Don’t Mess with Texans: Susan Sarhady

Published October 1, 2001

In the struggle to advance parental choice in education, the battles that take place in affluent suburban communities are fundamentally different from those in low-income inner-city neighborhoods.

For example, the efforts of the Black Alliance for Educational Options are largely focused on persuading minority families to embrace choice as a solution to the problems they know exist in their inner-city schools. However, the major roadblock to the advance of school choice in the suburbs is not how to pursue a solution, but for families first to recognize there is a problem, and they have little choice or control over what their children are taught in public schools.

Susan Sarhady, a parent from Plano, Texas, discovered how powerless suburban parents are in 1998 when she began to investigate the Connected Math program the Plano Independent School District had begun to use two years earlier.

The Connected Math program puts an emphasis on “critical thinking” and “problem-solving,” with students working in groups to “discover” mathematical concepts. Calculator use is emphasized; accuracy and memorization of math facts are not.

Dissatisfied with the results of this type of math instruction, Sarhady and other parents formed the Plano Parental Rights Council and requested a traditional math program. The school board denied their request, despite a state law saying such requests should not be “unreasonably denied.”

When she first came across the Connected Math program, Sarhady had no thought of taking on her local school board, no intention of becoming an activist in the school reform movement, no desire to lead an advocacy group to change the school curriculum, and no interest in testifying before the Texas Legislature and the U.S. Congress.

As she readily admits, she has no “Dr.” in front of her name and has no expertise in math. But, like parents everywhere, she does know her children and how they learn. That makes Sarhady and other dissatisfied parents very important figures in the school reform movement. Sarhady spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you get involved in education reform?

Sarhady: I’m just a parent. I’m not a teacher. My husband and I own our own business. I initially got involved in my children’s schools by helping at parties, doing fundraising, working with the PTA, and so on. I always tried to focus on something that would help the teacher and also improve learning. One time I organized a spelling bee for the fourth graders. I got more involved when Connected Math got to be an issue here in our district in the summer of 1998.

Plano has grown very rapidly over the past 20 years–it’s now over 210,000 people–and one of the reasons people move here is the reputation of the school district. We have many new school buildings and lots of technology. The parents here are relatively well-educated, two-income families. The average home value just went over two hundred thousand dollars, and so it is a privilege to be able to live in this community. People who live here expect their children to get a good education, and when the state reports record numbers of students passing the math test, they think everything must be all right.

But when you start researching those numbers, you find they’re not really telling the whole story. Three years ago, a third grader had to get 33 out of 44 questions correct–75 percent–in order to meet the state’s minimum passing standard. But this year, 2001, a third grader has to get only 24 out of 44 correct to pass. That’s only 55 percent.

The Texas Education Agency will tell you this has to do with the relative difficulty of the questions and will tell you the content is getting much more difficult. But the question we have to ask is: “How much more difficult can third grade math get?”

I’ve taken a look at the 2001 test and it has questions like this: “Fred had 375 pennies in a jar. He took out 198 and spent them. How many pennies did Fred have left in the jar?” This cannot be that much more difficult than the test three years ago.

Clowes: What made you and other parents concerned about the Connected Math program?

Sarhady: The key words in Connected Math are “high-order thinking,” “critical thinking,” and “manipulatives.” Children are encouraged to use calculators, even in elementary school.

I have great concern about my daughter’s education when she’s literally still trying to count on her fingers in fourth grade. I know enough about curriculum and teaching methods and how much time they spend on math to know that it is not that she is incapable. It is because they’re not teaching that skill any more, and they’re not expecting it. That puts her at a disadvantage.

In Connected Math, fractions are taught using fraction strips. To solve problems, the children fold pieces of paper into halves, fourths, eighths, ninths, and so on, and then they compare the sections to see which one is the smallest.

That doesn’t teach a child the relationships between numbers, or that 10 can be made up of 1 and 9, 2 and 8, 3 and 7, and so on. The children don’t learn number concepts. By focusing on manipulatives and counting on their fingers, they never reach the concept stage.

From the parents’ point of view, Connected Math is not a program they perceive as being a good preparation for the future. Their main complaint is it leaves students unprepared for higher math–in Algebra I, Algebra II, and on from there. Algebra is a graduation requirement in Texas, but when we looked at participation rates in algebra in eighth grade and on, we found they are going down.

Also, if a child has a problem with homework, parents are not supposed to help because that would interfere with the child’s “discovery” of the math concept. The difficulty there is some students never discover the concept.

Mostly, though, homework is a trivial pursuit where the child has to do something like flipping a coin five hundred times to discover that the probability of heads or tails is about 50 percent. Or tossing marshmallows into the air to discover if they’re more likely to land on the side or on the end. In our effort to make math more meaningful and more accessible to children, we’re trivializing it.

Clowes: Since you and other parents were dissatisfied with the program, you asked the school board for a different program, which is permitted under the Texas Education Code.

Sarhady: But the code does not compel the district to comply. We testified before the House Education Committee here in Texas and the author of the law said it was meant to apply to a school that had, say, enough interest in French as well as Spanish so that parents could say, “We want to have French offered.” And so, in theory, it also was meant to apply to the concept of a traditional math program versus a constructivist math program. When the legislators told us that, we went back and said to the school board, “Here’s a list of 521 people who want this different math program.”

We found we could request a different math program, but the district wasn’t obligated to offer a different math program. The school board’s answer was: “Math is math. It doesn’t matter how it’s taught.”

Obviously, I couldn’t disagree more, but all the law says is that we can ask. There is no avenue to make the district comply.

As Paul Sadler, chairman of the Texas House Public Education Committee, put it, “How do we put in law that the districts should be compassionate, interested, and try to accommodate as many parents’ wishes as they can? I don’t know how to put that into law.”

Clowes: So due process compels the board to listen to the parents’ request but doesn’t obligate the board to do anything in support of that request?

Sarhady: Correct. There’s no support from any avenue. We’ve literally been everywhere. There’s nothing we can do except to pull our children out of school and educate them elsewhere. The district as much as said that: If we don’t like it, get out.

Unfortunately, parents to a great extent have asked for this–by being uninvolved; by thinking their responsibility for their child’s education ended when they bought a house in a highly regarded school district; by not bothering to vote; and by not bothering to think it is important that our school board trustees be responsive to the public.

Some parents say, “Well, the school district has said this is the math program. I can’t change it, but, by golly, I’m going to take care of my child.” They will spend hundreds of dollars to tutor their children in mathematics, but they won’t stand up and be counted when it comes to telling the district, “Parents want a choice.”

Then there are the parents who fight. Some keep fighting, some find they don’t have a heart for it, and some eventually have to take care of their own child’s needs. They may move out, or send their children to private school, or homeschool them, or whatever other options there are.

Plano is a high-income area, and so lots of parents have these options to take care of their child, as well they should. But what happens to the children who are left behind? They are the ones with the parents whose heads are buried in the sand, or who are intent on protecting the status quo, or who are afraid to say anything.

Clowes: What recommendations would you give to parents who find themselves in a situation similar to the one you encountered in 1998?

Sarhady: You really have to involve yourself very early on in the process, because, at the later stages, you might as well give up. It is very much a political process and it requires activism and advocacy. You must pay attention to the way your school district operates and how it makes decisions about curriculum and instruction.

At the same time, a lot of the decisions are state-based, and so someone needs to be involved at that level as well. Parents are under-represented in the political process and they need to have more influence on their school board members and on state legislators.

I think, overall, the biggest frustration is how parents are left out of the process of selecting educational programs at all levels–local, state, and national. Parents do not have any kind of a voice. We have to recognize that and try to address it.

We hear a lot about the poor showing at the polls during national elections, but it’s even worse when citizens can’t be bothered to vote in local school board and city council elections. When I ran for school board, only 5,700 people bothered to vote out of 177,000 registered voters. Everybody says, “Go run for school board and change things.” Well, excuse me. It’s not as simple as that.

You find you are battling an entrenched school district bureaucracy that can rally its employees, the Chamber of Commerce people, city employees, and local businesses with a vested interest in protecting the image of the school district. A good image for the school district will get people to move here, which will give them more tax dollars to spend. Lost in all of that is the fact that we’re not even concerned whether the education that we’re saying these children receive is anything like it’s represented to be.

You’re batting people whose main interest is protecting the image of the school district. Unfortunately, parents are willing participants in that whole process by not voting or by not being active. They’re also trying to confirm to themselves that they made the right decision in moving here or staying here.

People will tell you, “I moved to Plano because of the reputation of the school system. I couldn’t possibly have made the wrong decision.” They don’t want the value of their investment to go down. They don’t want to think, “I’m stuck in a $200,000 home, and they can’t teach my child to multiply!”

Clowes: How responsive do you think the school board would be if you could simply take the money the district spends on your child and take it to a school across the street that has the kind of math program you want?

Sarhady: That’s one of the main debates in education. I would say that if the funding followed the child, the district would be much more responsive to parents.

Here’s what happens now: I’m dissatisfied with the facets of progressive education the school district has chosen to embrace and I’m concerned about how that has affected my nine-year-old. And so we are pulling her out of the school district and sending her to a private school. But our decision makes absolutely no difference to the school district. In fact, they’re probably very happy not to hear me complain at my neighborhood school and to get my tax dollars without having to spend the money to educate my child.

It works to their advantage, and that’s a darned shame in my mind, because I tried my best to make some changes to improve the quality of education. Who’s the loser here? It certainly isn’t the school district, and it isn’t any of the school board members. My daughter has to pay by going to another school, and we have to pay to have her tutored and privately schooled.

For more information . . .

on the Plano Parental Rights Council and a lawsuit linked to the Connected Math curriculum, visit the Council’s Web site at The Plano Parental Rights Council is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to improving parental participation in their children’s education.