Friday, November 8, 2019

Math Education in the U.S.: Still Crazy After All These Years

I recently read the 2016 book Math Education in the U.S.: Still Crazy After All These Years by Barry Garelick.  It's only 190 pages and a few bucks on Amazon.  I strongly encourage anyone to read it who is interested in the history of "new math" programs in the U.S.

Barry, who was a math major himself, recounts his own experiences when his daughter was suddenly struggling with a curriculum called "Everyday Math".  He proceeded to advocate for her and others by understanding how and why the math curriculum had changed to the point where his daughter was no longer learning.  He began to tutor her, and others, and ultimately became a secondary math teacher himself.

When I read this, it was like Barry was a prophet foretelling the types of illogical math education ideas that would ultimately visit us here in Wake County, NC.

I am an avid reader and often judge a book by the extent to which I "can't put it down" or in the case of this one, the extent to which I highlight salient passages or insights contained in the book.

My best endorsement of this book is to just share a sampling of the contents.  I hope you will check it out in full.  It's eye opening and will leave you more aware that there are bigger themes at play when a school system chooses such curricula.

Excerpts from Math Education in the U.S.: Still Crazy After All These Years
by Barry Garelick:

"Discovery learning has always been a powerful teaching tool. But constructivists take it a step beyond mere tool, believing that only knowledge that one discovers for oneself is truly learned."

"There is little argument that learning is ultimately a discovery. Traditionalists also believe that information transfer via direct instruction is necessary, so constructivism taken to extremes can result in students’ not knowing what they have discovered, not knowing how to apply it, or, in the worst case, discovering–and taking ownership of–the wrong answer. Additionally, by working in groups and talking with other students(which is promoted by the educationists), one student may indeed discover something, while the others come along for the ride."

The knowledge base of the world is changing so fast, the theory goes, that learning how to learn is ultimately more important than learning facts.

That critical thinking cannot occur without something to think critically about—namely facts—is of little concern to ed school gurus. And given the importance of critical thinking over facts, learning becomes a laissez faire type of thing in which information is presented in a never-ending spiral fashion in which topics are revisited and reviewed in the belief that “if they don’t learn it now, they’ll learn it later”.

If a school does poorly on standardized tests, the teachers are held accountable, not any textbook that the school board had a hand in adopting.

More likely it will be about how to facilitate classes to work in small groups (the mainstay of education school theory: students teach other students better than teachers can.

Sue White, director of mathematics for DC Public Schools stated as a witness that: “We have, in the District, six schools that are presently using EM and have topped out on mathematics scores.” They also topped out on reading scores, which wasn’t mentioned. Also not mentioned was the fact that Bunker Hill, which had a higher level of free/reduced price lunches, did not top out on math scores.

Newer teachers thought that the program had merit, probably because it matched the theories they had been hearing about in ed school, which promote things like child-centered curriculum, discovery learning, working in groups, and spiral process.

The teachers clearly bear an unfair burden in all this. So do the students learning centers or parents who can teach them what they’re not being taught. In the meantime, the school boards go on with their business: buying into the next educational fad that comes along, ignoring parents and expert opinions and continuing their longstanding tradition of adopting programs that are short

Over the past several decades, math education in the United States has shifted from the traditional model of math instruction to “reform math”. Although the shift has not been a uniform one, evidence of such transition is indicated by perennial articles in newspapers and the internet featuring parents who question and protest the methods being used to teach their children math.[iii] The traditional model has been criticized for relying on rote memorization rather than conceptual understanding. Calling the traditional approach “skills based”, math reformers deride it and claim that it teaches students only how to follow the teacher’s direction in solving routine problems, but does not teach students how to think critically or to solve non-routine problems. Traditional/skills-based teaching, the argument goes, doesn’t meet the demands of our 21st century world.

Reformers dismiss the possibility that understanding and discovery can be achieved by students working on sets of math problems individually and that procedural fluency is a prerequisite to understanding. Much of the education establishment now believes it is the other way around; if students have the understanding, then the need to work many problems (which they term “drill and kill”) can be avoided.

The treatment for low achieving, learning disabled and otherwise struggling students in math thus includes math memorization and the other traditional methods for teaching the subject that have been decried by reformers as having failed millions of students.

The criticism of traditional methods may have merit for those occasions when it has been taught poorly. But the fact that traditional math has been taught badly doesn’t mean we should give up on teaching it properly. Without sufficient skills, critical thinking doesn’t amount to much more than a sound bite. If in fact there is an increasing trend toward effective math instruction, it will have to be stealth enough to fly underneath the radar of the dominant edu-reformers. Unless and until this happens, the group-think of the well-intentioned educational establishment will prevail. Parents and professionals who benefitted from traditional teaching techniques and environments will remain on the outside — and the methods that can do the most good will continue to hide in plain sight.

For experts, struggle is suitable; e.g., an expert swimmer may struggle to perfect a swim stroke whereas a novice may struggle to keep from drowning—a struggle that doesn’t teach them how to swim.

learn at home by watching videos on the internet — videos consisting of direct instruction on mathematical procedures.  The direct instruction of the classroom is often replaced with “stimulating and engaging activities”. This puts the onus on children to (1) have access; (2) be in a good home environment; and (3) self-motivate to pick up the lessons. But if a student does not understand something in the video, the rest of the lesson is not going to make sense.

Group work can be a healthy supplement to teacher-driven lessons or for highly social kids. But it is an inefficient way to get through a lesson in which new technical skills are to be learned. Here are four groups for which this approach is a particularly bad idea: (1) very poor performers—who shrink from participating and can panic at exposure among peers; (2) very high performers—who resent that others in the group look to them to carry the burden, (3) students with social handicaps—for obvious reasons; and (4) students with communication deficits—such as, but not limited to, having a different native tongue as classmates.

Parents confronting school administrators are patronized and placated. School officials will agree and say something like, “Yes, students should learn math facts and procedures (and we do this!). Yes, teachers ought to actually teach, (and we do this!). And yes, students should do drills (and we do this!)” This is all followed with: “We use a balanced approach,” which is often followed with: “We’re saying the same things; we’re in agreement”

Whether understanding or procedure comes first ought to be driven by subject matter and student need — not by educational ideology.

One problem I was having was that EM does not use a textbook.  Students do worksheets every day from their “math journal” a paperbound book that they bring home. Without a textbook, however, it is not always apparent what was taught—particularly when the student doesn’t remember.  Any explanation that a student has received about how to solve such problems is done in class.

Thus, there is no textbook a student (or parent) can refer to go over a worked example of the type of problem being worked. Worse, sometimes problems are given for which students have no prior knowledge or preparation.  They appear to be reasonable problems—it is just not evident to the parent who steps in to help the struggling child that they have had little or no preparation for such problems.  Then there is the issue of sequencing, or lack thereof—which I will discuss later.

I told him once in an email that I was not happy with EM and asked him his opinion. I’ve asked other teachers this question and they usually chose not to answer—perhaps out of fear for their jobs.

In EM, however, students are exposed to topics repeatedly, but mastery does not necessarily occur.

So teachers are left with a three ring circus of kids getting it, kids not getting it, and are expected to “adjust the activity” as needed.

Many teachers do not realize that they have been given an unenviable and impossible task. In fact, I have spoken with new teachers who speak of EM and other poorly conceived programs in glowing terms, speaking of them as leading to “deeper understandings of math.” Some have said “I never understood math until I had this program.” But it is their adult insight and experience that is talking and creating the illusion that the math is deep. Children cannot make the connections the adults are making who already have the experience and knowledge of mathematics.

According to the establishment, students should be “led” to their discovery of the answers. Providing explicit instruction is considered to be “handing it to the student” and prevents them from “constructing their own knowledge.”

The problem is that the reigning education theory focuses mostly on discovery, with only a nod to direct instruction. That’s mistaken.

Educators who promote “authentic learning” mistakenly believe that novices learn the same way that experts do. They believe that students construct their own knowledge by being forced to make connections with skills and concepts that they may not have mastered. The theory is that they learn what is needed in a “just in time” manner, thus providing the motivation for learning, which they assume would otherwise be a tedious and soul killing exercise.

In general, reform math promotes a teaching approach in which understanding and process dominate. As discussed above, teaching standard algorithms are delayed in the belief that learning those first will eclipse any understanding of what is going on when such procedures are followed. The result, reformers believe, will be students “doing but not knowing math”. By understanding how the tool works before being given the tool, reformers believe that when students get to more difficult and higher level math problems, they will be “thinking like mathematicians” and that conceptual understanding — more than procedural understanding and fluency — will guide their mathematical proficiency.

Schools and districts are quick to tell parents—both suspicious and unsuspecting—that such circumvention strategies are part of a deeper understanding of math facts as opposed to the “mind-numbing” and “interest-killing” approach to math which in the past “failed thousands of students.”

Also frequently overlooked is the fact that students in low income families who make up the “changing demographic” cited in such arguments do not have access to tutoring or learning centers, while students in more affluent areas are not held hostage — dare I say “tracked”? — to poor curricula and dubious pedagogical practices.

I also do not think that I am alone in drawing a distinction between reform and traditional modes of math teaching. While traditional math can be taught properly as well as badly, I believe that poor teaching is inherent in most if not all reform math programs. I base this on having seen good teachers required to follow programs that present content poorly, lack a coherent logical sequence and rely on questionable pedagogies.   I would like to see studies conducted to document how U.S. students who do well in math and science and pursue STEM majors and careers are learning math. The chances are fairly good that such investigations would show that in K-8, many students are getting support at home, from tutors, or from the many learning centers that are springing up all over the U.S. at rapid rates. Since tutors and learning centers (and parents) tend to use traditional methods for teaching math, I somehow doubt that the clientele are exceptions to some ill-defined rule.  In my view, as well as the view of many parents and teachers I’ve met, there are few exceptions to the educational damage reform math programs have caused, even when such programs are taught “well.”

The conversation turned to “student outcomes” and “growth-mindset.” This last phrase, a concept made popular by Carol Dweck, is the theory that students can develop their abilities by believing that they can do so. The term has taken hold as its own motivational poster in classrooms, professional development seminars and Ed Camps across America. Someone remarked that the idea of growth mindset itself is a student-centered concept. I suppose it is, if you combine belief in yourself with hard work, instruction, and practice—things I don’t hear much about when I hear about growth-mindset.

Having been in the position of a parent raising a daughter subjected to student-centered classrooms, I think what that parent meant was not so much, “Why should I be involved in my child’s education?” but rather: “I’m doing a lot of teaching at home that should be going on in the school.” Many parents have complained that students are not being taught grammar, math facts, and other necessities of education, but which teachers of student-centered classrooms consider “drill and kill” and “drudge work.” That may account for the popularity of learning centers like Sylvan, Huntington and Kumon, which all focus on these things.

It is as if the purveyors of these practices are saying: “If we can just get them to do things that look like what we imagine a mathematician does, then they will be real mathematicians.”  That may be behaviorally interesting, but it is not mathematical development and it leaves them behind in the development of their fundamental skills.

Consider students whose verbal skills lag far behind their mathematical skills—non-native English speakers or students with specific language delays or language disorders, for example. These groups include children who can easily do math in their heads and solve complex problems, but often will be unable to explain—whether orally or in written words—how they arrived at their answers.

Most exemplary are children on the autism spectrum. As the autism researcher Tony Attwood has observed, mathematics has special appeal to individuals with autism: It is, often, the school subject that best matches their cognitive strengths.

And yet, Attwood added, many children on the autism spectrum, even those who are mathematically gifted, struggle when asked to explain their answers. “The child can provide the correct answer to a mathematical problem,” he observes, “but not easily translate into speech the mental processes used to solve the problem.”

What testing does is measure “markers” of learning and understanding. Explaining answers is but one possible marker.

Is it really the case that the non-linguistically inclined student who progresses through math with correct but unexplained answers—from multi-digit arithmetic through to multi-variable calculus—doesn’t understand the underlying math? Or that the mathematician with the Asperger’s personality, doing things headily but not orally, is advancing the frontiers of his field in a zombie-like stupor?

At best, verbal explanations beyond “showing the work” may be superfluous; at worst, they shortchange certain students and encumber the mathematics for everyone.

As Alfred North Whitehead famously put it about a century before the Common Core standards took hold: It is a profoundly erroneous truism … that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

Problems such as the one above are not necessarily bad, but when presented without a sufficient learning base of prior knowledge and procedural skills, they do little to promote problem solving skills. It is as if the advocates of open-ended and investigative problems are saying that presenting students with non-routine, and open-ended problems on a constant basis form a “problem solving” schema. Furthermore, they view such problem solving schemes as independent of the mastery of basic types of problems that are learned by example and scaffolded to present more challenge. The thinking is that by giving students a constant does of challenging problems, not only are problem solving “schemas” being developed—so the theory goes —but also all the students in the class are in the same boat. That is, all students will be struggling and there won’t be those few who get it while others are left feeling inadequate. The danger in such thinking is that there is a converse to this theory that is usually ignored: that is, a steady diet of problems held beyond everyone’s reach may well result in students being in the same boat–one in which all are feeling lost and inadequate.

The invert and multiply example has for years served as the poster child for the reform math movement. It is used as evidence that traditionally taught math is math taught wrong because it is presented as a bunch of tricks, relying on rote memorization with no conceptual understanding or connections to other concepts—students should see that math makes sense.   Before I get too far into this, let me say that I believe that students should be taught why the invert and multiply rule for fractional division works, and I have done so in classes that I have taught.  I will also say that the accusations about traditionally taught math are in large part based on mischaracterizations. I have talked about this in Chapter 8 so I will not go into further detail on it except to say that when I and many others I know were educated in the 50’s and 60’s, math was taught with understanding, and connected with prior concepts, and was not taught as merely rote memorization..

In today’s math teaching methods, students must demonstrate an “understanding” of computational procedures before they are allowed to use standard algorithms.  Such topsy turvy approaches to math education have been around for more than two decades, but the interpretation and implementation of Common Core have made them more popular.  To compensate for what reformers believe is a lack of understanding, the teaching of mathematics has been structured to drag work out far longer than necessary with multiple procedures, diagrams, and awkward, bulky explanations. In so doing, students are forced to show what passes for understanding at every point of even the simplest computations. Instead, they should be learning procedures and working effectively with sufficient procedural understanding.   The approaches to math teaching in the lower grades in schools is a product of many years of mischaracterizing and maligning traditional teaching methods. The math reform movement touts many poster children of math education . Their views and philosophies are taken as faith by school administrations, school districts as well as many teachers—teachers who have been indoctrinated in schools of education that teach these methods.  The reform movement has succeeded in foisting its beliefs upon ever growing populations of new teachers who believe this is the only way.  In so doing, they math reformers have unwittingly created a poster child in which “understanding” foundational math is not even “doing” math.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

2019 Citizen’s Report on NC DPI Data for WCPSS

On September 17, 2019, WCPSS (Wake County Public School System) staff presented Testing and Accountability Overview 2018-19 to the WCPSS School Board (and the public).  It was an overview presentation of 2019 performance data with some historical context, and portrayed a general state of “okayness” for WCPSS academics.

Since then, I have invested my free time in understanding many of the details behind that report.  This has included considerable education about how the 8th grade math EOG and Math 1 EOC metrics are reported now and in the past.  The purpose of my learning was to be able to confidently question data and explanations provide to the public from WCPSS, AND to convey my learnings to YOU, the tax paying citizens in this county.

I have since created a 148 page presentation, which was "presented" in a 4 part video series.  Hopefully, you will watch the videos and learn to question the authority of this school district when they spoon feed you happy numbers that are not sourced, not in context, and that look okay enough to appease the casual observer.  Don't take everything you hear at face value, especially explanations that might sound like excuses.  Ask questions.  Ask why.  Seek context.  Seek truth.

4-Part Video Series: 2019 Citizen’s Report on NC DPI Data for WCPSS

148 pages total - PDF FILE

Total duration: 2 hours 6 minutes

Part 1: 4 Year GLP & CCR Trends vs State of NC (20 minutes)

I will explain the data analysis I have recently done about Wake County Public School System's 2019 End of Grade (EOG) and End of Course (EOC) results. In this video I cover the comparisons of WCPSS data versus the state of NC, as well as Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools versus the state of NC. By examining the 4 year trends of these comparisons you will see how WCPSS is losing its grade level proficiency lead over the state in every single subject.

Part 2: Math 1 Metrics Explained (18 minutes)

In this video I am not showing any data (sorry - that will soon AND will be worth the wait!). But in this video I will explain what I learned about NC's Math 1 metrics and what they mean. I've spent scores of hours to get to this level of understanding. So in only 18 minutes, you will know as much as I do!

Part 3 - Math 1 Metrics used by WCPSS) + Corrections (39 minutes)

This video may feel like a slow painful roller coaster ride.  I will attempt to explain to you the different versions of the Math 1 EOC data shared to the public by WCPSS in the past year, how that data maps (or doesn't map) to publicly available NCDPI data, and why or why not.  I will show how the new 2018 and 2019 DPI metrics for Math 1 are converging towards the definitions WCPSS has been using via internal calculations for years, and why using standard metrics (even if imperfect) is far better and more informative than using internal metrics.  Additionally, I will share AND address a statement from NCDPI which cautions against making simple year to year comparisons of the 2019 vs 2018 Math 1 EOC metrics.  I will explain why WCPSS should have been one of the most prepared districts in the state for the new 2019 Math 1 EOC which are based on new math standards.  Then I will show 2019 data that does NOT rely on year to year comparisons (and therefore is not subject to the 2018 vs 2019 warning) but instead shows WCPSS' Math 1 EOC compared to other NC districts.   Lastly, I will show the importance and power of using standard metrics and digging into subgroup details to understand achievement gaps.  This will give a preview of what is to come in Part 4.

UPDATE 10/27/19: This version also includes a corrections addendum at the end of the video.  I received some corrected information about one of the data sets (the WCPSS V2 data set, the blend of middle and high school) and wanted to address that correction.

Part 4 - Deep Dive on Math 1 Metrics (49 minutes)

In this final chapter of data analysis (for now), I will cover:
  1. Follow-up on charts I showed at the BoE meeting on 10/15/19, which includes a 3-dimensional visualization of the M1 Math 1 EOC metric mapped against EDS% and High school vs Middle school percentage.
  2. Deep dive into subgroup scores for Math 1
  3. Revist the WCPSS vs NC "delta" charts covered in Part 1, with an update for Math 1 metrics
  4. View of achievement gaps for Math 1 metrics.
  5. 2018 & 2019 demographics for Math 1 test takers
  6. Summary and conclusions

Legal Disclaimer

To the best of my knowledge, all of the data I present in these videos is accurate and from cited sources, mostly available at NCDPI Accountability Services Division.  Otherwise, I am demonstrating how I do my calculations in an effort to be transparent and show my critical thinking approach to analysis.

Because thousands of manual calculations and Excel maneuvers were required to get these large data sets in consumable form, there is a chance I miscopied a formula or number or made a mistake.  PLEASE REPORT ERRORS, COMMENTS, OR SUGGESTIONS TO

Before you criticize me and my charts, I also ask that you review and critique the high level charts that are usually accepted at face value when presented from WCPSS staff.

If you don't like this data, or it hurts your feelings, or it contradicts your point of view, don't waste your time suing me.  Go do your own research, and cite your sources and prove your own points in your own videos.  I'd be glad to watch and learn.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Public Records Account of How a Testimony about MVP was Obtained and Later Retracted


This is an account of how I came to secure a testimony from a teacher in Utah that was unfavorable about MVP. And then, how that testimony was retracted. This article will rely on evidence I gathered either through firsthand correspondence or documentation received under Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) involving Alpine District in Utah.


Around March 25, 2019, I decided I would like to investigate the performance of the school where MVP founder and creator Travis Lemon was teaching.  Some web searching led me to believe that he was a teacher at American Fork HIgh School. I went to American Fork High School’s website and didn’t see Travis Lemon listed as a teacher.  So on April 4, 2019, I sent an email to all math teachers there.

The remaining part of this document will show the email evidence and public records related to what happened after I sent the email on April 4.

This is a the timeline of events as best as I am able to construct it:

1. 4/4/19 6:35pm (Mountain Time): Blain Dillard sent email to American Fork High School teachers seeking to understand if Travis Lemon was a teacher at the school:

2. 4/4/19 6:51pm (MT): 16 minutes later… Response from high school teacher sent to Blain Dillard confirming Travis Lemon is not a teacher there.

3. 4/4/19 7:57pm (MT): Blain Dillard sent this email to American Fork Junior High School (AFJHS) math teachers:

4. 4/4/19 9:02pm (MT): Travis Lemon warns “Everyone” (assuming AFJHS math department).

5. 4/4/19 9:08pm (MT): Travis Lemon informs (then) AFJHS Principal Jeff Schoonover that Blain Dillard reached out to American Fork Junior High Teachers (Email)

6. 4/4/19 9:15pm (MT): Travis Lemon referred to an email informing some AFJHS teachers to not respond to Blain Dillard without speaking with him first.  NOTE: The referenced email is shown above in #4.

7. 4/5/19 12:58am (MT): An AFHS teacher, who will henceforth be called Teacher D to preserve anonymity, responds to Blain Dillard:

8. 4/5/19 11:44am (MT): Blain Dillard informed Travis Lemon about the Rate-my-teacher data citing him as a teacher at American Fork High School.  Note: In a public records request returned from Alpine District during this period, there was no response sent to this email, nor since then. However, the next day, the comments on were removed.  As of 10/3/19, still incorrectly lists Travis Lemon as a teacher at American Fork High School.

9. 4/5/19 2:13pm (MT): Jeff Schoonover, the (then) American Fork Junior High Principal, replied to the 4/4/19 9:08pm (#5, above) email that “people are crazy.”

10. 4/5/19 2:20pm (MT): AFJHS 9th grade team leader Karen Feld wrote Blain Dillard in response to his email to the junior high school math teachers:

11. 4/5/19 4:37pm (MT): Travis Lemon emailed AFJHS principal informing him about additional district contacts, and "These people are a bit crazy."

12. 4/7/19 8:07 (MT): Blain Dillard shared information in an email with Teacher D and asked for more information and offered to talk.  

13. 4/8/19 6:02am (MT): WCPSS Denise Tillery apologized to Karen Feld for Blain Dillard reaching out to AFJHS teachers.

14. 4/8/19 8:02am (MT): Karen Feld informed Travis Lemon of the response from Denise Tillery.

15. 4/8/19 3:30pm - 4/8/19 4:16pm (MT): Teacher D offered to talk, and then s/he and Blain Dillard negotiated a time.

16. 4/8/19 evening: Phone call between Blain Dillard and Teacher D.  Testimony was documented and included anonymously as Teacher D in the material objection complaint document which was filed by parents to WCPSS beginning 4/12/19.

17. 4/29/19 11:04am (MT): Email with Subject “Concern” from (then) American Fork Junior High Principal Jeff Schoonover to Melody Apezteguia (Assistant Principal at American Fork High School) and Dan Weishar (Principal at AFHS) and 2 attachments: Attachment 1, Attachment 2.  This email’s attachments are excerpts from the material objection complaint showing the comments from Teacher D.

On 7/16/19, Kimberly Bird confirmed that it was Travis Lemon who came to Schoonover with the concern about the Teacher D testimony.

18. 4/30/19 1:58pm (MT): Travis Lemon emailed Melody Apezteguia, cc: Jeff Schoonover and Dan Weishar (AFHS principal) and shared this background and the emails from 4/4/19 and 4/5/19. 

19. 4/30/19 2:05pm (MT): Melody Apezteguia sent a link to to Teacher D.  From that link, a person could get to the material objection documents, which contained the Teacher D testimony.

20. 4/30/19 3:36pm (MT): Melody Apezteguia sends links to website and material objection document to Kimberly Bird and David Stephenson, who are in communications / public relations department for Alpine District.

21. 4/30/19 4:16pm (MT): Teacher D sent to Melody Apezteguia the email thread between her/him and Blain Dillard.

22. 5/3/19 8:45am (MT):  Melody Apezteguia sent Teacher D contact information for WCPSS’s Denise Tillery.

23. 5/3/19 9:46am (MT): Teacher D sent Melody Apezteguia a draft of the email s/he would eventually send to Blain Dillard.


24. 5/6/19 2:10pm (MT): Teacher D sent email to Blain Dillard retracting her/his statement.

25. 5/6/19 10:39pm (MT): Melody Apezteguia responds back to Teacher D with confirmation about email (though s/he had already sent it).

26. 5/8/19 3:01pm (MT)  Melody Apezteguia followed up with Teacher D and made sure s/he emailed Denise Tillery.  Notes that “You should be good to go at that point. Thank you for your timely actions on clearing things up!!”

27. 5/8/19 9:40pm (MT). Travis Lemon contacted Teacher D to give her/him Denise Tillery’s name.  BCC to Melody Apezteguia.

28. 5/9/19 7:31 am (MT): Teacher D sends Denise Tillery email, sharing the retraction s/he sent to Blain Dillard. 

29. 5/9/19 11:05 am (MT).  Denise Tillery thanks Teacher D for the communication. 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Let Wake County Teachers Create World Class Math Curriculum for NC

It's been a while since I've blogged, due to pending litigation against me by my county's math curriculum vendor MVP.  The lawsuit is still in progress and my attorney filed a response in Utah Court on September 9, 2019.  All those documents are at the link above.  I'm not going to allow MVP to silence my First Amendment rights, and I hope others will do the same and continue to speak out.  As my attorney, Jeff Hunt, wrote in my response:
This case is about a company attempting to use the judicial process to punish a parent who dared to voice reasonable concerns that the company’s educational program was not beneficial to his child and other similarly situated children. Instead of addressing such concerns in a productive dialogue, the company is seeking to silence them outright. But it is a parent’s obligation, right, and privilege to take action and, in this case, speak publicly to government officials and institutions and to other interested parents about matters of such important public concern as the well-being and proper education of children. Moreover, the Supreme Court has time and again emphasized that commentary like the statements at issue here—issues of public importance—“occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.”
With that said, here goes...

Please ponder these questions from a Wake County teacher: 

  • Several teachers have spoken for MVP because they didn’t have a curriculum before MVP and if MVP is taken away they say they won't have a curriculum to use… so question is what in the world were they teaching with before MVP?
  • Wake County has some of the best math teachers in the state, why not instead get those top-performing teachers to pool their resources to make a curriculum?
  • Why does Wake county trust a curriculum written by folks from Utah (with a different standard course of study) more than they trust their own teachers here?

My Proposal

Indeed.  I would like to share a radical proposal.  I work in the IT industry and we use this notion all the time:  Use what we sell and sell what we use.  A private company recognizes its most valuable resources are not the property it owns or the products it sells, but THE PEOPLE who work for that company.  Why should government agencies - such as a school system - think any differently?

So here’s an idea for Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) to address 3 current problems at once: 1) continued budget expansion, 2) underpaid teachers, and 3) pouring more money into a widely unpopular and problematic secondary math curriculum.

By my estimation, WCPSS must have nearly 600 math teachers teaching with MVP.  Before MVP, every school and every teacher had curriculum resources they used to teach Math 1, 2, and 3.  Those resources are still available on Google drives or on teacher laptops. So the resources for an excellent mostly-matched-to-standards curriculum exist in aggregate across this very large county.  With some level of adult coordination and project management, WCPSS could invest money in making robust system-wide math curriculum resources including:

  • A database of high quality class lessons which map to state standards and made available to students (and parents) for use after class
  • A math problem bank (some with and some without worked examples) which could be used by teachers or students for class work, homework, quizzes, and tests.  
  • Problems could be mapped to lessons (which are mapped to standards). 
  • Problems could be rated for difficulty which would allow teachers to build assignments and assessments appropriate for scaffolding. 
  • This could include MVP problems which are utilized during the appropriate time at the teacher’s discretion.
  • Continued refinement or adjustments to standards changes year after year.
  • Teachers could use their own creativity to deliver the material using methods best suited for their style and students’ needs.

The results would be truly high quality resources, better performing students, and increased teacher satisfaction and buy-in.  ALL teachers would access to ALL resource for ALL students. Problem difficulty ratings would ensure ALL students are met where they are and can be challenged to go higher. Assessments would be fair because they would only contain problems within the realm of what is expected.  Parents would have resources (notes + examples) to help students if needed.

This investment to do this could be in the form of tooling (software) and labor (paying teachers lucrative bonuses to contribute to the project).  Save the millions spent on one-time-use MVP workbooks and teacher re-education required to teach/facilitate using discovery methods, and shower that money on the excellent teachers who know best how to teach Wake County students. Even paying 100 math teachers $50 per hour for 40 hours each would be a fraction of what we are spending on MVP annually.  And the result would be one of the best math curriculums in the country. It’s a win for taxpayers, teachers, and students - and common sense. 

And not to get ahead of myself, if we had such a WCPSS-created curriculum, couldn't we charge a nominal fee to other NC counties for access?  Or perhaps petition the State for additional funds to maintain the curriculum based on State standards?  Wouldn't the State of NC welcome this as a cost saving solution?

Hammer Time or Something Else?

I know I have over-simplified this proposal and there will be skeptics.  This is intended to be a conversation starter, not a step by step implementation plan.  Some will say that MVP was purchased with the hope it would improve mathematics critical thinking due to an audit done in ~2016-17 showing poor results or trends.  But what actions are Wake County school admins and parents taking to shore up gaps experienced with MVP?

  • extra tutoring resources at school
  • extra tutoring resources at home for parents who can afford it
  • a WCPSS website with the beginnings of what I am proposing here
  • links to videos with lessons
  • references to websites with direct instruction and examples
  • allowing some (not all, apparently) teachers to use their own resources to supplement MVP when needed

Aren't we going full circle with these actions / remediations?  Why purchase a resource which was to be an end-to-end stand-alone curriculum to ostensibly make things better, when you must use the pre-exiting resources to shore up gaps?  What have we, as a county, gained by this - other than frustration?

By replacing existing or former curriculums with off-the-shelf end-all-be-all curriculums, WCPSS leadership has fallen for the age-old phrase "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  They have incorrectly viewed the problems of declining performance (whether math or other subjects) as only fixed by replacing curriculums with wildly different solutions.  This groupthink continues to be perpetuated by WCPSS leadership as justification for MVP or any other new idea that comes down the pike.  MY OPINION is that our prior curriculums were fine - excellent, in fact - though they perhaps needed some organization to make them more accessible.  I think our leadership has incorrectly diagnosed causation, and jumped ahead to feel-good tweet-worthy edufad actions for the sake of "doing something."

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Look No Further! Even More Analysis of MVP Ground Zero in American Fork, Utah

British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli once said: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."  I have frequently debunked data showing supposed MVP "successes" by showing how it was used out of context (see Why My MVP Golf Score Improved, and other Exaggerations), or was unsupported by the publicly available data (see MVP Math Claims about Gains in Chapel Hill - Carrboro Debunked!).

A few months ago I wrote about math proficiency data found in Utah in MVP Ground-Zero Math Performance Data Exposed, and it Ain't Pretty: An Analysis of American Fork Junior & Senior High Math Trends.  Recently, the original report I did about these Utah schools was called into question.  The purpose of this article is to elaborate on why I believe this data is golden and should bring grave concern to those hopeful that MVP will ultimately prove to be a success.  As time has passed, I am more and more convinced that THIS is THE most important MVP dataset to examine with care.


As noted in the prior article, American Fork Junior High is ground zero for MVP because this is where the MVP founder and one of its authors is a math teacher.  Certainly, there can be no other school in our solar system which has a better MVP situation:
  1. Worldwide subject matter & thought leader about MVP as a practitioner of the MVP "craft"
  2. The 9th grade math teachers love the program and buy-in to it, according to one teacher there ("the materials are excellent")
  3. When in doubt, any teacher certainly can obtain on-demand professional development by merely asking the founder for some pointers.  (Whereas the rest of us poor schmucks have to pay tax dollars to fly the MVP founder and team back to Wake County for more teacher refreshers on "How to Properly MVP")


I decided to take another look at what's going on in Utah.  In my prior article, I examined math proficiency scores available to the public at Utah's state education website.  I looked at data for 3 schools in particular:  

One was the founder's home school (American Fork Junior High).  The other was the high school fed by that school (American Fork High).  Both schools are in American Fork, Utah, which is north of Provo.  And the third was Fairfield Junior High in Kaysville, UT, which as the other article explains, was #1 in a list of 20 junior high schools similar to American Fork Junior High in 2017-18.  Kaysville is north of Salt Lake City.

The two American Fork schools are in the Alpine District, which has 12 junior high and 9 high schools, and ~79k students.   Fairfield is in the Davis District about an hour away, which has 17 and 9 junior and senior high schools, respectively, and has ~72k students.  

By comparison, Wake County Public School System has about 36 and 28 middle and high schools, respectively, with 160k students (Source:  So we are a little bit larger than both of these districts combined, in number of students and middle/junior/senior schools.

It's worth noting that WCPSS is considerably more diverse by race and ethnicity measures, and has a larger percentage economically disadvantaged and English Language Learners student groups than either of the Utah districts examined.

As noted in the prior article, American Fork Junior High School feeds American Fork High School exclusively.  This was told to me by a teacher at the high school.  This makes sense, based on the fact that the high school (2365 students) is only slightly larger than the junior high school (1962).  In fact, the school attendance coverage map (source: ) confirms that since the American Fork High School map completely contains the American Fork Junior High coverage map.  Portions of students from another junior high school make up the remainder of the American Fork High School population.  It might be worth learning more about the other junior high, but I've learned quite a bit with what is here already.


As a computer scientist and manager with 30+ years experience in the I/T industry, I know how important it is for potential customers to know my company uses its own products.  It is almost impossible to sell something if you cannot point to your own organization as "Customer Reference #1."

There is actually a Wikipedia page which defines this notion, also sometimes referred to as eating your own dog food or cooking.  It reads, "Eating your own dog food, also called dogfooding, occurs when an organization uses its own product. This can be a way for an organization to test its products in real-world usage. Hence dogfooding can act as quality control, and eventually a kind of testimonial advertising. Once in the market, dogfooding demonstrates confidence in the developers' own products."

I will give the MVP founder this credit: He has been able to convince his own junior high school to eat his own dog food.  In other words, they use MVP.  I know from writing to teachers at American Fork High School that they do not use MVP, except perhaps very rarely.  On July 23, 2019, I wrote to a Public Relations representative at Alpine School District to ask them these questions:
  1. Does your district, which includes 9 high schools and 12 junior high schools according to your website, use the MVP math curriculum as a matter of policy?  
  2. If not, then why not?
  3. If curriculum decisions are not made at the district level but at the school level, can you tell me which schools of the 21 do use MVP as their math curriculum?
As of this publication date, I do not yet have an answer.  I do expect to receive an answer because this person has been helpful and prompt in the past.  Stay tuned here for an update.

So, here's issue #1 for me - before we even get to data: Why has MVP not been solidly adopted in Alpine School District and perhaps broadly across other parts of Utah?  I understand that this is not their product directly, but the State of Utah has had its hands in the original funding for MVP back in the 2012 timeframe, according to "STEM IS DEAD IN UTAH COURTESY OF THE USOE."  If MVP was widely adopted locally, then I believe we would have heard about it as Customer Reference #1.  But, we have no customer references for MVP other than the ones we have discovered on our own, or from teachers tweeting about attending MVP training.  MVP will not tell us who their customers are, other than to state they have customers in 30+ states.  Why the big secret? 

Here's issue #2 for me: Given the obvious lack of broad adoption of MVP in its home district of Alpine or its home state of Utah (or any other large districts in the country) why would "very large WCPSS" bite off on this venture with a very small company which lacks the staff and a proven ability to scale its product successfully? 


In the prior article, I shared data for the 3 schools discussed above.  In this new chart, I am refining the chart to include additional important context including each district and the whole state.  Additionally, I am honing in on just 9th grade for the junior high data because in most cases, that is when Math 1 is taught, and that is where MVP is used at American Fork Junior High School.

This is an attempt to do a better job of convincing you that this data matters.  Specifically, we have 3 experimental groups:
  1. American Fork Junior High 9th grade which has the best case scenario of MVP
  2. American Fork High which receives the majority of its students from MVP-using American Fork Junior High
  3. Fairfield Junior High 9th grade which does not use MVP, but instead creates its own curriculum
We also have several pseudo-control groups.  These are groups which, granted, do include the experimental groups as well, but the rest of the makeup of the control groups may or may not use MVP.  The assumption is that by and large, they do not.  Control groups are:
  1. All Alpine District Junior Highs - 9th grade
  2. All Alpine District Senior Highs
  3. All Davis District Junior Highs - 9th grade
  4. All Utah Junior Highs - 9th grade
  5. All Utah Senior Highs
This is quite a busy chart, I know.  But please read it carefully to understand what it means.  I've used critical thinking to annotate it to assist with comprehension.

You can draw your own conclusions, but here is what I see:
  1. American Fork Junior High (MVP Home) - fared slightly better (-8.7% decline in 3 year proficiency rate) than Alpine district as a whole (-9.3%). We don't yet know what curriculum the rest of the district is using but that is pending a response from Alpine.   
  2. American Fork Junior High fared worse than Utah overall (+0.5% increase).  I see this as a RED FLAG because we have no indication that Utah at large is using MVP, so perhaps using MVP seems to be negatively impacting this one school disproportionately as compared to others in the state.  The MVP best case scenario should have been on par or better than the state if it truly is a superior curriculum.
  3. American Fork Junior High fared considerable worse than a similar school Fairfield Junior High (+26.6%).  This was pointed out in the prior article but in that article I was looking at the blended scores of the junior highs, which would include Math 7 and Math 8.  So when I focus on 9th grade (which would be Math 1 and sometimes Math 2), the results are even more stunning for Fairfield Junior High!  I see this as a RED FLAG for MVP because the contrast is HUGE.
  4. Fairfield fared quite better than other junior high schools in the Davis District (+11.2%).  Since Fairfield has reached higher proficiency levels, it may be hard to maintain the pace that the district makes.
  5. Fairfield obviously is outpacing the state overall (+0.5%).
  6. Davis District is clearly doing something well.  With the exception of Fairfield, they are using the Carnegie Curriculum.  My source tells me they are considering switching to more of a discovery learning model like MVP.  WHY. ON. EARTH??
  7. American Fork High School is fed with MVP students and a few others from the district.  Their results (-32.3%) were noted as abysmal in the prior article.  The other high schools in the district are not faring too well either (-20.9%), but remember the terrible results from the high school are embedded in that 20.9% decline.  It takes more than one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch, girl, but this one is pretty bad.  I see this as a HUGE RED FLAG for MVP.
  8. While all state high schools overall declined slightly (-4%), American Fork High School in comparison is way off the mark.  
  9. Note that when comparing American Fork Junior High to Fairfield Junior High, Fairfield has a more challenging student population to educate in that it has a larger percentage of economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, and English language learners.  So maybe we should be taking #equity curriculum advice from them instead of MVP.  YELLOW FLAG for MVP.
So let's recap those RED FLAGS comparing 3 year change in proficiency rates:
  1. American Fork Junior High (-8.7) vs Utah (+0.5) = NET -9.2 WORSE
  2. American Fork Junior High (-8.7) vs Fairfield Junior High (+26.6) = NET -35.3 WORSE
  3. American Fork High (-32.3) vs Utah (-4) = NET -28.3 WORSE
To provide a little more detail, I did pull the actual test results for the 3 schools in question.  There was one anomaly in the data with the Math 3 scores for 2017.  The number of students assessed dropped considerably.  I saw this in other data in Utah as well, and have written them asking for an explanation.  So those data points are shown in red text below.

The table above color codes cells to attempt to show "cohorts" of students.  In other words, the yellow group takes Math 1 at American Fork Junior High in 2015, then Math 2 at the senior high in 2016, and Math 3 in 2017 (that is the suspicious data point).  The cyan and dark pink cohorts look more useful in that the number of students looks consistent.

You could probably find some other schools similar to American Fork Junior High which are not using MVP and which are doing worse.  I looked at this set of 3 schools due to one being the MVP home base (American Fork Junior High), and the other two having a data relationship with it: one based on student population progression (American Fork High) and the other on similarity (Fairfield Junior High).

I have no way of knowing the true cause of the steep decline in math proficiency at American Fork High School.  Is it the students coming in with 1 year (or 2 years, in the case of 68 students in 2016) of MVP in junior high school who lack foundations which impact their high school performance in Math 2 and 3?  Or is the Math 2 and Math 3 curriculum at the high school so bad is is disproportionately destroying these students' STEM potential?  Something is definitely wrong.

Alpine School District has a long history of trail-blazing experimental math programs such as ones based on "investigations math" or "constructivism."  It is right next the Brigham Young University, the source of at least one MVP founder. According to BYU's Math Education Department Fails Students, "BYU has for several years been the hotbed of new-age education fads.  Constructivism was pushed into Alpine School District thanks to the people at BYU."   In Investigations Math Summary, one parent gives background and plenty of resources.  Just search on the word "alpine."

I have tried to avoid confirmation biases I might have about this high school, but I can't help but wonder, which is my issue #3: I cannot for the life of me explain their steep decline in math proficiency other than to recognize that they are largely receiving students who went through MVP Math 1 (and sometimes Math 2) in junior high school.  Either that, or a major change at the high school that has gone uncorrected for 3 years.  My concern is that our WCPSS Math 1-2-3 MVP alumni will meet the same fate when they reach Trigonometry, Calculus, and/or college level math. 

I want to stress that this analysis is not a statistical analysis and article.  This is a common sense analysis and article.  It doesn't calculate margins of error and confidence levels.  I have no control over these experiments.  The samples which make up this data are not completely known other than what people have told me, and what I can infer by the data.  I am just a parent reading data available to the public, created in a state far away, about an experimental fad program which has been foisted upon tens of thousands of students per year and 50+ schools in Wake County, NC, much to our dissatisfaction.

You draw your own conclusions, and if you can find an MVP silver lining in this data, I'd like to hear it.