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Friday, May 22, 2009

FACT: Spokane refuses to replace reform curricula

On Wed., May 27, Spokane Public Schools employees are slated to address the school board about proposed teaching materials for mathematics. The materials reportedly are a continuation of one of the three main math curricula already in place. The three main curricula are:
  • Investigations in Number, Data, and Space
  • Connected Mathematics Project (CMP)
  • Core-Plus Mathematics

These three curricula are “reform,” which means they focus on estimation, group discussions, lots of writing, frequent use of calculators, and multiple ways of solving problems. They downplay the need for practicing skills and also the use of “traditional” procedures and equations. They emphasize constructivist approaches (“discovery”) where students work in groups and on their own to try to teach math to themselves.

They do not focus on practicing the most efficient, most effective algorithms (which are necessary for advancing in math, and needed in college, business and the trades).

Reform curricula have been criticized in the mathematics community for the last 20 years. Two decades ago, people with products to sell ushered in the philosophy behind these curricula, and money continues to drive K-12 math instruction. Texas Instruments, various software developers, textbook publishers and other stakeholders have worked intensively and cooperatively to push reform curricula and attendant supplementary materials and “helpful” tools on an unsuspecting public. The reform approach to math plays a huge role in why America’s math skills have fallen so far behind the rest of the world. America’s businesses, universities and government agencies are forced to draw heavily from other countries for their talent pools.

But many people were not fooled.

  • FACT: For years, parents, math teachers, professors, business owners, STEM professionals (science, technology, engineering and math), and math advocates have fought for a more traditional approach to teaching mathematics.
  • FACT: In 2008, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel called for more traditional content and increased rigor across the nation.
  • FACT: In 2007, a consultant hired by the Washington State Board of Education (at the behest of the state legislature) assessed Washington’s math standards. The consultant called for major revisions, including a great deal more traditional content, increased rigor, and caution on the use of calculators in the classroom.
  • FACT: New, more rigorous math standards were developed in Washington State. The state department of education (OSPI), board of education (SBE) and advisory panels used the new standards to compile a list of recommended K-8 math curricula. These curricula use a more traditional approach. Spokane's main math curricula are not on the list.

Meanwhile, Spokane Public Schools has continued to replace one reform curriculum with another. This approach has been an expensive failure.

  • FACT: Spokane’s current reform math curricula are heavily supplemented by a long list of expensive materials and by ongoing “professional development” for teachers, “instructional coaches” for teachers, substitute teachers and remedial programs.
  • FACT: Spokane’s full-time enrollment has dropped by about 2,000 students since 2001 (mostly from the high schools). Administrators predict another drop of 350 this year.
  • FACT: A 2008 survey of parents who left for a different public school indicated that at least 33% left in whole or in part over the curricula. (The survey didn’t include families who chose a private school.) Spokane’s superintendent said this survey doesn’t tell her anything that “informs” her “decision-making.”
  • FACT: In 2008, the number of Spokane students passing the 2008 math WASL dropped grade by grade until just 45.9% of 10th graders passed.
  • FACT: Achieve, Inc. says Washington’s 10th-grade math WASL is based on content that is taught internationally in 6th or 7th grade.
  • FACT: Washington State has a reported 50% + math remediation rate in college. According to the dean of the math department at Spokane Falls Community College, new students have about an 80% remediation rate for math.
  • FACT: I've spoken with recent Spokane high school graduates who struggle with basic math skills. They tend to feel dependent on their calculators, to lack number sense, to think they’re bad at math, and to avoid career choices that involve math. Some must take remedial classes in arithmetic. Many must take remedial classes more than once in order to pass.
  • FACT: In February, Superintendent Nancy Stowell and Bridget Lewis, executive director of Instructional Programs, indicated to the Spokane school board that they don’t know how to fix the math problem.
  • FACT: In mid-April, I wrote to Ms. Lewis and two of Spokane’s curriculum coordinators. I noted that Spokane’s main math curricula don’t align with the new state math standards and aren’t recommended by the state or by the math advisory panels. I asked why this district is not replacing its inadequate curricula with curricula that better align to the state’s math standards. After my four polite emails and my polite phone call, I haven’t received an answer to this reasonable and not-too-difficult question.

What the students need is the proper tool for the job - better curricula from kindergarten to Grade 12. They need to be taught, rather than being forced to muddle around in groups, trying to teach math to themselves. They need to learn the most efficient method first, rather than being forced to learn several inefficient ways first. They need to be able to practice their math skills so that these skills go into long-term memory and can be easily recalled.

Spokane will not be replacing its inadequate curricula this year. There are plans to shuffle these failed curricula around a bit … like moving a dirty mop around the floor, hoping it will clean better over there. Now, there reportedly are plans to add more materials from two of the failed programs!

  • FACT: Better curricula are available. They include proven methods for teaching mathematics to children that have stood the test of time. They align better with the new math standards. They’ve been vetted by OSPI, the SBE and various professionals with strong backgrounds in mathematics.
  • FACT: Spokane Public Schools is refusing to adopt any of them.

(It's somewhat like watching people willfully cause a traffic accident.)

I'm asking you to attend the May 27 board meeting and ask for the adoption of better math curricula. By law, the board’s meeting time, place and agenda is to be listed here at least 24 hours before the meeting:

This isn’t a game we're playing. The children's futures are at stake. Parents should not have to supplement the regular program, pay for private school, or teach their children a separate math curriculum at home. They should not have to pay for several remedial college classes. High school graduates should not have to spend several semesters desperately trying to pick up the math they should have learned in K-12. We should expect district employees to do “due diligence” and pay attention to what's being said at the state and federal level relative to mathematics instruction. We should expect the curriculum coordinators to listen when parents ask for something better for their children. Parents should expect to be included in discussions about curricula choices. But in Spokane – despite all contrary evidence – curriculum coordinators persist in supporting and buying teaching materials based on inadequate programs.

If you can't attend the May 27 board meeting, please write to the board and express your views. Ask them to ensure that the district immediately implements curricula that are aligned with the new math standards, to reject the failed reform curricula we have now, and to offer all students the tutoring they need to bring them up in skill to where they should and could have been.

Thank you for standing up to be counted. Please pass on this message to others. Together, we can turn this thing around.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (May, 2009). "FACT: Spokane refuses to replace reform curricula." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

A version of this article was posted May 23 at at


bhammer said...

I strongly encourage people to attend the School Board meeting on May 27. We have been struggling with the exact same issue in Bellingham, and persuading the School Board to intervene is the best way to improve math instruction. School district leaders are not accountable to the public in the same way as elected officials, which is why they can continue to ignore and mislead the public. But Board Members can be voted out, and should be, if they do not listen to the taxpayers who fund our public schools.

Kai said...

While I wholeheartedly agree that *all* school districts should dump reform math programs, I disagree about teaching the most efficient method first. I think it is important for kids to see where the algorithms come from, not just from a teacher showing it on the board, but in their guts. So before one of the efficient pencil-and-paper algorithms is taught, I do think that kids should become reasonably proficient with a method (or two)that clearly reinforces the underlying concept. In the case of, say, addition or multiplication,it would be important to reinforce the idea of place value. This way they will truly understand that when they carry the one, it's really a ten, and, in the case of multiplication, why it's added and not multiplied. Singapore Math uses this approach.

Standard algorithms are important, but concepts are also important and should be understood first.