Cal State

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K-12 Education

California State University Northridge

Transcript of Marianne Jennings
(edited by the speaker)
biography of speaker


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Ms. Metzenberg: Now it's my pleasure, since we have detail in the book here, biographies, we won't take of time for lengthy introductions for our wonderful speakers. It is my pleasure to introduce Marianne Jennings from Arizona State University. Please welcome Marianne.

Ms. Jennings: You can take us out of the classroom, but you can't take our overheads away. I am indeed a Professor at Arizona State University, but that's not really why I'm here today. Most importantly in my life and for the purposes of this conference, I'm the mother of four children ranging in age from 4 to 16. It is my 16 year old who brought my here today. About 4 years ago when she was in the 8th grade, she asked for help with her algebra homework. When I opened up her algebra book. I want you to see some of the things I saw.


This would be the beginning of chapter 3. I saw lot of color. And when I asked her what she did in class, they measured their wingspan for 15 minutes and compared it to their height. This is AP algebra by the way. And this was also in the book, astronomy.


This was one of my favorites, was the hot chili cooking contest to raise money for charities, describes some organizers to raise money for the cook off. That would be for algebra.


Remember, they were counting the words in different languages in parts of the book; figuring out how many words it took to say the same thing. This was unstable domain, we had a little bit of carbon dioxide discussion here. And the map of South America, of course,, and location of Bolivia, all part of algebra. A little poetry down here at the end, President Clinton, Maya Angelou. We had that. Then, of course, this put me over the top --.

Audience member: Oh, my god.

Ms. Jennings: When I saw this, I said what we have here is rain forest map, I believe. And that became my term. [Rain forest algebra]

And this is one of my favorite, the Beatles, based on the song, "Taxman." And these are the icons to tell you what you were studying in addition to that. And it's the fine arts icon. No matter what, even with the white album, the Beatles are not fine artists.

This was my daughter's book. And when I opened up this book, it was a complete shock to me. Please understand I was a parent of a straight a student, thinking I was raising an Oxford scholar and unconcerned because of her straight A's. When I saw the book, I knew something was dreadfully wrong, and I took the opportunity to follow the line of authority and do what someone in my profession would do. I went to the teacher. I know she was no more than 24 years old. I went in and said "I'm Sarah Jennings' mother and I have to tell you I'm worried about the approach to algebra in this book and everything that goes along with it." She looked at me and said, "Mrs. Jennings, I'm afraid you just don't understand education." (Laughter) I said "Maybe so." I don't think that she understood when she told me that, how right she was -- that I was just beginning a long quest. So we began a discussion at that level. I got nowhere. From there I went to the head of the math department, from there to the principal, from there to the school district and on and on until I have become I think forever known as the "National Math Mother", the "Rain Forest Mother".

I was very concerned. And I want you to understand something very important about this quest. My husband and I are perfectly capable of fixing what was wrong with our oldest daughter's education and have learned for the remaining three. We can take care of that with Sarah with a lot of kitchen table teaching and so on and her scores are phenomenal, although the initial test came back with weaknesses in algebra because they didn't figure it out until November. We are capable of fixing that and we have and will continue to do so with our children. So you have to ask the question, why care? I know as I sat around my kitchen table that year and taught her real algebra that I had a following in the neighborhood who came to our house every afternoon. You have heard of the kool aid mother, I'm the math homework mother. I helped them because their parents were not capable of helping them. And there are many parents who are not capable of sending their children to private schools or teaching them. When you undertake this quest, it truly is a quest for the public good, because you fix what's wrong, and why should you care? Because these are the folks your kids will interact with and these are the folks that will take care of me when I'm in my old age, and you care for the sake of society.

What began is just some questioning of the teacher about the approach, really turned into a quest at the district and then at the national level. And I just want to give you some safety tips along the way, and I know the other parents will have some discussion on this as well. One of the things you have to recognize is that as a parent, there are different levels of involvement, and the number one responsibility of all parents is that hands-on involvement with your children. There's no substitute. Those who grew up in a different era knew that our parents did that with us. If they don't have homework, you need to ask questions about that.

The second level of involvement is at the school, and I have found that despite what goes on in the global view of things, I can often say to a teacher, particularly a teacher who is a veteran. In fact, after this evolved with my daughter, I wanted to switch her to another class at mid-year after I learned what was going on with the book. The principal said, to whose class would you like her to go? I said give me your teacher most resistant to change (Laughter). And they said "Well, that would be Mrs. ___" and I said "Please put her in there." And this teacher was a traditionalist and did supplement the book and did a terrific job with those kids. I have also found it is important to ask questions. When Sarah got to Algebra II and they had a portfolio project, if I just said to the teacher, "Why do you need her autobiography for purposes of teaching Algebra II?" All of a sudden the portfolio project and autobiography disappeared.

The third level of involvement is at the district level where the textbook decisions are made in some cases. In some cases, statewide. At any rate, I think you can have impact there. And I'm happy to report that by the time she got to Algebra II, that those in our district had pretty much seen the folly of approaching math in this way. So we returned to the more traditional approach until this year, when she was taking Pre-calculus, there was not a photo in the book -- can you imagine? -- I was delighted to have that. On the district level we have been able to nudge it.

And I think probably what you all are facing here and what we see nationally is, what I think is the real thing that's driving this nonsense. Where I have been is at the microlevel with some success, but what is driving my individual problems is standards-based education. And I don't have a problem with spelling out a standard and say by a certain age, kids should be able to add and subtract. Although I don't see those words add and subtract in Arizona Standards and that makes me nervous. I don't understand how you set standards for kindergartners when the parents don't understand what is there. So that is what is fueling it. You have the standards and tests to go along with it.

For example, one of the things I found in one of the pamphlets on strategy for standards based education, I thought this was sort of interesting. They have the roles assigned to the participants in the program, and you have at the top the policy makers. Then you have the programs where you have colleges and practices. And then down here, I want you to see where parents are.


They're classified as political support. We are not political support. I am at the top. I am the policy. And that's where parent need to -- in other words after it is said and done and after we have already decided on implementation, then we will involve you. This is an upside down approach. Parents need to be at the top in the policy.

If you look at the history of public education in this country, that's who started this and that's who was responsible, and that's to whom teachers were responsible. So it is a bizarre way to approach things.


And then I wanted you to see one of the diagrams that I ran across here -- interpretation, dissemination, evaluation, implementation -- I don't think you should look at this alone because I think it would be dangerous (Laughter). You notice, revision, I don't know where this fits. But the thing that strikes me about this overall is, what if it does not work. And that's the biggest gripe I have about the new education approaches that were imposed on my daughter and her peers. And that is that nobody could show me why or how this back implemented. I felt like Cuba Gooding, Jr., For four years except with a different word -- "show me the data!" Show me the data that tell me this is the right approach. If I am wrong, I will apologize until the day I die and you can carve it on my tombstone. But if I was right, haven't we helped a generation of kids? That's the biggest problem I see with implementation.

Just a couple other things I noticed. This spells out the chart they have for their political approach.


Getting it right, evaluation, revision, and again notice this last goal here -- doing it all again. Well (Sigh) you shouldn't have to do it all again. I taught my daughter algebra from a textbook copyrighted in 1925 and I brought along about 5 or 6 kids with her. Math does not change. It is not multicultural; it is universal. If we keep that in mind as we take this approach.

The thing that really concerns me and where I think parents have to be more vocal is on the standardized testing used for supporting these new models that come in. My young son, who is, came home the other day with his standards scores -- he is 8. By their standards, he is post high school in grade 3 on reading and math and those things. Something is terribly wrong because I love him dearly and he is a bright lad, but he is not post high school. But I think this is probably a good example.


This is taken from one of the 8th grade tests we adopted in Arizona, the Stanford test, the picture and then I wanted you to see an 8th grade math program.


This is the problem, pictures and all. This is what I worry about. I'm not opposed to standards and meaningful standards and in plain English -- this is a layer telling you I want plain English. I think that's a wonderful thing, but I worry that the parents are not involved enough to understand what those standards mean and what measures are being used for those standards. So if I had to sum up, I would say this is a lifetime task for those who have a passion for education and who care deeply about the next generations coming up. This is a task that is relentless. I always say that what I do is apply pressure in a consistent fashion, and that takes time and it takes effort. But it is a cause for which I have seen some movement and some results. And I know that there are panelists here today who have been of great assistance to me in my quest. Without them, I probably would have thought I had lost my mind during this quest. But with their support, I have been able. For they show you the strength of numbers and organizations and the great credibility. So it now becomes my job after that introduction to allow them to speak.


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Contact the organizers

Postal and telephone information:

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K12 Education

College of Science and Mathematics

California State University Northridge

18111 Nordhoff St.

Northridge CA 91330-8235

Telephone: (Dr. Klein: 818-677-7792)

FAX: 818-677-3634 (Attn: David Klein)