Class War

Marty Rochester wages war against the dumbing-down of public education -- even in the best of schools

The whole idea, Rochester says, that you can put kids with different abilities into one classroom with one teacher and then expect to maximize their abilities? "It's noble -- and it can't be done."

Clayton board member Lilly Canel-Katz, who has four children in Clayton schools and a daughter who just graduated, agrees. "The district has as one of its goals what, in shorthand, is called 'differentiation,'" she says. "Inside a classroom with the full range of abilities, the teacher is supposed to individualize and meet each one's needs. And I think sometimes Marty is right -- it is too hard."

Clayton schools superintendent Don Senti
Amy Bautz
Clayton schools superintendent Don Senti

Rochester objects to the Clayton district's efforts to soften or eliminate competition and to artificially inject self-esteem ("It can't be done," he maintains.) He also opposes the introduction of "whole-language learning" and "whole math"; the promotion of "social" programs, such as violence-prevention classes, at the expense of academics; and the lowering of standards that may help the least prepared students but, in his opinion, hurts those at the top of the class.

Henke recalls that on her first day in the district, Rochester left a letter on her desk, protesting the district's move away from "ability grouping" at the elementary-school level -- Bluebird readers on one side, Cardinal readers on the other and everybody knowing which would soar -- and asking her not to tamper with ability grouping at the high-school level.

When the school principal assured him that, according to the latest research, "grouping" students didn't hurt the bright kids, he shot back, "So we're no longer worried about challenging them -- just damage control?"

Rochester takes particular aim at the board's decision in 2000 to introduce the controversial "whole math" curriculum into the district's schools. Some six months earlier, the Washington Post published an open letter from 200 of the nation's top mathematicians and scientists -- including four Nobel laureates -- begging then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley not to endorse curriculum changes proposed by the Department of Education. The new math curriculum is known by various names: Adherents call it "whole math" or "new new math"; critics, among them parents and scientists, call it "fuzzy math" or "Mickey Mouse Math." In January 2000, for example, a Los Angeles Times editorial opposed adoption of the curriculum: "... a method that disdains the notion of adults hierarchically imparting knowledge to kids, integrated math does not require students to memorize multiplication tables, compute fractions or learn other basic skills essential to algebraic success. It's often rightly derided as 'fuzzy math' because of its murky goals, which include, according to one popular integrated math program, 'linking past experience to new concepts, sharing ideas and developing concept readiness through hands-on explorations.'"

The Washington Post letter wasn't included in Clayton's discussions, says Rochester, though district officials did ask Professor Steve Krantz, chairman of the Washington University math department, for his opinion, "and he sent a devastating five-page critique, saying they'd be doing their students a great disservice to adopt the book in question. The following spring, the board voted to adopt it."

"We adapted it," corrects Don Senti, the district's superintendent. "'Fuzzy math' is one of Marty's targets -- even though our sophomores' scores are, I believe, the highest in the state. For a political scientist, he doesn't use a very scientific approach."

On the standardized Missouri Assessment Program exam, the math scores of Clayton sophomores in the top-scoring categories, "advanced" and "proficient," shot up from 28.1 in 1998 to 40.8 in 2002. But scores in the lower two categories dropped during the same period, from 33.2 to 29.6. Statewide, the averages were far lower but followed the same basic pattern: Math scores in the advanced categories rose from 6.9 to 10.7, whereas scores in the lower categories dropped from 65.0 to 58.9.

In other words, it's hard to prove anything at all from the standardized test scores.

In February 2001, Rochester was gearing up for another battle: The district's Language Literacy Committee was boosting the "whole-language" approach to reading "as a way to "preserve children's self-esteem as learners." This was a progressive shift championed by "Henke and her henchmen," Rochester says, and one that ignored the value of phonics. He claims the Clayton school board ignored a $25 million National Institutes of Health study critical of whole-language-only programs and recalls that "at a literacy meeting, the chairman put out dozens of stacks of materials for parents on the table, and nowhere to be seen was that study."

The whole-language controversy introduced another Rochester bugaboo: inventive spelling, wherein, he says, teachers are trained not to correct spelling errors "because that will cause instant shutdown, stop the creative juices, damage self-esteem."

Senti sighs. "'Inventive spelling' is just a term for when real little kids start to write and teachers let them spell [incorrectly] without putting red marks all over the paper," he notes. "We have spelling lists at every grade level and expectations and benchmarks for spelling, and Marty knows this."

Benchmarks aren't enough, counters Rochester. "I am quite aware that Clayton has benchmarks for spelling, grammar, computation skills and other basics," he says. "Nonetheless, the very existence of inventive spelling -- that is, the reluctance of teachers in early grades and even, in some cases, later grades to use red ink to correct errors -- is in my judgment a mistake.

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