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Monday, December 28, 2009

School district excludes feedback from mathematicians

By Laurie H. Rogers

Last September, Spokane Public Schools created an adoption committee that was to choose a new high school mathematics curriculum. For the first time perhaps ever, parents, students and community members (including yours truly) were allowed to participate. The committee met six times in 2009. At our Dec. 9 meeting, we chose two strong finalists from eight possibilities, and we did it despite the district’s complete mishandling of the adoption process. Administrators and “facilitators” wasted our time and tax dollars on useless activities; minimized or excluded feedback from parents, teachers, students, and committee members; and continually showered us with extreme reform propaganda.

On Dec. 9, the district’s interference went to a whole new level. On that day, members of the adoption committee were barred from determining whether the eight possible curricula met the most crucial requirement on our list: “Alignment to State Standards.” Instead, we were told to use a previous assessment from the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. We were assured that if OSPI ranked a curriculum as being closely aligned to the state standards, the program was assumed to be “accurate, rigorous, and high quality.”

This assurance necessarily presumed that OSPI's assessment was done thoroughly, correctly and without bias. But that presumption is on shaky ground.

In 2008, under former State Superintendent Terry Bergeson, a team put together by OSPI assessed 13 high school math curricula (3 texts each), mapping each to the new state standards. There wasn't time for careful assessments of "mathematical soundness." The top four were:
1. Holt
2. Discovering Algebra/Geometry
3. Glencoe
4. Prentice Hall

Core-Plus Mathematics Project, Spokane’s current high school math curriculum, placed sixth overall. Core-Plus is a reform program, and its text is arranged in an “integrated” fashion. Of the textbooks with a “traditional arrangement of content,” (algebra/geometry/algebra), Holt placed second in algebra and first in geometry. Meanwhile, Discovering Algebra/Geometry placed first in algebra, but sixth in geometry.
(Although Discovering Algebra/Geometry contains a “traditional arrangement of content,” it isn’t a “traditional” textbook. The texts are heavily constructivist, with constant group work and student "discovery.")

OSPI also asked Drs. James King and George Bright to assess the top four curricula for mathematical soundness. Both men had potential conflicts of interest.
  • Dr. Bright has a Ph.D. in mathematics education (not in mathematics) and has advocated for reform math. At the time, he worked for OSPI. He also was part of the assessment team for reform curriculum Connected Mathematics.
  • Dr. King has a Ph.D. in mathematics and is an author for Key Curriculum Press (Key Curriculum Press is the publisher for Discovering/Algebra/Geometry).
Only Dr. Bright reviewed the algebra textbooks. Only Dr. King assessed the geometry textbooks, but he assessed McDougal-Littell instead of Discovering Geometry because the latter had scored too low in OSPI’s initial assessment to be considered for this additional assessment. Dr. Bright found Holt and Discovering Algebra to be the best in algebra; Dr. King found Holt and Prentice Hall to be the best in geometry.

OSPI released a preliminary recommendation to the State Board of Education (SBE). Legislation required the SBE to review the recommendation before OSPI issued a final recommendation to the school districts and to the general public. The top 3:
1. Holt
2. Discovering Algebra/Geometry
3. Core-Plus Mathematics

I’ll bet you’re wondering how Core-Plus snuck in there. I wondered the same thing. In January 2009 I asked OSPI why Core-Plus was recommended over other, better curricula. Greta Bornemann, OSPI’s math director, told me that Randy Dorn, the new superintendent, wanted to have at least one integrated curriculum in the top three.

And so OSPI initially chose to recommend Core-Plus (despite the entire series being widely panned) and Discovering Algebra/Geometry (despite the geometry portion of that series being widely panned). The SBE meanwhile had contracted with Strategic Teaching, Inc. to have the top four curricula assessed by other independent mathematicians. For this assessment, the fourth-ranked curriculum – Prentice Hall – was passed over so that sixth-place Core-Plus Mathematics could be assessed in depth.

Two mathematicians – Dr. Stephen Wilson, Johns Hopkins University, and Dr. Guershon Harel, University of California, San Diego – determined that Core-Plus and Discovering Algebra/Geometry are indeed mathematically unsound. Holt – while not thought to be fabulous – was the only one of the four found to be mathematically sound in all categories assessed. Following this process, OSPI issued its final recommendation to the public. Just one high school curriculum was recommended: Holt Mathematics.

This fall, Dr. Bridget Lewis, Spokane’s executive director of instructional programs, told parents in two community forums that the mathematicians conducting the state reviews did not agree on the results. This is a partial truth. All four of the in-depth reviewers (Drs. Wilson, Harel, Bright and King) chose Holt Mathematics in their final summary. Drs. Wilson and Harel also agreed on the unsound nature of Discovering Algebra/Geometry and Core-Plus Mathematics. Dr. Lewis and Rick Biggerstaff, Spokane’s secondary math coordinator, knew about the additional in-depth assessments, and also about OSPI’s sole recommendation of Holt, yet they still forced the curriculum adoption committee to use OSPI’s original, cursory scoring.

On Dec. 9, I asked Rick Biggerstaff why they did that. I mentioned the in-depth assessments from Drs. Wilson and Harel, plus another done by mathematician Dr. John Lee, University of Washington (who also found Discovering Algebra/Geometry to be inadequate). Rick Biggerstaff brushed off my concerns, saying the assessments from Drs. Wilson and Harel were only about “mathematical soundness,” not “alignment.” Pointing to OSPI’s original scoring, he repeatedly stated, “We’ve decided we’re going to use this.”

But why? Why would Spokane administrators insist on using OSPI’s original scoring when its results conflict with later in-depth assessments? The most notable aspect of OSPI’s original scoring is that the OSPI team ranked Discovering Algebra/Geometry – a highly constructivist (discovery) program – as second overall despite its dismal scoring in geometry. Perhaps Dr. Lewis and Rick Biggerstaff didn’t bother to become informed about the in-depth assessments. Or, perhaps their unstated agenda was to keep a constructivist program in the running despite its known inadequacy. Perhaps both. Are there other possibilities?

Despite all of this, a majority of the members of Spokane’s adoption committee stood tall on Dec. 9 and chose Holt Mathematics and Prentice Hall as the two finalists. We did it based on our familiarity with mathematics, our experience in mathematics instruction and tutoring, and the desires of the community we serve. I’m proud of the committee. Now, if we can successfully navigate Spokane’s brief pilot of Holt and Prentice Hall, the district’s final recommendation to the school board, the school board vote, and the funding of the new math curriculum, we’ll really be getting somewhere.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (December, 2009). "School district excludes feedback from mathematicians." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:


Anonymous said...

ARe you familiar with the Delphi technique? If not, check out:

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To Anonymous:

Sadly, I am more familiar with the Delphi technique than I used to be.
Thanks very much for the link. I'll check it out.
Meanwhile, I've written a little about my positively joyous experience with the technique, and I'll publish that article on this blog soon.
Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Note that private schools RARELY use reform mathematics. Private schools use different standardized tests called ERBs. Students who score in the 99th percentile on state public school standardized tests may only score in the 80th-90th percentile on the ERBs. If you truly value education, forget the public system.

Public education is second rate in America and lacks leadership. Quit blaming the teachers and students and start firing the curriculum directors.

kprugman said...

The explanation for why Coreplus was added later is Dorn personally knows the regional representative. Its his 'file drawer' study that claims McGraw's book raises scores on the WASL. He uses some of the same esoteric statistics that are written about in the textbook. His cousin does the teacher training. It surprises me how few people have actually read the entire series. Their statistics units were probably dug out of some old education stats textbook from the 40's. The point being that students who use CPMP for three years (and there aren't many) probably know more about this unique type of statistics than they do about solving algebra problems or factoring trinomials. Traditional textbooks teach at least 10 methods of solving algebra equations. CPMP's methods are all non-standard, meaning students rely on graphing calculators to 'approximate' their answers. CPMP is a textbook written for unitarian communities. If you are a math teacher this book will drive you crazy. Schools that use CPMP frequently have an algebra catch up class seniors take their senior year (if they are going to college) - I would call these communities both elitist and small-minded. They have very few resources for failing students, since all their time is spent publicly making themselves look better than they really are. A good bet is the first letter your child receives is an explanation for why Core plus was chosen (its on the DOE's list of promising and exemplary curriculum). An astronaut couldn't find their way to the launch pad with it.

kprugman said...

CPMP uses a statistical or fuzzy approach for conjuring up lines. They use obsolete jargon and its fascinating because the text requires a graphing calculator, but none of the built-in functions are compatible with their instructions - everything has to be done using tables. So there's no one-to-one correspondence and students can't check their work by reversing the process. Its a sham. This curriculum has never been tested properly and schools have been using it since 1993? I call this the zen-model of math and it drives teachers and students absolutely crazy.

I'm not a fan of Holt either, but anything is better than Core Plus. Most HSs that struggle with this curriculum - put their college-bound seniors in a remedial algebra class. That's why no-holds barred this is a racist's dream come true - there's very few students who manage to make it through three years of this curriculum and come out with any significant math skills. I know seniors who were still struggling to pass Core 1. That's the real test of intelligence, the length of time one put up with so much intellectual garbage is inversely proportional to their math aptitude. Core Plus destroys intelligence. According to their idiotic authors, only God knows the truth, so the one true line works for all lines.

Don't forget Bergerson's brightheads - they were fanatics -wretched people with 'extra-sight' who believed in looking for lost souls.

"People are powered by wattage that's measurable with candles."
-OSPI staff member

God ran out of ideas after he gave man intelligence, but forgot math teachers.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To kprugman:

You said: "I'm not a fan of Holt either..."

Spokane's adoption process is not yet finished. What is it about Holt that you don't like?

I appreciate your feedback.

kprugman said...

I'm presuming that Holt is the HS choice. Your entering 9th graders, that were taught with Connected Math and Everyday? won't be able to keep up with Holt's pacing plan. If they adopt a traditional sequence, then Spokane will also probably follow other districts and offer an extended algebra version of Holt (two years with one book), which won't do students much good either. They are still 2-4 years behind, so Holt will still be a struggle. Imagine doing Holt without fractions. Our district did exactly that and its definitely not raising our test scores - in fact, NCLB penalizes schools, by giving more weight to students who take the standardized test for algebra in the ninth grade. Two thirds of my math students score far below basic on any test. I don't use Holt (that's what is being provided) because my students are still struggling with multiplication tables and division. In fact, I feel that I am being encouraged by my administrators and fellow teachers to fail these students so they will go somewhere else. Districts that have algebra classes in the eighth grade are actually better off having these students take algebra again in the ninth grade just to raise their hs algebra scores I consider it a waste of time, but that's one way districts can cheat a little. We have parents who think its crazy and I agree with them. Core plus? it doesn't make a bit of difference - you could take Core 1 over again, but its not going to raise your AYP. Core plus is esoteric stuff - and students have more than enough difficulty learning how to use the graphing calculators. Teachers either become experts at troubleshooting all the software glitches or they go practice teaching somewhere else.

The flaw in aggregating test scores is that AYP fails to take into account where students live. State would be far better off, targeting neighborhoods than funding schools. Since seldom do your lowest performers finish their year out at the same school. They may move to different high schools many times during their four years. The goal should be to get these students stabilized so that they can catch up to their peers. That's not happenning and these kids are falling through the cracks.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To kprugman:

Holt isn't the choice yet. The two finalists are Holt and Prentice Hall. The adoption committee will be looking at these in depth this month. Then there will be a pilot and a recommendation to the school board.

I do know there is a desperate need for district-wide tutoring. This is true whether the district implements a new curriculum or not. The end goal should be that students are prepared for postsecondary life, but most of our students are leaving high school ill-prepared for college math. The first step must be to implement solid K-12 math curricula. Since the district is beginning with the high school math curriculum, incoming high school students won't be prepared for this new curriculum, but it would be false to blame this on Holt or Prentice Hall. The blame rests squarely on the terrible curricula we have now.
The solution then is not to reject a strong high school curriculum, but to a) fill in the high school students' gaps in knowledge and b) give K-8 students better curricula and tutoring so that eventually, they can catch up to where they should have been.

It wouldn't be hard to find better K-8 curricula - we currently have Investigations in Number, Data and Space and Connected Mathematics.
Additionally, many of our teachers have been and still are actively discouraged from teaching arithmetic and other basic math skills to their students. It's shocking, hard to believe, but I assure you it is true.

I'm curious to know your thoughts about Holt and PH as a curriculum - aside from whether students will be prepared for them. They won't be. But the district has to start somewhere. Bringing in a solid high school math program is the start students desperately need. District administrators will then have a good place from which to work backward and repair the damage they have done in all of the grades.

kprugman said...

If you're working backward then you need to begin with what colleges require. Secondly, for inclusion, you address the needs of your language learners.

One method is to supplement instruction via pullouts. Some of the best teachers in your state are reading teachers. Math teachers should be paying attention.

Correct implementation means starting at first grade and moving forward. The adoptions were designed to maintain status quo, so the first thing one notices is the adoptions are out of sequence. This makes it more difficult for evaluators. The Singapore curriculum includes k-12textbooks, standards, and end-of-course exams.

None of the US curriculum comes close to the depth and detail provided by Singapore. Secondly, all of the Singapore problems have been tested and culled thoroughly. It is what I coin a populist curriculum, meaning teachers and students were asked for input. College preparatory math attempted to do the same thing and targeted Hispanics in Central Valley. The curriculum was rejected by parents who wanted to see more traditional textbooks. I'm all for that, but it doesn't resolve the problem we face in education. There are alot of children who can't read those traditional textbooks. It is elitist. And that's the real motivation behind the standards movement. To make rules for learning more explicit and content-driven. What we've done is created a monster.

We seem ignorant or ashamed of the fact that the majority of the children in Singapore are English Language Learners. Another excellent example are the non-English-speaking students in Quebec, outperforming their English-speaking counterparts in Toronto by a wide margin. It was so profound that PISA investigators had to put them in separate groups. They use different textbooks.

The US should do away with the adoption process and focus on writing one k-12 curriculum. But wait, its already been done! The next step is to stop promoting students into classes they don't belong in - students with low math skills should not be enrolled in algebra. Teachers cannot ignore this problem, because your far below basic students need explicit instruction. I don't know of any HSs that offer a pre-algebra class, yet every algebra teacher that I know supplements and worse they are inconsistent and don't provide direct instruction. They assume that students will overcome their bad habits and they're wrong. Mathematics is like a language - and there is deep structure (mental math) and surface structure (what you write). PH supplements more than HOLT and I think the reading level is lower. Parents don't perceive the differences, as easily. Both books are too large and the problems are not as well thought out if one were to compare them to Singapore problems. Its a quality issue and until we begin to perceive there are differences in the problems themselves, than we won't be able to solve the larger problem of making good textbooks.

kprugman said...

District wide tutoring is expensive and it leads to vouchers (privatized tutoring) and one reason we have public schools has to do with the abuses caused by free enterprise (e.g. misreporting student attendance) Granting the privilege of owning a school has been historically a bad idea, mostly for students and teachers.

This is not to say that public schools have not been abused by unscrupulous persons. It is galling to watch so much abuse these days and there seems nothing that we can do to legally stop these individuals.

Why do we have wide-spread tutoring and Sylvan Learning. Lousy implementation of math adoptions and poor textbooks. Failure to matriculate students. We promote students into classes where they will surely fail. It is a waste of money to put a student into a two-year algebra class. They should be taking pre-algebra first, then algebra. This can't be ignored, yet we do it all the time.

A student that is far below average or even below average in math skills should not be taking algebra. It is a function of poor textbooks, not the students, teachers, or the parents. And for saying this, I risk my career and my job.