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Talking Real Education Reform

Putting children first should not be a difficult political choice.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Mark Twain wrote that figures beguiled him, “particularly when I have the arranging of them myself.” Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of England (or the British Empire) shortly after our Civil War, said that there are three kinds of lies: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Sometimes the quote about lies and statistics is attributed to the Missourian whose mustache is not entirely distinct from my own.


I am running for re-election to the Kansas State Board of Education, and as Forrest Gump might utter, “That’s all I have to say about that.” It would be unethical, and perhaps even illegal, for me to use this platform to advocate a vote for anyone in my political contest, including myself.

But educational reforms beckon. Chiefly among those advocated by our group at Real Math Standards is to “take the birthday out of the equation” for promoting students through our math curriculum. When a child comes to kindergarten with a full understanding of first-grade arithmetic, we should naturally and effortlessly pass that child on to second-grade math the next year (if not before). Too often the “system” of “processing” our students through the system is just that. We process them. We figuratively stamp our school children with a “Born On” date like a bottle of beer. We mold them to conform to our expectations for standardized tests, with the awful consequences of actually holding back a very large percentage of our students. Too many of our students are simply bored silly — bored into a stupefied lethargy — with school. This happens, frankly, more in poor and hardscrabble school districts than in the safe, clean, affluent ones. And, to be sure, I have to remind my conservative colleagues in the Kansas legislature that it is fundamentally harder to teach effectively in a hardscrabble school. It just is.

Quit hiring teachers to teach math who themselves struggle with math.

Where I live, in Johnson County, Kansas, the schools are generally quite good. Oh, sure, you can find a lemon here and there pretending to be an effective instructor. But for the most part, our classrooms, our teachers, our families, and our schools are pretty good around Johnson County, Kansas. This is especially true in my state board district. The same is not true where children have little support at home. We have to do better beyond simply crying for “more money” from taxpayers. When we do infuse more money into our educational systems it should be for awesome teachers teaching where they are needed most — in the hard-to-teach and hard-to-reach-the-student neighborhoods.

In order to “go the extra mile” for children from meager experiences or humble beginnings who genuinely want an education, we have to do better. Our Real Math Standards are designed to help make this a reality.

Also prominent in our recommendations: Quit hiring teachers to teach math who themselves struggle with math. The notion that a teacher need not have content knowledge might play well for the social studies teachers or history teachers who could not possibly master history, but for the language of mathematics, knowledge and facility of that language is essential and far more important than “pedagogy.” If your child’s primary school school teacher is not very good at math, GET ANOTHER TEACHER.

I teach math because I am privileged and blessed to be totally truthful with the language. While we might argue about the true causes of the Civil War, there is no doubt that seven times nine is 63, that the real value halfway between 37 and 113 is 75, and that when two parallel lines are cut by a transversal alternate interior angles are congruent.

In this political season in 2016 there is entirely too much bearing of false witness. For our children, could we we please stick with the truth in our political discussions?

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