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:

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