Monday, October 5, 2009

Dear President Barack Obama...

Dear President Barack Obama,

I have been meaning to write you a letter and post it on my blog since the day you were elected. I realize the chances of you, yourself, reading it are slim, despite the fact that you do read some of the letters written to you. Still, I keep getting the internal nudge to do it. I am a strong supporter of you and worked hard for you during the election.

I am going to try and break up all I would like to say into a series of weekly letters to the President. I will mail the original version off to you (you never know – I might get through) and post a version of the letter on my blog that helps me keep my anonymity.

I am a public school teacher in Hawaii. Enough said for why my blog is anonymous.

I have a lot of opinions on education and what needs to be done to improve education, but will save most of those ideas for another time. For this letter I would like to focus on math curriculum and limit the focus to a microscopic perspective as seen from one gifted boy’s experience.

My son went to public elementary school in Hawaii. From third through sixth grade he complained that they were repeating the same math and not teaching him anything new. For fun, he would do his older sister’s algebra. We put him in Kumon after school in order for him to be challenged, move forward on his skills, and not be held back. My cousin in LA put his son in Kumon and his son credits Kumon for his success in high school math, his full scholarship to USC, and his subsequent success as a chemical engineer.

By 7th grade the Kumon teacher/franchise owner told us our son was as high in his skills as her franchise went and that we needed to switch centers if we wanted him to stay in Kumon. She also told us he was the most naturally gifted math student she had ever taught.

When our son was in sixth grade we applied him for private schools. Although he did not get into Punahou (your alma mater), we were asked to come and meet with the Dean of Admissions. At the meeting, the Dean showed us our son’s SSAT scores. His reading and writing were right in line with the students who were accepted into Punahou that year. His math, however, was an entire stanine above most of the students they were taking into Punahou. The Dean explained how excited he was at Son’s math potential; however, Son’s grades were all “C’s” and “B’s” and his teacher recommendations were less than stellar. Son has ADHD and when bored can clown around and generally irritate teachers. The Dean recommended we wait a year and reapply so Son could mature.

The next year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and the costs of treatment and my missing six months of work kept us from reapplying our son for private school. Instead he went through Hawaii public school systems. He switched schools twice and the methods for teaching math varied considerably from school to school. This was also true within a given school, depending on the teacher. There was always an emphasis on “discovery” with practice and drill of basics often removed nearly completely from the curriculum.

So, here we are now. We have a son who was born with an extraordinary gift for math. Whose parents have tried as well as we can to get him into a school or program that would develop his math potential. And he now will have to retake math classes he should have had in high school (competently) when he goes to college. His dreams of being a pre-med major have been smashed and the kid has fallen into a deep depression over his lost potential.

I know I am neither a math teacher nor a math person. So my thoughts are just what make sense to me. I understand that students need to know how to apply their math skills in authentic ways. But I strongly believe that first they need know how to do the basics backwards and forwards and without hesitation.

Like my son, I, too, was gifted in math when I was young. Growing up in pre-proposition 13 California, I was lucky to go to good schools where they had their shit together. In sixth grade we were tested and grouped according to ability. For math I was sent to a class that challenged me. Math books were set up so that one practiced a formula over and over until it was second nature. “Word problems” were always at the end of the chapter and applying the math skills in complex problems and projects only took place after the student was completely competent in the basics.

It seems to me that must have worked just fine because in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s America was number one. From what I have seen of those countries that are passing us by in the math scores these days, an emphasis is put on speed and accuracy of the basics before the complexity and discovery paradigms.

At the school where I work, young teachers are actually told NOT to answer students’ math questions directly, but with another question. In this way the students “discover” the solutions themselves. I truly do not get this. The kids are so ignorant of the basic formulas that they cannot determine what do at all. We have horrible math scores, yet we keep doing the same thing.

So, perhaps, is there some discussion going on at your level for how to get America competitive in math? Any talk of math curriculum? Because I am thinking…. If our son, who had supportive parents who paid for outside intervention to enhance our son’s public education, if our son could lose his potential in the amorphous maze of math education in Hawaii, what about the kids born with the same potential in homes with little or no parental support? How is America to remain competitive if even those born with gifts have such a difficult time getting those gifts developed in our public education system?

Until next week,




Sprite's Keeper said...

Oh, wow, this could have been me. Oh, wait. It was!
When I was in elementary, I was gifted in math and aced every test in my level. So the teachers gave me accelerated work, challenges, enrolled me in the county's math team as one of the youngest to ever compete. I loved it.
Then things began to change. By the time I reached high school, these programs were no longer in place. You were told to find your way from A to D and heaven forbid you couldn't find B, you obviously don't get what we're teaching, why are you in this class?
Education needs a serious upgrade all over the board. I hope the President listens, Pseudo!

Ash said...

Standing ovation. Excellently done.

I would love to hear the answer. Praying you receive one.

Praying for you in general :-) Em

Stacy Hackenberg said...

Good job, Pseudo. Let's hope someone listens.

GT education in Texas is a joke. I've run into so many teachers that just don't get the gifted child. Some see them as a threat, some as a nuisance. Many believe they need less instruction.

When I was growing up, we were grouped by ability. Now, the only groupings are GT and Special Ed. Meeting the criteria for the GT programs is difficult. They receive far less funding than the rest of special education to help those on the other end of the bell curve. These kids get bored, act out and often lose all motivation to do well.

Let's hope someone listens.

Mary Anne said...

Amen. I have a BS in Mathematics, yet I need to go to a "class" at my daughter's elementary school to figure out how THEY do math. I hesitate to help her with her work (she doesn't need help often) because I don't want to show her the "wrong" way to do it. Math is math, why do they need to make it so complicated? They don't even "carry" in multiplication and honestly, I don't get what it is they're doing. They do these funky grid things. *shudder*
Thank goodness our school has gotten back to phonics for reading and writing, though. I don't think I could have taken the other crap they were teaching just a few years ago.

darsden said...

I agree with Em, Excellent Letter, sure hope you mail it. Wow, you and your son gifted in math, that is Awesome.

mo.stoneskin said...

Well said you. Education is complicated, that's for sure. All I know is that at school I excelled in maths and science but hated writing, hated the arts, hated anything but the pure mathematical subjects. Now my maths is poor and all I want to do is's all a bit messed up!

Kristan said...

Very eloquent. If this is a sign of what's to come, I'm really looking forward to this series of letters.

Jan said...

Oldest Son was on the opposite end of the spectrum - right on board with math and off the charts in his written and verbal skills.

His grades sucked swamp water. They tried to put him in Special Education classes because of it.

He hated school. He was bored. He was not challenged. He, too, became depressed.

He dropped out.

I doubt you'll hear anything back - my confidence in the current political climate (which has nothing to do with my opinion of President Obama, just politics and politicians in general) sucks more swamp water than my sons grades did. But I have TONS of sympathy for your situation. TONS.

Twenty Four At Heart said...

As the mom of 3 kids who have been put into gifted programs ... where they learned next to nothing, I could write a few letters myself. Our school system fails the brightest students just as it fails those with special needs. Sad.

Amy said...

This is a great post. I know there are a ton of children out there that want to learn but they have no help or supplies to do it. I hope for change. I wish I was great at Math. I got better but I hope my little one takes it on with out any problems.

Erin@TheLocalsLoveIt said...

Excellent post.

Jeanne Estridge said...


Because you know your son, and other Hawaiian kids, are not the only ones suffering from this perverse paradigm.

Captain Dumbass said...

Nice letter. I was terrible in math all the way through school but was allowed to keep going forward to keep 'the system' moving.

Mike said...

I think that is the key to schooling is to keep it interesting. I got burnt out on the routine, the same way someone gets burnt out on a job!

Beth said...

I LOVE this letter!

You and I need to sit down with a bottle of wine so we can discuss all of the messes in education. Make that a case of wine.

My favorite part - "If our son, who had supportive parents who paid for outside intervention to enhance our son’s public education, if our son could lose his potential in the amorphous maze of math education in Hawaii, what about the kids born with the same potential in homes with little or no parental support?" Well, said!

cheatymoon said...

Nice job, Pseudo.
The system is indeed broken.

Unfortunately I see this from the inside out.

Kumon, eh? Was it really expensive?


Casey said...

I hope our guy listens to you. It's so hard for teachers and for kids to have to survive in our education system. Someone needs to fix it..

Liz Mays said...

So when they started talking about all this new math crap, they never went back to the basics?? The old ways of doing things worked! Why they felt they needed to tangle with the system is beyond me.

Mango Girl said...

Fabulous post P. I hope our President actually does read this.


xo, Mango

Liz Wilkey (a.k.a. A Mom on Spin) said...

So how can you be so good in math and yet good in English too???

I hope all works out for your son, my friend. . .

Christy said...

i like this

Pseudo said...

I find I have so much to say on this comment thread that there may be a part II.

Suffice it to say, the gifted and accelerated programs all over either suck ass or are non existant.

My son did not get put into the GT program in elementary school because he had poor teacher recommendations. He was bored and clowed around all the time. the kids who made the GT program were not so much gifted as good at doing school...

Fragrant Liar said...

Excellent letter to the Prez, Pseudo. I hope it gets through and you get some kind of personal response.

cristin said...

Nicely done Pseudo. I hope you get an answer.

I suck ass at math.

Robin said...

Bravo, I hope if you do get an answer you will share it here.

So sorry you are going through a rough time these days, know that I am sending warm thoughts your way from CT.

Joanna Jenkins said...

When you are ready to send your letter to the President (Parts 1 and 2) I hope you give us all the okay to copy it and sign it as an endorsement of your words, with our plea for the President's full attention. I bet we could get hundreds of bloggers to send your EXCELLENT letter to Washington DC and to our State Senators. If you're up for it, I'll help spread the word on my blog. Just say the word.
Great job!

Maureen@IslandRoar said...

Excellent letter!
I have to say the Math here on the Vineyard is pretty good. My 2 daughters are really good at Math and have always had opportunities to go at a faster rate. The HS Math has several different levels. My ADD son was able to be in a lower Honors Math that challenged him without overwhelming him. In another school he would've been stuck in a lower "regular" class and been bored out of his mind.
I hope someone listens to your letter!

ds said...

Awesome letter, Pseudo--I hope someone, somewhere listens.

Mrsbear said...

I can only imagine how disheartening it must be to watch your child's passion just fizzle out due to factors beyond your control. I hope someone at least reads your letter, it was perfect.

Stacy Hackenberg said...

Reading your comment reminded of something I thought about but didn't add to my first note.

There's a difference between high achieving kids and GT kids. High achieving kids are the ones that work their butts off to get into and stay in AP classes. They generally rank high in their class. Sometimes they're gifted, but often it's just plain old determination (or parental threatening). I saw so many people - teachers, administrators, patents - who confused the two when my girls were in public school. So often, the kids who get labeled as "trouble" are really just bored out of their skulls.

If we fail these kids, we fail the future.

Smart Mouth Broad said...

Bravo, Pseudo. Well said, well said, well said. I hope you get an answer. President Obama would be wise to listen.

PropellerHeadMom said...

My oldest is only six and is in first grade. I have not seen any math homework come home yet. Mostly reading and writing. I am not sure when they plan to start on basic addtion. Hopefully before he gets to middle school.

I will admit that I am no fan of Obama. He sends his children to private school. Therefore, I don't see why he would have any interest in improving the public school system. I think in DC, they even give you a voucher if you want to send you kids to private school.

Hit 40 said...

I am so sorry that you have fucked up math teachers who want the kids to "discover" the math. I totally agree with you that this method does NOT work.

I don't know what to tell you to cheer up your son. Crushed dreams are hard to fix.

I taught my oldest boy Algebra two summers ago because the school did not place in advance math which was bullshit. His scores were high enough. His witchy teacher nixed the class for him. So I...

taught it to him myself which got him automatically into the advanced group the next year because it was the only math class left since I already home schooled him over the summer. HEE HEE!!

He had the top scores on tests last year and this year. I was right that he could handle the advanced class. The witchy teacher was totally out of line. Bad karma to her.

I will keep your son in my thoughts and prayers. He can still be a doctor. My understanding is that to be a doctor that first you need a BS degree in anything that you want. Some pick mechanic engineering (for example) if they want to maybe be a doctor who works on joints/bones.

shaunna said...

i sent this to obama's twitter page. hopefully it'll be read by one of his people (figure he's kinda busy right now).