Nothing changes in education when nothing changes 1


For the past several weeks we have been criss-crossing the country talking to teachers and administrators. Thank you immensely for all who took the time to meet with us, attend our workshops and visit our booths at conferences, from Long Beach, California to Spirit Lake, North Dakota. If you still want to meet up, I’ll be in New York City April 5-9 and in Dallas, Texas at the end of this month.

Spirit Lake Nation, North Dakota, USA

Also massive apologies to everyone in Chile we have been neglecting. We will get back to you, I swear!

Now is the time of year when schools are planning their curriculum for next year – so what will you change?

I want to start with a story my friend Annette told me. It’s a sort of fable she heard from someone else.

There was a group of people out camping one day and they saw a woman had fallen in the river and was drowning. The rapids were too dangerous for one person to dive in and save her. Thinking quickly, they formed a human chain that reached out to the middle of the river. Working together, they all pulled her in.  Before they could rest, though, another person came floating down the river, this time a child. They saved this one, too. Well, it kept happening. Eventually, the campers started getting tired. One by one, they fell down exhausted, to be replaced by another person from the group. Finally, one of the campers said,

“I’m going to go upriver and see why those people keep falling in.”

That’s the situation we are in when it comes to education. For no one in this room would this be the first time you were aware of statistics on math achievement on Native American children, low-income children, etc.

I told the story about the river to my friend, Dina, who is retired from a long career in education, first as an elementary school teacher and then as a professor of teacher education. She asked –

“But what did they find upstream? I want to know!”

I told her it’s just a story, who knows?

And she said,

“That’s the problem, we DON’T know. If we knew what to do in education we’d be doing it.”

I can’t say I know but I can give you some ideas based on the research we, and others, have done.

I will give you just one statistic – according to the National Center for Education Statistics, on the average, schools in North Dakota have 50% of students proficient or above in mathematics. In schools on and adjacent to the reservations, it’s from 10-22%. In south Los Angeles schools, it’s as bad, or worse.

If you doubt me, I’d challenge you after this to go to the Common Core standards for mathematics for any grade from four on up and then go into the classrooms and take a RANDOM sample of the work the students have turned in. Compare the two.

Most administrators are well aware of the situation, I’d argue more than most teachers are and certainly more aware than the average parent.

We have certificates to give to the students in a school who score highest on the pre- and post-test exams we give for our games. If these are local schools or one of us is in the area, we’ll drop by, say something nice and present the certificate in the classroom in front of the other students.

I was doing this one day and I showed up at the school early and had coffee with the principal, who I had met previously. She asked me,

“Did (this child) really do good or did she do good for here?”

That was a pretty sad question but the truth is she had scored 70% on a test where the school average was 31%. The test was of fourth- and fifth-grade math and we had administered it to 250 7th-graders in their school.

It’s not that way at every school. At some schools, even if the average is a year or two below grade level, you will have some kids who are doing outstanding.

Even then, the typical student getting B’s or even A’s in math is a year or two behind where they should be to enter college at the level expected.

Now, I have been an eighth-grade math teacher. Not in North Dakota but up in the San Bernardino mountains, way back when.

I taught kids who were, back then, classified as severely emotionally disturbed. They had diagnoses like oppositional defiant disorder, mostly. Sometimes schizophrenia. They all had juvenile records and had been in and out of juvenile hall, foster homes and group homes.

My average eighth-grade student was at the fourth to sixth-grade level. I would have a couple who were lower and 1 or 2 who were at grade level or higher. I know there is no magic wand to wave and make these students leap three or four years in math achievement.

HOWEVER – so what do we do? Give up? Leave the kids in a ditch?

I just want you to know that I am not dismissing or trivializing the problems schools face when kids come to school worried about what is going on at home, without anyone to help them do their homework or see that they studied or 100 other problems. I’m also not saying that teachers aren’t working really hard and doing really good work.

Think about those people in the story. They were working until they were exhausted and changing people’s lives. Both great things and for which they deserve thanks and recognition. Yet, still, people were drowning in the river.

Think about those people in the story. They were working until they were exhausted and changing people’s lives. Both great things and for which they deserve thanks and recognition. Yet, still, people were drowning in the river.

I get it. I really, really do. I was the kid with without enough food in the house, who ended up in foster care and juvenile hall and then I went out and taught those kids. What can we change? Keep reading this blog to find out. (Or, you could have come to my workshop at Turtle Mountain, but it’s a little too late for that, isn’t it?)


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One thought on “Nothing changes in education when nothing changes

  • Robert Fraczkiewicz

    “(…) we DON’T know (…)” what’s happening upstream? Of course we do. Here is one small example I’ve literally learned 3 days ago. In an unnamed public elementary school in California there were two math teachers: one outstanding in terms of knowledge and skills and, shall we say, not-so-good one. The first was teaching a class of proficient math students. Let’s call it Group 1. The class was fun and students were enthusiastic. The best ones formed a Math Club whose members were winning math olympiads and other competitions. Then a disaster struck: the school administrator’s had a “happy idea” to assign the first teacher to the class of underachieving students, Group 2, who don’t care about learning, in hope of “raising the average scores” on state exams. The second, underachieving teacher was naturally assigned to the proficient students.
    In the end, Group 2 remained where it was a year before (you can’t force learning upon someone who does not want to learn!) while the entire previous enthusiasm of Group 1 completely disappeared in the learning-by-rote philosophy of the second teacher. Math Club dissolved itself and the school no longer participated in math competitions. And, in consequence, the average math scores actually fell.
    So what’s upstream? The PC-based bullshit ideology that’s absolutely out of whack with reality. Equal opportunity? Yes, we would like that very much. But SJWs are demanding Equality of Outcome regardless of influencing factors, like how much genuine effort is actually put into that outcome. You can’t legislate reality! Even a communist country where I lived the first half of my life understood that very well. In there, for example, not everybody was eligible to attend college – only those who passed entrance exams were accepted, about 10% of population.