An advice sampler for new DPS chief Bennet

The Rocky Mountain News
July 2, 2005

[An extended version of this article was published in the RMN web version (only) on July 5 under the title Some advice for Michael Bennet; it is appended below too. The Rocky Mountain News original sources are here and here. Note further: Directly opposite Linda Seebach's July 2 column the Rocky Mountain News presented an Op-Ed by incoming superintendent Michael Bennet. For related letters and articles, see the NYC HOLD page Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.]

Michael Bennet starts his new job as superintendent of Denver Public Schools with many advantages, and freedom from the debilitating baggage of K-12 orthodoxy is surely one of them.

But his first priority has to be choosing a chief academic officer, and if he gets that choice wrong, nothing else he does right will make any difference in the end. So I thought I might usefully solicit some advice on his behalf, and pass it along. Better I should be presumptuous now than say "I told you so" later.

With apologies to everybody who sent me great stuff I won't have room for (but will pass along), here are some things people told me.

Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, says, "This field is awash in jargon, self-proclaimed experts, unwarranted claims, strong feelings and lots and lots of snake oil peddlers. Many non-educator superintendents have stumbled because they trusted the wrong folks to guide them."

Wayne Bishop, professor of mathematics at California State University at Los Angeles says that this is where nontraditional types get in trouble. Alan Bersin in San Diego is a nice example, he said, or Joel Klein, who as Mayor Michael Bloomberg's choice for chancellor of New York City Schools, hired Diana Lam.

Bersin, who left his position Thursday, wrote an article summarizing what he'd learned; educational pioneer Siegfried Engelmann explains how Bersin squandered his opportunity (read both at // As to Lam, Sol Stern in City Journal explains how she dumped a passably successful reading curriculum in favor of whole language (go to and search for lam stern).

Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, suggested that the basic qualification should be at least a master's degree in science or mathematics (and not in education). "The two critical subjects in K-12 now being dumbed down beyond belief are math and science, and the only kind of person who can understand what their content should be is someone well-versed in that content."

And as to math, Bastiaan Braams of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Emory University looked into Denver's math curriculum and found the district is using Everyday Mathematics in grade school, Connected Mathematics in middle school, and Cognitive Tutor and Interactive Mathematics Program in high school. "I regard IMP as the most degenerate of all mathematics programs; Connected Mathematics as awful, and Everyday Mathematics as bad. Do you know if these are still system-wide mandates?"

Why yes, apparently they are. Has math performance in Denver improved since they were adopted? Not so's you'd notice. These curriculums are all creatures of the so-called standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; anyone who supports them, says Barry Garelick, deserves "a drop kick through the door."

Erich Martel of Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., suggests asking candidates to describe "some of the fads and popular beliefs" associated with teaching reading and mathematics. Excellent advice. In the education wars, one person's fads are another's "best practices." You want to call things by their right names.

Mike McKeown of the Medical School at Brown University supplied a long list of bons mots, of which I've chosen a few that are amusing to the casual reader. But each one is a reference to a deadly serious battle. Abraham Lincoln ran through a lot of ineffectual generals before he found U.S. Grant. A new superintendent probably gets only one chance.

McKeown says: "If he suggests Balanced Literacy, thank him for his time and then leave. This is code for Whole Language.

"If his idol is Tony Alvarado, or if he is Tony Alvarado, leave by the nearest exit.

"If he says 'Of course we teach phonics,' he means that he doesn't believe in teaching phonics. Escort him to his plane.

"If he says 'Of course we teach basic skills,' he means that kids will be calculator-addicted and never master addition, subtraction, multiplication or especially division.

"If he says things like 'We must free children from the tyranny of computation so all children can master algebra and higher order thinking skills,' drive a wooden stake through his heart.

"If he holds his fingers in the sign of the cross at the mention of E.D. Hirsch Jr., suggest that there may be better positions for him elsewhere.

"If he has a masters degree and a doctorate from a reputable ed school, assume that if his lips are moving he is lying.

"If a candidate favorably mentions the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards, or anything from the National Council of Teachers of English, he is not worth your time to interview.

"If a candidate prefers 'portfolio assessment' and other 'authentic assessments' over well crafted standardized tests, you should back away slowly and don't take your eyes off the candidate."

And McKeown concludes, "Alan Bersin and Bloomberg/Klein failed in their first major decisions. They chose someone who was esteemed by those who brought education to this fix and gave them carte blanche. Don't rush this decision. Become knowledgeable yourself. Talk to people who are outside the circle of usual suspects. After all, they are suspects."

Good luck, Michael.

Linda Seebach is an editorial writer for the News. She can be reached by telephone at (303) 892-2519 or by e-mail at

An advice sampler for new DPS chief Bennet

The Rocky Mountain News
July 5, 2005
(Web edition only)

Denver Public Schools announced June 27 that it had chosen as its new superintendent, Michael Bennet, currently Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's chief of staff. Bennet is a non-traditional choice, someone who brings great strengths to his new position, but has no direct K-12 experience, and not much background in the education wars.

The first priority for a non-traditional superintendent is to choose a chief academic officer, and it's a make-or-break decision. Bad choices in San Diego and New York City led inevitably to disappointment.

Rocky Mountain News columnist Linda Seebach solicited advice for Bennet from veterans in the educational trenches. "If Michael Bennet asked you to be a consultant on this search, what would you tell him?" she asked. "What question would you have the search team use for screening candidates in or out? What answers should cause him to run like hell?"

Her July 2 column is here [above], but many generous contributors sent far more material than she had room to use. We're pleased to present it here, slightly edited for length and consistency.

From: Wayne Bishop []
Sent: Wednesday, June 29, 2005 6:32 PM

Nice to hear from you! Consultant, sure; nominate me. Or Inglewood's Nancy Ichinaga, maybe. A great choice would be John Stone of East Tennessee State or George Cunningham of U of Louisville.

This is exactly where these non-traditional types get in trouble, Alan Bersin in San Diego is a nice example, soon to be Schwarzenegger's Secretary for Education, or Joel Klein, chancellor for Mayor Michael Bloomberg hiring Lam in NYC; they're used to dealing with the best so they seek to hire the best. And they get the best the industry has to offer. The big-money guys do it, too. Walter Annenberg putting Ted Sizer in charge of his billion or so into education, or Eli Broad. Bill & Melinda Gates are doing exactly the same thing.

The prognosis is horrible from before their first RFP is issued. Even having a good sense of the education wars can help a lot because most of these types think of Lynne Cheney as Halliburton's wife, not a national leader in sensible and effective education.

In spite of all the ed school nonsense, the four most important features for a successful precollegiate school are (in priority order):

i. Classroom culture (nothing else happens if school itself is not underway) from Day 1 of kindergarten,
ii. Curricula, especially reading and math (again, in priority order),
iii. Pedagogy (often inseparable from the two above),
iv. Teacher quality.

The last might be surprising but it's true (although, and again, inseparable from the others to a large extent) but it's also a good thing to know. A new administrator can control principals (and they are absolutely essential!) but he pretty much gets the teachers he has at the schools he has. Stressing - and standing firmly behind - classroom respect and order and imposing effective curricula and good assessments are things that top management can do but not replace most teachers. Weed them, of course, but mostly retrain them to a model that recognizes that collective student performance matters as does individual student excellence.

I'd ask them for the curricula they use, the standardized tests they use, and how the results of regular assessment (say monthly reports to principals, per Ichinaga, and on to central administration with reports to the board of education) drive classroom activity. I'd ask for school-by-school objectively scored annual assessment data for the past five years; if possible, the past 10, and how they addressed the problem schools and what they did to grease the skids for the quicker students, too.

Another question for prospective candidates... Do you recognize and, if so, do you have a favorable impression of, such names as Linda Darling-Hammond, Lorrie Shepard, Judy Codding, Marc Tucker, Gerald Bracey, Ted Sizer? And of certain groups, FairTest, MARS Balanced Assessments, New Standards and their New Standards Reference Exams? One wrong answer and they're dead meat.

From: Bastiaan J. Braams []
Sent: Friday, July 01, 2005 10:35 AM

You asked what advice I might have for the new superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Michael Bennet, as he seeks to fill the critical position of chief academic officer. I'm going to reply in two separate emails, and I hope that you will share both of them with Michael Bennet. This first message concerns where to go and where not to go for advice. I'll write a separate email in which a bit more attention is paid to the present curriculum situation in Denver as I understand it; that second email will also have some more detail about mathematics curriculum issues generally.

I understand that Bennet comes from outside the education establishment and was selected for his management experience and because the school board felt a need to shake things up [0]. This brings to mind two other high profile school district leaders: New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the just departed San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin.

Of course Bennet should contact Joel Klein and Alan Bersin and seek to learn how they went through the first weeks and months in their new position. Where did they obtain their advice and how did they go about finding their own chief academic officer: the NYC deputy chancellor for curriculum Diana Lam and the San Diego chancellor of instruction Anthony Alvarado? And then Bennet should discount very deeply all those sources that advised Messrs. Klein and Bersin in their early days.

(But if, on deep background and in strictest confidence, Klein or Bersin will explain how some things went badly wrong then Bennet should listen very closely.)

Presumably the same sources that advised the baby-fresh NYC and San Diego school leaders will already be on Michael Bennet's doorstep, and he will know who they are. I would guess the Carnegie Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation; of course the National Center on Education and the Economy, maybe the New Visions for Public Schools and the Bank Street College of Education (I don't know how much they extend beyond NYC), and there will be others.

Both in New York City and in San Diego the choice of a chief academic officer from the anti-academic, whole language, constructivist mathematics, and no science side of the curriculum wars set the district on a path from which it has not been able to recover even after the departure of the two curriculum chiefs. Diana Lam's own academic background was focused on some romantic notion of bilingual education that she had spelled out in a breathtaking (in a negative way) vision statement: "A Two-Way Street to the 21st Century". It is almost incredible that Chancellor Klein wasn't able to recognize all the tell-tale warning signs, if he paid attention at all and didn't just blindly trust the advice from the wrong sources. And Anthony Alvarado's most recent background had been in that center of fuzzy reform: the New York City community school district 2, which also suffered from Lauren Resnick and the NCEE and the New Standards for the educational ideology.

So for advice, Michael Bennet should avoid those sources that will gladly fly out their staff to Denver (probably already have) to woo and flatter him for the anti-academic side of the curriculum wars; instead, he'll have to reach out himself and try to extract advice from people that have a busy life outside the education profession.

Other people can give him better advice on who to talk with for the teaching of reading of writing, but obvious names would be found among the authors of the renowned NICHD report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read. Bennet might also contact the signatories of a letter from reading experts to Chancellor Klein about one of the first major errors of the Klein/Lam team in New York, the adoption of a whole language, masked as balanced literacy, reading program [1]. For mathematics this observer knows no better source of names than the list of national advisors of New York City HOLD, Honest Open Logical Decisions on Mathematics Education Reform [2].

Besides talking with people such as these, focused on reading or mathematics, there are prominent education professionals that are worth talking to; some names that come to mind are Sandra Stotsky (formerly of the MA department of education), Douglas Carnine (University of Oregon), Marion Joseph (formerly of the CA State Board of Education), Don Hirsch (Core Knowledge), Eric Smith (superintendent in Anne Arundel), Nancy Ichinaga (Los Angeles principal, retired), and also whoever is the leading light for curriculum in the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools.

In parallel to developing his own expert knowledge on curriculum issues, but hopefully not before that process is well along, Bennet will be advertising the position of the Chief Academic Officer. At a university we call this a provost; and while the Denver Public Schools should not be likened to a research university, it does have a good deal in common with a large four-year teaching-oriented college. Bennet would do well to keep an open mind and to put some effort into attracting candidates who might also be plausible as provost or as dean of a department of arts and sciences of such a college. The crucial point is that one wants a person with a solid academic background, and preferably in science or engineering. (Degrees in education or educational administration should probably be held against the candidates.)

Thus, one place to advertise this position would be the Chronicle of Higher Education. At the same time Bennet should keep in mind that a solid academic background is no guarantee of sound judgment; collectively this nation's provosts and deans must share in the blame for the garbage that is produced by
colleges of education.

Probably most of the candidates for this CAO position will come from a position of responsibility for curriculum in some other school district, and then of course the most critical thing is to evaluate very carefully the candidate's record of choices. Did the candidate mandate a common curriculum? It is a thing of the times, but not necessarily wise in principle and certainly not wise if the choice of curriculum reflects current anti-educational "reform" ideology. If the candidate did not mandate a common curriculum, what were his or choices and programs?

It is apparent that superintendent Bennet will need to have his own solid understanding of curriculum issues before evaluating his choices for the CAO position -- or else he is likely to fall into the same trap that captured his NYC and San Diego colleagues. So, while the appointment of a chief academic officer is the most important personnel decision that Mr. Bennet will have to take, his highest priority should be to learn as much as possible as fast as possible about the critical curriculum issues, especially in reading and mathematics.

Mayor's staff chief takes top job at DPS, Denver Post, front page, June 28, 2005

Selection of a Systematic Phonics Program for NYC Students

New York City HOLD: Who We Are.

From: Bastiaan J. Braams []
Sent: Wednesday, June 29, 2005 2:12 PM

What is the present curriculum situation in Denver? I checked some of my email archives and saw that at one time your curriculum director, or chief academic officer (interim) was Sally Mentor Hay and she has a background in the NCEE New Standards project; this should have counted against her very strongly.

I also found a 2003 Denver Post article that described the introduction of Everyday Mathematics in grade school, Connected Mathematics in middle school, and Cognitive Tutor and Interactive Mathematics Program in high schools. Cognitive Tutor is probably supplementary. I regard IMP as the most degenerate of all mathematics programs; Connected Mathematics as awful, and Everyday Mathematics as bad. Do you know if these are still system-wide mandates? And what is the situation with reading programs in grade school?

From: Bastiaan J. Braams []
Sent: Wednesday, June 29, 2005 10:48 AM

Diana Lam is a serious threat, actually; she is on the market. Just recently she withdrew at the last minute from some search in NJ, where she was one of three finalists.

From: []
Sent: Friday, July 01, 2005 5:12 AM

I would ask:

1) Please give me the names of schools -- elementary, middle, and high schools -- that you have helped to guide to higher levels of achievement. No, stop -- I didn't ask for the theory of how to improve schools, I asked for the names of schools where you have actually done it. I'd also like the names and phone numbers of the schools because I'd like to speak with the principals and teachers, if they are still there, to get their point of view on the effectiveness and sustainability of the reforms that you guided. Denver's ideal candidate will not only have a turnaround of a high poverty school, but also examples of good schools that were already meeting standards that were challenged to become even better.

2) Please define "accountability" and explain the purpose of educational accountability. Denver's ideal candidate will explain that accountability is more than a litany of test scores. No child in the city will be more accountable than the adults, and that the superintendent will not retire until they have standards for board members, superintendents, administrators, and teachers that are as rigorous as we have for children in the state.

3) If the No Child Left Behind Act, the Colorado State Assessment Program (CSAP), and all other state and federal regulations were repealed tomorrow, what would you do? In other words, guided only by your moral conscience and professional background, what represents ideal teaching, learning, and leadership?

4) Please give examples of what happened when you have disagreed with a) your boss; b) parents; c) students; d) teacher unions; e) fellow administrators. Stop! -- I didn't ask for the theory of interpersonal relationships. I asked for specific examples of disagreements (you don't have to use real names) and exactly how those disagreements were resolved.

From: Michael McKeown []
Sent: Wednesday, June 29, 2005 6:22 PM

A quick list I will use the first person singular male pronoun. Adjust per your style sheet :-)

For interviews:

If he suggests Balanced Literacy, thank him for his time and then leave. This is code for Whole Language.

If his idol is Tony Alvarado, or if he is Tony Alvarado, leave by the nearest exit.

If he says "Of course we teach phonics," he means that he doesn't believe in teaching phonics. Escort him to his plane.

If he says "Of course we teach basic skills," he means that kids will be calculator-addicted and never master addition, subtraction, multiplication and especially division.

If he says things like " We must free children from the tyranny of computation so all children can master algebra and higher order thinking skills," drive a wooden stake through his heart.

If he likes math programs with names like Interactive Math, Adventures in Number Data and Space, Impact Math: Algebra and More and disparages any book by Mary Dolciani or John Saxon, send him packing.

If he holds his fingers in the sign of the cross at the mention of E.D. Hirsch Jr., suggest that there may be better positions for him elsewhere.

If he has a masters degree and a doctorate from a reputable ed school, assume that if his lips are moving he is lying.

If a candidate favorably mentions the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards, or anything from the National Council of Teachers of English he is not worth your time to interview.

If a candidate prefers "portfolio assessment" and other "authentic assessments" over well crafted standardized tests, you should back away slowly and don't take your eyes off the candidate.

Essentials before consulting with a single educator-identified expert:

If you don't know who Marion Joseph is and why she is important, it's time to find out before you interview anyone.

If you haven't already read The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, you aren't ready to succeed. Quit the job now.

Read Liping Ma.

If you think the business model of schools means that you can consult "experts" in the field and hire their choice without bothering to learn what works on your own, you are doomed to fail. See Alan Bersin and Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein.

When you consult with others, do talk to E.D. Hirsch Jr., Doug Carnine, Marion Joseph, Marilyn Adams, Sandy Stotsky, Reid Lyon, David Geary, David Klein, Barbara Foorman, Bill Evers, Stan Metzenberg, Louisa Moats.

Alan Bersin and Bloomberg/Klein failed in their first major decisions. They chose someone who was esteemed by those who brought education to this fix and gave them carte blanche. Don't rush this decision. Become knowledgeable yourself. Talk to people who are outside the circle of usual suspects. After all, they are suspects.

Read and

From: []
Sent: Wednesday, June 29, 2005 1:25 PM

Michael Bennet starts this crucial job with the advantages of not being an educator but also with the disadvantages. This field is awash in jargon, self-proclaimed experts, unwarranted claims, strong feelings and lots and lots of snake oil peddlers. Many non-educator superintendents have stumbled because they trusted the wrong folks to guide them through this murky cacophony. If I were Bennet, looking for a chief education advisor, I'd make all the candidates take a three-question writing test (limited to 200 words per answer):

a) Where do you place yourself in the tug of war between "knowledge" and "skills", and how should DPS handle this?

b) Where do you place yourself in the tug of war between a uniform system of public schools in which everyone learns the same things and a diverse system of specialized schools and diverse programs among which families choose the one they prefer?

c) In settling upon a curriculum, an instructional program, a pedagogical strategy, a professional-development program, a textbook series, etc., how do you determine whether "it works" without regard to the claims made by its promoters, adherents and vendors?

Then I'd take their answers and evaluate them according to:
1. are they written in plain clear English that everyone can understand?
2. if you read them aloud at a meeting of parents or business leaders or legislators, would you see heads nodding in agreement or in disbelief -- or simply nodding off? And, finally,
3. if you handed them to Denver's very best principals and teachers, would they view the author as a crackpot, as a conventional thinker, or as a leader they'd be pleased to follow?

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University &
President, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

From: []
Sent: Thursday, June 30, 2005 10:04 AM

I thought I'd throw in my two cents worth for whatever they are worth. I'd like to propose that the basic qualification for a Chief Academic Officer is at least a MS degree in science or mathematics, if not a higher graduate level degree in science or math (not a MA in history or English or a M.Ed. or Ed.D. or Ph.D. in education). The two critical subjects in K-12 now being dumbed down beyond belief are math and science, and the only kind of person who can understand what their content should be is someone well-versed in that content. The superintendent can hire a companion Chief Pedagogical Officer as well, if he wishes. But the Academic Officer should have graduate degrees in an academic discipline taught in K-12. That would make it easy to eliminate most of the candidates who apply--and to entice an interested and qualified person from a local university, research tank, or technology firm.

Sandra Stotsky, Research Scholar, Northeastern University
Former Senior Associate Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Education

From: Erich Martel []
Sent: Wednesday, June 29, 2005 1:57 PM

Erich Martel
Dept of Social Studies
Woodrow Wilson H.S.
Washington, D.C

Some thoughts.

1. Google: Find out what's out there in the public domain. Call up people in the places where the candidate has come from.

2. Ask candidates to spell out in detail their philosophies of reading instruction

a. what can you say about how children learn to read?

b. describe the reading theories and reading research would guide the methods you would want your early childhood instructors to use;
-- give full and annotated citations of the texts and their reviews by reading specialists that you favor;

c. describe some of the fads and popular beliefs associated with reading and reading deficiencies that you are aware of;
-- cite evidence in the form of studies or student performance that supports your view.

d. what diagnostic assessments are most useful in detecting early reading deficiencies?

e. textbooks, programs -- which ones do you like?

3. Ask candidates to spell out their philosophies of math instruction

a. What, in your view, are the greatest obstacles to improved math achievement?

b. -- e. (similar to #2, above)

Naturally, the board members have to know what's good and what's bad. If they all think Alfie Kohn is the muse of education, they can easily be snowed. Does the Board of Education approve superintendent's top appointments, e.g. CAO?

Are there mandatory annual, semi-annual or quarterly reports? If so, does the board insist that they are fully documented with all supporting documentation cited and, if possible, attached? Most boards are asleep, confident that their job ends with a simple report, i.e. they can pass the buck of failure onto whomever gave the misleading or incomplete report. If they trust that superintendents and CAOs and subject leaders, etc. are competent by virtue of their titles, then all is lost.

That's a start.



Question: "You received that annual list of graduates from Mile High High School. How do you know that all of the students actually completed all of their mandatory requirements?" (i.e. How do you know that some were not just pushed through under false pretenses?)

Sol Stern submitted this link:

From: []
Sent: Saturday, July 02, 2005 2:12 PM

A recent letter I had published (below) in the Raleigh News and Observer is highly relevant to Bennett's "first priority."

Tom Shuford, retired teacher/columnist,

Not measuring up

(Raleigh) News and Observer

June 20, 2005

Regarding the June 14 article "Denlinger's salary ranks high," salaries of school district superintendents and assistant and associate superintendents are interesting. The comparison that interests me, however, is the Graduate Record Examination scores of applicants to graduate school in educational administration versus applicants in other fields.

Here are mean verbal, quantitative and composite scores for broad categories of applicants to graduate school:

Life Sciences -- 464, 580, 1044
Physical Sciences -- 488, 699, 1187
Engineering -- 468, 721, 1189
Social Sciences -- 485, 559, 1044
Humanities/Arts-- 541, 561, 1102
Education -- 450, 531, 981

Within the Education category, applicants for graduate study in educational administration had the lowest individual and composite scores: mean verbal -- 429; mean quantitative -- 520; total composite -- 949. That happens to be the lowest individual and composite scores of all 34 subcategories tabulated by the Educational Testing Service.

Assuming that most of the education administration applicants are accepted and eventually certified to lead schools and school systems, what do data like these mean for the quality of the decision-making about curricular issues, methods, teachers, etc?

Tom Shuford
Lenoirm NC


From: Bastiaan J. Braams []
Sent: Saturday, July 02, 2005 2:02 PM

Today's Rocky Mountain News has not only Linda Seebach's column but also an op-ed from the new superintendent, Michael Bennet.

"Over the last several months, I have spoken with scores of people anxious to support the Denver Public Schools but worried that the district faces 'intractable' problems."

I would bet that the people he's been talking to also offered him a blueprint for success. Let's see, he doesn't mention curriculum, and he does mention training for instructional leadership. That smells like the Broad Foundation for one. And they are anxious to support the Denver Public Schools. That is the Gates and the Carnegie Foundation for two and three, is my guess.

Let's hope for Denver that this new chief very quickly develops the ability to recognize all the cults and fads that come with his new friends. It won't be limited to Broad and Gates and Carnegie; Lauren Resnick's Learning Research and Development Center is there in Denver with $35M of National Science Foundation / Education and Human Resources Division funds to promote "high-quality math and science experiences for all students." That would be Everyday Mathematics, Connected Mathematics Project (CMP), and Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), later joined by Cognitive Tutor. (This SCALE project involves also three other school districts.)

From a DPS teacher:

Thanks so much for your column! I agree with you completely. As a special education teacher for DPS, I can tell you that Everyday Math has done for math what whole language did for reading. We have seen an increase in special education referrals for math problems since the program began. As a high-risk district, DPS should adopt a phonics based reading program. Phonics is currently not stressed, and what students do get is not systematic. The earlier grades particularly are not getting the phonics instruction that is so vital to reading success. Comprehension is of course the crux of reading. But how can one comprehend what he or she cannot read fluently? Again, thanks for your article. Keep writing about it!

From: Ellen Hoerle []
Sent: Thursday, June 30, 2005 1:39 PM

The problem we have in education, as well as politics these days, is that most people in positions of power to make far reaching decisions is that they are unable or unwilling to seek input from a variety of sources or to analyze the input to make a sound decision. So the most important qualification any school district, community, state, or country needs in its leaders is the quality of humility and determination--the humility to be able to assume one does not have all the answers, but the determination to seek input from a wide range of sources to find the best answers. Too many of our political leaders start their tenure with their minds already made up as to what they think needs to be done before they even start their service instead of waiting until they have more information with which to make a decision. Too many education leaders impose ineffective curriculums on their new districts without ever being forced to prove their effectiveness in any previous location. As to determining if what a district is currently using is truly effective, the best source of knowledge is of course the teachers, but most education leaders rarely ask the teaching staff if what they are currently being forced to use is really working.

My district here in Eden Prairie, MN has used Investigations by TERC in grades K-5 for math for five or six years now. All I have to do is ask any teacher, "What problems concern you about the level of math knowledge your students enter your classroom with each fall?" Lack of knowledge of basic math facts and algorithms of course top the list, but one 7th grade teacher admitted that each class of students has different issues. That is because of the lack of consistency of math instruction that exists between individual classrooms in grades K-6 in our district. Teachers who love math tend to provide more instruction, more confidence building, more enthusiasm. But if your child has had teachers three years in a row who aren't so enthusiastic about the subject, your child is not going to get the same level of education that another child equally capable might get. So standards are key, and to develop a solid set of standards, the experts--those teachers in the upper grades who are licensed in specific subject areas--have to be asked the ultimate question. "What are the current holes, and what is the foundation of skills that junior and senior high kids need to be successful. " If a chief academic officer is not willing to ask that question of the current staff and the current staff is doubtful of his/her sincerity in wanting to know the real answers, and instead enters the job with his/her mind already made up about what works and what needs to be done, then any hope of progress is lost.

Ellen Hoerle
9354 Olympia Drive
Eden Prairie, MN 55347


Regarding what advice I would give regarding the hiring of a Chief Academic Officer, this person would need to know what the math wars and reading wars are all about. I cannot speak to the reading wars, since my expertise is in the math wars. I recently wrote an article on the sorry state of K-12 math ed in the US and how it got that way, which was published in Education Next's Spring 05 issue.

As a test, I would ask the candidate whether he/she agrees with the following two paragraphs which contain some of the educational philosophy that informs a math text called Math Trailblazers and whose development was funded by NSF:

• Early emphasis on problem solving. Students first approach the basic facts as problems to be solved rather than as facts to be memorized. Students invent their own strategies to solve these problems or learn appropriate strategies from others through class discussion. Students' natural strategies, especially counting strategies, are explicitly encouraged. In this way, students learn that math is more than memorizing facts and rules that "you either get or you don't."

• De-emphasis of rote work. Fluency with the math facts is an important component of any student's mathematical learning. Research has shown that an overemphasis on memorization and the frequent administration of timed tests is counterproductive. Both of these can produce undesirable results (Isaacs and Carroll, 1999; Van de Walle, 2001; National Research Council, 2001). We encourage the use of strategies to find facts, so students become confident they can find answers to fact problems that they do not immediately recall.

I would also want to know whether he/she considers the research citations of Isaacs and Carrol cited in the second bullet to be true research and ask if he knows who Isaacs and Carroll are. Hint: They are both on the payroll of Everyday Mathematics, another textbook that was funded by NSF and is informed by the same educational philosophy that informs Math Trailblazers.

If the candidate agrees with either or both of the above two bulleted paragraphs, he/she should not get the job.

Oh, by the way. I've been advised that when we talk about math texts funded by NSF, we should be careful to say funded by NSF-EHR. That's the Education and Human Resources Division of NSF. NSF on the whole does good things, but EHR, on the whole, does not. Also, you can point out that the developers of such texts tout the NSF funding quite a bit, sometimes calling it NSF-endorsed (which it is not), or NSF-funded (almost correct; it's NSF-EHR funded).

Another caveat: People who say they are for "standards-based" math. If a candidate says that, before giving them a drop kick through the door, find out what standards they are talking about. More often than not, they mean the standards that National Council of Mathematics Teachers (NCTM) developed and which many states looked to when formulating their own standards. They were also the standards the NSF-EHR embraced when they started handing out money; they funded projects the embodied the standards and the dubious educational philosophy that informs it.

Another question to ask a candidate, if they say they support the NCTM standards. Does he/she believe that Saxon Math or Singapore Math texts meet the NCTM standards? If they say no, it might be amusing to hear why they think so before giving them that drop kick.

Barry Garelick

From: Elizabeth Carson []
Sent: Wednesday, June 29, 2005 11:26 AM

NYC HOLD has developed a broad network of mathematics education expertise and maintains two email discussion lists of its own to keep us connected and informed, in addition to the one to which Bas refers. Between the three lists some names for your new superintendent's consideration might well be forwarded.

I can suggest a number of K-12 mathematics teachers and college and university mathematics experts to whom you (and Bennet) might consult, in addition to the very fine advisory you can expect from Bas.

A good administrator would want, in consideration of an appointment, to consult with experts in testing and research as well, given so many educators claim dubious previous accomplishments to raise student achievement and/or association with "proven" education reforms.

Certainly in the case of Diana Lam or Tony Alvarado, both claims are bogus.

Elizabeth Carson
Co-Founder and Executive Director, NYC HOLD

From: Kozloff, Martin []
Sent: Monday, July 04, 2005 12:38 PM

Here are some suggestions...

Ask the following questions:

1. How would you feel about answering some questions that will enable me to determine the depth of your knowledge of effective curricula and instruction? (If the candidate seems defensive, this is not a good sign.)

2. What are the five main reading skills? [phonemic awareness, phonics (letter-sound correspondence, sounding out unfamiliar words), fluency, vocabulary, comprehension.] If a candidate can't identify and define all five, then how can he or she evaluate and reform reading?

3. What criteria would you use, and want teachers to use, for evaluating and selecting curricula or programs in reading, math, science, history and other subjects? [(1) Comprehensive coverage of essential topics or domains; e.g., all five reading skills; (2) a logical progression of knowledge units (e.g., elements before wholes); (3) systematic instruction (planned practice and review, planned integration of parts into wholes, planned generalization of knowledge to new examples and materials, frequent progress and outcome monitoring); (4) precise instructions to the teacher for how to teach; (5) replicated field tests.] If, instead, the candidate uses words such as holistic, naturalistic, authentic, he or she is an edufraud.

4. Identify effective reading curricula that meet the criteria (above)? The candidate should list several of the following: Reading Mastery, Success for All, Open Court, Voyager, Read Well, Read Naturally, Rewards, Corrective Reading, Language!, Language for Learning.

5. I'm going to say pairs of sentences. You tell me which one of each pair is correct. [If the candidate says that "it all depends" or "it is more complex than a binary choice," then he or she is a waffler.]
a. Instruction should be developmentally appropriate.
b. Instruction should be systematic and explicit.
[b. is correct. Children taught in a systematic and explicit way usually learn what is considered beyond them. "Developmentally appropriate" is code for progressivism.]
c. Instruction should be relevant to a child's cultural background.
d. The teacher should use a range of examples that cover a concert, rule, or strategy.
[d. is correct. Even if examples are relevant to a child, if the examples do not cover the extent of a concept, rule, or strategy, the child is not prepared to use them.]
e. The safest strategy is for the teacher to carefully organize and lead every step of instruction.
f. Students learn more, enjoyably, when the teacher is a guide on the side.
[e is correct. f is a way to cover teacher ineptitude. It ensures that disadvantaged children stay that way.]
g. No Child Left Behind is an unfunded mandate and makes unreasonable demands of states and districts.
h. No Child Left Behind provides tons of money, but it holds states accountable.
[h is correct.]
i. It is likely that most kids who are poor reader have been mistaught.
j. It is likely that most kids who are poor readers have some type of reading disability and/or receive too little support at home.
[i is correct. j is an excuse.]

From: patrick groff []
Sent: Sunday, July 03, 2005 6:27 PM

I have been an on-the-scenes negative critic of San Diego's superintendent of public schools since he took office seven years ago. It thus was gratifying to find your July 2 column that referred to his failures.

Bersin indeed made a host of mistakes during his tenure. The two most prominent ones are as follows:

1. Bersin forced the San Diego teachers to conduct the empirically discredited Whole Language approach to the development of children's reading abilities. Moreover, he mandated that this relatively ineffective pedagogy must be carried out three hours per school day. His latter dictate explains the small increase in elementary school students' reading skills that resulted. However, it also accounts for the fact that high school students' reading test scores stagnated.

2. Bersin connived with the San Diego teachers union to continue the practice of not assigning the most competent teachers in the SD district to the schools that need their exceptional qualities the most. Bersin thus was guilty of a practice that his detractors describe as academic child abuse.

Patrick Groff
Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University

From: Bastiaan J. Braams []
Sent: Monday, July 04, 2005 5:22 PM

A few days ago I responded to a request by columnist Linda Seebach to give advice to a new Denver superintendent who comes from outside education and whose first task will be to select a chief academic officer. Although I am quoted in Linda's column from an immediate response that I sent her, my more detailed response came too late for use in her column. However, I believe that she forwarded it to you. In any case, that and several other responses to Ms. Seebach are now on the Web [1] together with assorted annotated news items.

In my email for you via Linda I said that I would write more about curriculum separately. This message makes good on that promise, but it is really a plea to you to become informed about the "curriculum wars" and to do so before choosing your CAO. You may have heard about controversies over the teaching of mathematics and reading, and you may think that some people are apparently a bit over the top and that you will stand above this fray; that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle and that you will appoint a CAO who is trusted to find that middle ground. My challenge for this email is to put you on a track towards recognizing that there are vast, almost unbelievably large, differences in quality among curricular philosophies, and in particular among curricula all intended for the mathematics classroom. (I will leave it to others to address reading and language arts.) That is a big challenge, and time is very short. I should try to make my examples immediately applicable to the Denver situation.

The most critical period of school, I think, is grades 3-8, and so I should focus on grade school and middle school. Now, one path by which you could see for yourself the vast range of academic content that might be found in the lower grades is for you to obtain copies of a set of books by E. D. Hirsch: "What your [Kindergartner, First Grader, ... Sixth Grader] Should Know", and then compare the curriculum described there with what goes on under the LRDC "Principles of Learning"in the Denver classrooms. (I have a sense of what that is because the LRDC was also prominent in Manhattan's District 2, which was long my home.) However, I'm afraid that this path is not going to work out in the one or two weeks that are available. It is too much effort, and I see that you've already commented on Hirsch's Core Knowledge to the effect that it is not too important for you to be familiar with it [2].

We have a better chance by focusing on specific components of curriculum, and if it should be mathematics, relevant to Denver, and focused on grades 3-8 then we arrive at the Everyday Mathematics curriculum (districtwide in grades K-5 if I understand the DPS web pages correctly) and Connected Mathematics Project (likewise districtwide grades 6-8). Now I am on home ground, so to speak, because I've written several Web articles about Everyday Mathematics (cf. [3]) and also know Connected Mathematics well [4]; EM is the systemwide mandate in NYC and CMP used to be mandated in District 2 there. It is not good enough to look at EM or CMP in isolation, and for comparison I would suggest the Singapore or Saxon or Sadlier-Oxford series for primary school, and at least the Dolciani pre-algebra and algebra for grades 7-8. And this path, too, I'm afraid, is asking for too much study and is not going to be effective within the little time available. The problem, for the present purpose, is that EM is a bad program but not truly awful, and CMP is truly awful but not completely degenerate; i.e., a newcomer to the curriculum wars can't just look at the program in isolation and recognize quickly how bad it is. (In the case of EM I elaborated on this point elsewhere [5].)

So with some regret I leave the realm of Denver K-8 mathematics and turn to high school, and there we find indeed a program that should serve my objective to persuade you in only very little of your time that the curriculum issue is of overwhelming importance. Denver has at present two districtwide high school curricula: Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP) was brought in first, and was later joined by Carnegie Cognitive Tutor. I know the second only by a (negative) reputation, but the first one I know very well. IMP is a completely degenerate high school mathematics curriculum, and it illustrates the defects of modern reform trends in mathematics education without any need for comparison with any other program; its faults are glaring enough to impress at once even a casual observer. So I urge you to requisition your own copy of IMP Volume 1, which is meant for 9th grade. Then just leaf through the pages. Try to find a mathematical expression. Try to find as much as an equals sign. There may be 20 or 25 equals signs in the whole book, and they are not necessarily attached to even beginning algebra. The topics are haphazard and I have the sense that after a year of IMP-1 a student might as well cycle through the same text again the next year, because nothing systematic is built up. If youhave a look at this text, and I very much hope that you will, then it should be completely apparent that this kind of mathematics curriculum is not going to help a student towards a college education in any field in which mathematics plays a role. And to offer a traditional text if you do want to have something to compare with: take Dolciani's pre-calculus Modern Introductory Analysis and ask yourself how a student could possibly get from IMP Volume 1 in 9th grade to this classic text in 11th or 12th grade. It can't be done.

After that you just work backwards. Now have that serious look at CMP for the middle grades and observe how it "prepares" a student for something like IMP, but also how much inferior it is to a traditional pre-algebra and algebra text. And then, let's skip EM, let's go straight to the Core Knowledge sequence in Hirsch's books, and be very, very impressed. This is the kind of education that you want for the Denver public schools, and you can give it to them. But you know what: if you start by appointing a CAO based on what the Broad or the Carnegie or the Gates Foundation, or any of Messrs. Klein or Bersin or Alvarado think is important in the classroom then the prospects of true academic content in DPS are dead in the water. You can have your literacy and mathematics "coaches" in the schools to force ideological conformity with the CAO's fuzzy notions of student-centered discovery based learning; you can have a wonderful "real time" data management system collecting the results of whatever authentic or otherwise low-content assessments your CAO will inflict; you will struggle along with other similar districts following a similar path; but you won't be giving your pupils the education that they need and deserve.

In addition to the Core Knowledge sequence I should mention one other set of documents that can serve a similar purpose, to indicate a curriculum with true academic content. These documents are the California Standards and (especially) the Curriculum Frameworks [6].

I have not the illusion that you will find this email immediately convincing, but the one thing that I hope is that you will take it upon yourself to investigate, and to do so before you appoint your CAO. Just look at the curricula and at such meta-curricula as those of Core Knowledge and the state of California. And finally, the issue of reading and language is as large as that of mathematics, but I hope that someone else will address it for you.

Yours Cordially,

Bas Braams
(New York City HOLD and)
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
Emory University, Atlanta, GA

[1] Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet
[2] Candidate fights view that he hasn't paid dues
[3] Reviews of UCSMP Everyday Mathematics
[4] Reviews of CMP: Connected Mathematics Project (Connected Math)
[5] Testimony for Hearing on Mathematics Education of NYC Council Education Committee, November 5, 2003
[6] California Department of Education Curriculum Frameworks

Zig Engelmann's article analyzing Alan Bersin's tenure in San Diego is illuminating.

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