MP3 Audio: A Conversation with Laurie Rogers

Interviewer: Laurie, what prompted your education activism? What made you lift off the ground and write a book, write a blog, get involved?
Laurie Rogers: In 2007, my daughter was in fourth grade and I was helping out in the classroom. I was just your average parent, just doing what I could to help the teacher. I graded a lot of the math. I saw over the course of a year that the children were not progressing, they were confused. The math homework would come back every single Monday a dog's breakfast. It was just a mess. The kids were frustrated. I could see some of them crying over their math. So I started volunteering, sitting in the hallway with them. They were so confused. I started asking questions.

January 2007 was the first time I went to the school board and started asking about math. The answers I got from the school district just got me more curious, and I wound up where I am now.

Interviewer: [laughs]
Laurie: It wasn't anything I planned.
Interviewer: Was it effective? We're five and a half years into this.
Laurie: Yeah.
Interviewer: What are the wins, and what are the losses?
Laurie: The win, which is the most important win of all, is that some of the parents now understand why their kids don't know any grammar. They don't have basic math skills. They come home frustrated and confused. The money seems to go and the kids don't seem to be learning any better. Some of them do understand that now. Some of them have begun to supplement the program, or they've pulled their kids out and gone to a different district, or gone to a private program. In the end, the kids are being helped. That's the most important part. That's always the most important part.

Where I have not been able to make a dent--it certainly has not been from a lack of effort--is with the school district. If they have budged, they certainly have not told me that.

Interviewer: What do you attribute the issues you've raised to? Is it leadership? Is it declining teacher quality? Is it lack of parental involvement, as many people say? Is it kids not willing to learn? Where's the sweet spot for fixing these problems?
Laurie: That's an excellent question. That's the key to everything. What is the problem? How do we fix it? Where is the lever that we can move the world with? The district I'm in...I know that I'm not alone here in Spokane with the situation. The administrators like to blame everybody else. We hear that teachers are not as effective as they should be, parents are not as involved, kids are not as motivated. That's all true to some degree, but that's not where the fault in the classroom rests. There are some teachers who could be better. There are parents who could be more involved. Certainly, by the time the kids get to high school, they're very unmotivated.

The key, I think, is what happens in the classroom. When you boil everything else away, what happens in the classroom is everything. You can have an uninvolved parent, and you can have an unmotivated student. But if you have a good curriculum, and you have a good learning environment, that student is going to learn. And that's the topic that our administrators never really seem to want to get to.

Interviewer: Recently, Wisconsin, my state, adopted Teacher Content Knowledge Standards for elementary school teachers identical to Massachusetts. Of course, Massachusetts adopted theirs in 1998. 58 percent passed the first year. 98 percent passed last year. Does Washington have Teacher Content Knowledge Standards, and what do you think about that? I mean is that a lever? What's your thought?
Laurie: We do have the content standards for teachers. You have to be certificated. You have to go through a teaching program in order to teach in public schools in Washington State. You have to go through the teacher program. I'm not confident that that's enough. I've taken a look at the teacher education programs in Washington State, and I've looked at other colleges of education. The colleges of education do not teach sufficient academic content. For these teachers who come out, it's more about how they're supposed to teach as opposed to what they're supposed to teach.

When I look at the idea of testing teachers, if those tests of the teachers are based on the same idea that it's all about pedagogy, how you teach, and not enough actual arithmetic, then we don't really know what the teachers know in arithmetic or in grammar.

Interviewer: Right, so form over substance, in other words?
Laurie: It really is. Yes, that's a good way to put it.
Interviewer: We're familiar with that. What about your education? Looking back on the arch of your life and career, what were the pros and cons of your education, and what would you do different if you were 18 today?
Laurie: I would have gone to college right away. If I were 18 all over again, I wouldn't have waited until I was 30. I left high school and went to work, and there are many reasons for that. I was educated in Canada, in Alberta. Right now, Alberta has a fairly strong education system. Many people don't realize this, but Canada is very decentralized or has been for some time. Decisions are made at local school levels. They may be changing that now, but that's how it has been. And so, Alberta and Ontario actually do very well among English teaching communities, provinces, states, countries, because the principals and the teachers have control over where the money goes, what they're going to teach and how they're going to teach it. See that's quite different from here, where decisions are increasingly being centralized out the system to a point where they're now being made out of D. C.

But you asked me about my education. I was educated in Alberta, and I would say that the weakness I had was that the social studies program was not very strong. I didn't come out really clear on the parliamentary government system, for example. However, I was taught mathematics very well. I was taught grammar. I was taught cursive writing. I was taught those basic skills that you need for any field, really.

Interviewer: So if you were to go back, as you said, to 18, you'd go to college right away. But what would you study today knowing what you know now?
Laurie: I don't know. 18 is often a difficult time for people, and I had many things going on in my life. I always wanted to be a writer, so that's where I am. But I had dreams. I could see me being a scientist. I love science. I love physics. I can see me being a mathematician. I'm pretty good at math. I can see me being many different things. But I think that's a really good question you've asked, too, because let's ask 18-year-olds what they want to be. How many 18-year-olds wind up what they thought they would be at 18? They don't even know where they're going to go lots of times, so you want to keep those doors open for them for as long as you can. You want to give them as many opportunities as you can.

Right now, the new trend in education is to say, "Well, this is where this child is going to go, so let's funnel that child in that direction." How many doors are you closing for that child when you do that?

Interviewer: So thinking about all your experiences as an activist and parent, what does education mean today in 2012? What about in 10 years looking ahead?
Laurie: Well, I would say that education today, it depends on who you're talking to, and that's the same with how effective it is. It depends on who you're talking to and how you define "effective." The districts think they're very effective. I think they're not effective. I would say what it means today to those districts, to all the education people, all the layers of government bureaucracy that you have with public education, it's all about the money. It really is all about the money. The levees, the bonds, the simple majorities that they each get to get their money.
Interviewer: Yes, it drives every decision. I agree, yes.
Laurie: It really does. It's dollars per student. As I look through public records and books at public schools, I see that constant refrain of money, money, money. The needs of the children really seem to be an afterthought. I would like to see that change, but the current trends at the federal, state, and local levels, I don't see the pendulum swinging back to the children.
Interviewer: But how about the virtual tours, vouchers? What's that climate like in your world, and how do you see that playing out in the next 10 years?
Laurie: Well, I'm all for choice. I believe that, as with anything else in our communities, when something isn't working for us, we should be able to leave it. If we don't like a restaurant, we can go to a different restaurant. If that pair of shoes doesn't fit our feet, we can go get a different pair of shoes. Education, which is all about our children, their future, the future of the country, should be a critical piece where we have choice. That's everything, and yet there are people who want to slam the door shut and say, "It's public school or nothing." So I'm for choice. I'm for chartering principals and vouchers, everything that could help parents say, "That's not working for me. I'm going to go do something different."

However, it all depends on how the laws are written because if you have a charter that is set up so that it simply mirrors what's being done in the public system with this federal program and the mandates and all of that, you can't just stick "charter" on the door and expect it to fit those kids.

Interviewer: [laughs]
Laurie: It all comes down to what happens in the classroom.
Interviewer: That's right. Then more of a process question. So what kind of process do you recommend for parents to look for schools? Let's say you're moving from Spokane to Salt Lake City or Denver or wherever it might be, what process would you go through to think about schools? There is tons of data out there, whether it means anything, is hard to say. What factors would influence your choices?
Laurie: Well, I think a lot of the data that you get from the public system is very, selectively chosen. We do not want to just go by that. For example, if you ask those 10 public schools how well they are doing, they are going to tell they are doing great. They are going to tell you they raised the graduation rate. They are allowing more students to leave. That is great, but the students are not leaving with the skills they need. That is a whole different picture they write. I would suggest that you look at it like if you are interviewing for childcare. When you went to go get a baby sitter for your children when they were small, you interviewed people. You ask them questions. I would always suggest going in to this questioning with a partner.

One of you can ask questions and another person can take notes, and watch their reactions, and see if they are uncomfortable with what you are asking. I would definitely recommend going into look at their curriculum. The public schools tend to be all full of "oh, this is the next greatest thing. It is going to be fabulous and turn everything around. We love this program. It does so great for the kids."

When you actually look at it, it is not what you want. I would also suggest that parents trust their instincts. A lot of our public schools say "you just like that, because that is how you were taught when you were a kid." They have many different nice ways of saying that. That is the message. You just like it because you are just stuck in the past. Trust your instincts. If it's not in the book, then your children are not going to be taught that, and if your school doesn't have books, and a lot of them don't, then that is important to know, as well.

Interviewer: Interesting, well that's what I had anything else you like to add today Laurie, I appreciate your time very much. I certainly wish you well on your initiatives. It's a long marathon that's for sure.
Laurie: Well it's a long marathon with no end in sight. As an advocate, you have to redefine what it means to be successful. So, if my success depends on the school district all of a sudden coming to their senses and saying, "Wow, Laurie Rodgers was right, we been wrong all this time, we need to change things," then I am never going to be successful. If my success depends on reaching a few parents, and those parents saying, wow I need to step in here. Well then I have been successful.

One other thing I would like to add about parents going to a different city they can always talk to the people in opposition. I think that is so important to see that other perspective. Look for advocates in that new area and talk with them and see what they have to say.

Interviewer: Thanks much.

(c) 2012