Kate Martin on children who cannot add, subtract, multiply and divide in Washington’s schools

November 20, 2012

Yesterday, Dick Nelson of Crosscut, an online newspaper, posted an article about education reform groups supported by business in Washington state. The article attracted an excellent comment from Kate Martin, which you can read in full here (see fifth comment down, labeled "Editor's Pick). She points out that children are failing to learn how to add, subtract, multiply and divide.  Here is an excerpt:

….In Seattle (and WA), 50% of the kids in high school cannot score above level 1 which is far below basic. That means that half of the kids cannot do basic arithmetic - add, subtract, multiply, and divide. They don't really come to school with a big math deficit. We actually create it once they get there....

Dick Nelson also criticizes business for not identifying a source of funding to provide schools with the $1 to $4 billion the education establishment is now demanding.

If giving schools more money actually improved the schools, by now every Washington student would know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. In school year 2011-12, Washington state taxpayers provided the sum of $10,237 per student from all state, local and federal sources. This is the highest amount in the state’s history. Only six years ago, in 2006-7, taxpayers provided $8,836 per student. This is a 15.8% increase in a six year period that includes the 2008 Great Recession.

The Legislature is currently on a path to do nothing about Kate Martin’s complaint. Instead they looking for a way to increase taxes to spend more money on the public schools. Specifically, HB 2261 would  expand pre-school programs, provide all-day kindergarten, reduce class sizes in K-3, require federally controlled curricula and tests, and describe the type and number of staff at each school in Washington. These reforms have not been shown to be successful in other states. They are simply an expansion of a mediocre and low-performing bureaucratic system. 

We ought to listen to smart people like Kate Martin. Complaints by people just like her inspired Washington Policy Center’s education reform plan, which proposes to give school principals and teachers real autonomy from failing math curricula and central district mandates. Only when front-line educators are given the freedom to design their programs will every student in Washington learn how to add, subtract, multiply and divide.


I don't believe this that

I don't believe this that there are children who cannot add, subtract, multiply and divide in Washington’s schools. It shows up the failure of education system in the country and I wonder why there has been no actions taken against this. Children have to be given good education or at least the basic one.

The mayor has a point there.

The mayor has a point there. But traffic can be reduced by reducing the population altogether. The Seattle Mariners are a major employer in downtown and they put city officials on notice that their customers’ main complaint is traffic jams.

Math is hard

I find it ironic that you exploit people's poor understanding of math to emphasize the poor state of math education.

Let's start with the idea put forward that "If giving schools more money actually improved the schools, by now every Washington student would know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide." Really? How do you reckon that? Is there a dollar amount we can pay that will assure us of this outcome? Has that dollar amount been paid? The State Supreme Court has determined that the state is not paying the full cost of basic education, so we must conclude that whatever that dollar amount may be, it has not been paid. Consequently, we don't know if fully funding education will work because we have never tried it. There is certainly no rationale offered for believing it won't work.

Of course it won't work. There is not some direct relationship between funding for education and academic outcomes for students. I don't think anyone has suggested that there is. That would be absurd. We can say, however, that starving public education of resources is not the path to improved outcomes and we can say that public education has not been funded in accordance with the constitutional minimum.

Then comes the average spending per student in Washington State, as if that were a meaningful figure. It's not. That average is significantly skewed by a number of students who are extraordinarily expensive to educate. That number may be the average spending per student, but it is not representative of the spending for a typical student. Ms Finne knows this - or should - buts exploits the mathematical ignorance of her readers to mislead them into thinking that the state is actually providing over $10,000 for each and every student.

Finally we have the 15.8% increase over six years, which works out to an average annual increase of 2.6%. Hardly runaway expenses. Particularly when you bear in mind that the primary expense in education is the labor expense and that healthcare costs are not a small part of that labor expense and the inflation rate for healthcare has been much higher than that.

Is the legislature really looking for a way to spend more money on the public schools? You bet they are. The Washington State Supreme Court ordered them to do it. The Court ordered them to do it because the constitution requires them to do it.

There may be a lot of problems with public education in Washington State, but spending too much money on it is not one of them.

...but what happens when universities get it wrong?

To be honest, I have no background at all in the problems with math instruction. But I have been tracking reading outcomes in Washington State and the nation for the past 12 years. The federal government spent $6 billion nationally to improve reading instruction between 2002 and 2008. Washington State participated in Reading First from 2004 to 2008. The national Reading First Impact Study Final Report documents that, over the six year period, teachers received the training they needed to implement the kind of instruction recommended by the National Reading Panel (representing various prestigious universities) and they had the time and materials to implement the instruction. In spite of these achievements, no significant improvement was found in comprehension at any grade level (first, second, or third) over six years and no significant improvement was found in basic skills (phonics, decoding, word identification), except for one year (2007) and one grade (first). In Washington State, after students had three full years of instruction recommended by the National Reading Panel, 4th Grade reading scores began to decline, dropping for five successive years. In September 2012, the national College Board announced that SAT scores in reading hit a 40-year low. If you look at the average scores for Washington State seniors from 1992 to 2012, scores have been dropping since 2006, dropping this year below 520 for the first time since the late 1990s. The point: sometimes "experts" get it wrong. When they do, as Reading First demonstrated, no amount of money will make it right.