). The Act that created No Child Left Behind says: PROHIBITION ON NATIONWIDE DATABASE.
Nothing in this Act (other than section 1308(b)) shall be construed to authorize the development of a nationwide database of personally identifiable information on individuals involved in studies or other collections of data under this Act. 20 USC 7911.
Does that mean it is okay to develop a nationwide database provided no personally identifiable information is used? It appears the federal government is dancing around the issue of developing a nationwide database. While the federal government is not developing it, it is supporting, promoting, encouraging, and funding with tax dollars the development of state longitudinal data systems. The Data Quality Campaign (DQC) is well under way, with federal encouragement, to have the state longitudinal data systems compatible for data sharing between and among states. This effort will result in a defacto nationwide database.

The Data Quality Campaign’s report "Data for Action 2011: Empower with Data" indicates no states having all 10 Essential Elements of Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems in place in 2005. In 2011, every state had at least seven of the 10 Elements in place and 36 states had all 10 Elements in place.

The Data Quality Campaign lists the National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) among its Partners. The NGA and the CCSSO joined efforts in an initiative to develop the Common Core State Standards, and they share some of the same partners. Both the Data Quality Campaign and Common Core State Standards Initiative have been supported with grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (see 1, 2, 3).

The Common Core State Standards initiatives have provided investors and entrepreneurs with a lucrative market place. Besides the technology industry and service industry, who is it who stands to financially gain from the Data Quality Campaign and the state longitudinal data systems?

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) are working to "Promote the Voluntary Adoption of a Model of Common Data Standards," and they say: "The U.S. Department of Education will facilitate the leveraging, and where needed, the development of model common data standards for a core set of student-level variables to increase comparability of data, interoperability and portability of data, and reduce collection burden."

Funding for State Longitudinal Data Systems
"Leveraging Federal Funding for Longitudinal Data Systems - A Roadmap for States" shows some federal programs are encouraging states to use funds for longitudinal data systems. These programs include:
It is difficult to determine how much taxpayer money states have spent on longitudinal data systems. As indicated above, there are numerous sources of funds available. The Statewide Longitudinal Data System Grants Program does show how much grant money has been awarded to each state from its program. Since 2006, more than $612 million has been awarded, with $254 million of that in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (stimulus) funds. Information from this program’s website has been compiled into a table showing amounts each state has been awarded.
Personally Identifiable Information, Data Mining and Matching, and Security Breaches
State longitudinal data systems are not to permit users of the system to individually identify students. What about abusers of the system? Data from state longitudinal data systems can be matched with data from other databases, enabling the identification of individuals no matter how much effort is put into keeping personally identifiable information (PII) out of the state longitudinal data systems. Records can be matched by identifying overlapping data.
With the ability to match data, and thus enabling the identification of individuals, it is reasonable to think these data may find their way into the hands of data brokers and database marketers like Acxiom Corporation who may mine, analyze, refine, and sell the data. While we may laugh at the "Ordering Pizza in 2015" video, it hits really close to reality.
Eventually, whether for sport, competition or profit, hackers will compromise the state longitudinal data systems. Perhaps they already have been exploiting these systems, and the public and parents are never informed it is taking place.

Below is a notice that I have written and which I believe should be provided to parents and all of the media. For obvious reasons, it never will be provided:
We have discovered that our state longitudinal data system servers were attacked, resulting in a security breach. The hackers were able to access information on all students, parents and teachers in the state. Our team has worked to secure the state longitudinal data system against this type of attack from recurring.
Please understand that we are under no obligation to inform you that sensitive data about the students, parents, and teachers in the state were accessed and copied by unauthorized and unknown individuals. Since our data system contains no personally identifiable information, you should comfortably know we assume no liability for any damages resulting from the hacker’s ability to personally identify individuals by matching overlapping information with other database information over which we have no control.
We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience. Should you find the consequences of this security breach to be devastating to your life, we suggest you consider assuming another identity and starting a new life. Should you wish to exercise this option, for a fee we can assist you in this effort. We take the security of our data seriously and can assure you we are taking measures to protect the system from this kind of breach until it happens again, at which time we will simply send you another message similar to this one, reassuring you that there is nothing to be concerned about.

J.R. Wilson is a parent and an education advocate with 25+ years experience in public education as an elementary teacher, curriculum consultant, staff development coordinator, and principal.

For the complete original article, plus Wilson's references and his two sidebars of additional information, please see this Google document.

Wilson's article was originally published August 27, 2012, on at It was lightly edited and is republished here with permission from the author.