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Friday, April 10, 2009

What's the education budget for lawsuits?

In Spokane Public Schools, the main approved mathematics curricula are:

  • Bridges in Mathematics
  • Investigations in Number, Data, and Space
  • Connected Mathematics
  • Core-Plus Mathematics
These curricula are reform, which means they focus on conceptual learning, group discussions, lots of writing, frequent use of calculators and multiple ways of solving problems. They downplay the use of “traditional” procedures and equations, and they emphasize constructivist approaches (“discovery” learning) where students work in groups and on their own to teach themselves.

Reform curricula have been heavily criticized in the mathematics community for the last 20 years. The four used in Spokane should be replaced immediately with curricula that guide students to competence in pre-college mathematics. But – based on minutes from recent school board meetings and my conversations with central office staff – it seems there won’t be any major replacements for 2009/2010. There are plans to shuffle the four curricula around a bit … kind of like moving a dirty mop around the floor, hoping it will clean better over there. Bridges is being replaced by Investigations, Investigations is being replaced by Connected Mathematics, and Connected Mathematics is being replaced by Core-Plus. Additionally, these curricula are heavily supplemented by other materials. The list of district-approved supplementary materials is long, I was told. I couldn’t get any of the titles over the telephone.

Rick Biggerstaff, the high-school curriculum coordinator, wrote to confirm that Spokane's "middle school program uses and will continue to use" Connected Mathematics. He added: "We are making recommendations for materials to complete our middle-school program for next year." He said the recommendations would be clarified in May.

It's an interesting word choice. Instead of saying "complete," he could say "to supplement," as in "to support with extra materials because Connected Mathematics is insufficient, inadequate and confusing as all get out." Or something like that.

Biggerstaff confirmed that Spokane high schools use Core-Plus and College Preparatory Mathematics (which is another reform program that's been criticized for years). He said changes in the high school program would have to wait until the state finalizes its decisions. But the state has finalized decisions about the K-8 recommendations, and Spokane's K-8 curricula aren't on the list -- yet Spokane is still using them. So is the district really waiting for the state, or is this just a convenient excuse to do nothing? What's the real hold-up? Why isn’t Spokane replacing its reform math curricula?

You know it isn’t about money. A lot of the money floating around this district is spent on central-office administrators and other things that don’t have a direct and positive impact on the classroom. If a school district can’t find the money for a proper curriculum – the entire point of its existence – it really ought to just shut the doors and send everyone home.

You know it isn’t about waiting for guidance. Parents, teachers and professors have been asking for a more traditional approach to teaching mathematics. In 2008, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel called for a more traditional approach. In 2007, a consultant said Washington’s math standards were weak and called for a more traditional approach. Over the last two years, the state department of education (OSPI), the state board of education (SBE) and various math advisory panels used the new, more rigorous standards to compile a list of recommended K-8 math curricula. These curricula use a more traditional approach.

Spokane’s main high-school math curriculum – Core-Plus – is barely clinging to OSPI’s preliminary list of high-school recommendations. Core-Plus was chosen over better curricula just so that a reform program could be on the list. Advocates are fighting to remove it. Bob Dean (math department chairman of Evergreen High School; and member of the State Board of Education Math Advisory Panel, the OSPI Standards Revision Team, and the Where’s the Math? Executive Committee) had this to say about Core-Plus:
“The whole purpose for having precise standards and state recommended curricula was to make sure that all Washington students are being taught the same mathematics. That mathematics was supposed to be equivalent to what top international countries are using.

“The issue isn't about using Integrated curriculum… It's about using integrated curricula that are so misaligned to the state standards that a Core 1 student can't even pass an Algebra I test. In fact, Core Plus students don't learn all of Algebra I until they have taken three years of Core math. There is no international curriculum that doesn't teach students the equivalent of Algebra I by the 9th grade. Japanese students are learning Algebra II in the 9th grade (I have their text books). Core Plus not only doesn't align to our standards, it leaves students far behind international standards.

“Instead of asking if it is fair that Core Plus students should have to take the same test as Algebra I students.... we should be asking is it fair that students are taking Core Plus at all? Watering down the standards should not be the solution. Core Plus students from Bellevue averaged 42% on the achieve Algebra II test.... Do we call that preparing students to compete in a global economy?”

Meanwhile, my husband and I are trying to do what’s best for our daughter. We aren’t afraid to say what needs to be said or do what needs to be done. Last winter, we rejected the Connected Mathematics curriculum. We’re using our time and money to teach our daughter the math she needs. We’re declining to have her take this year’s math WASL because it won’t be an accurate measure of what she’s learning. Sadly, this decision will have a negative impact on the scores for her school.

We’re faced with the prospect of Core-Plus in 2009/2010. We know the teacher will move mountains to teach Core-Plus in the best way it can be taught, but we also know the curriculum is seriously flawed and inadequate. And yet, there it will be next year. Why? Administrators must know there’s a problem. One third of Spokane students will drop out before graduation. Of the remaining students, most will need several discrete semesters of remediation in math before they even begin taking college math. Over the last eight years, about 2,000 students have left Spokane Public Schools – most of them from the high schools. In 2008, a survey of parents who left the district made it plain that at least a third of them left over dissatisfaction with the curriculum.

And yet, with respect to improving the math curricula, this district appears to be an immoveable force. Maybe administrators are stubborn; maybe they’re under a dark spell; maybe they just don’t know what they’re doing. What’s left to do? Sue them?


Dan Dempsey, SBE Math Advisory Panelist, recently wrote a letter to the directors of Seattle Public Schools, taking them to task for considering the adoption of reform math programs. He predicted parents would eventually say:

“My kid did not graduate because (Seattle) chose a math series that was rated as mathematically unsound and unacceptable by the state. (Seattle) has steadfastly refused to offer the effective interventions mandated in school board policies …, instead socially promoting my unskilled child to grade 9. In high school, the primary instructional math materials consisted of an unacceptable math program that offered nothing below Algebra I.”Dempsey asked, “How much is the district budgeting for lawsuits?”

I wonder.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (April, 2009). "What's the education budget for lawsuits?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: