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Seattle's Math Wars: The Real Issue Is Trust

Published on: June 12, 2014

Math in Focus textbookAt a time when schools should be winding down for the year and students and families enjoying graduations, field days and locker clean-ups, controversy raised its head again within Seattle Public Schools (SPS): this time over elementary school math curriculum.

For nine months, a curriculum adoption committee, composed of 15 SPS teachers and staff and 12 parent and community members, developed selection criteria and reviewed eight math curricula, eventually narrowing down the field of choices to three. These three curricula were placed on display for public review and community feedback. Following the review period, the committee recommended adoption of the enVision math curriculum by a vote of 21-6.

The committee says it based its decision on, among other things, enVision's alignment with the new Common Core State Standards, which are set to be fully implemented in Washington schools in the 2014-15 school year.

Yet on June 4, by a vote of 4-3, the Seattle School Board chose to disregard the committee's recommendation and voted instead to adopt the Math in Focus curriculum. This curriculum is nearly twice as expensive as enVision and reportedly will create a $3 million budget shortfall for SPS next year.

Following the board's decision, there was a flurry of activity, as some schools contemplated seeking waivers, which would allow them to use enVision math instead. The board discussed a "dual adoption" approach, which ultimately was rejected. Finally, Superintendent Jose Banda sent a letter to school principals asking them to support the board's decision, so that SPS could meet its deadline for ordering textbooks in time for the 2014-15 school year. 

Frustration with "fuzzy" math 

Math in Focus is an American version of Singapore Math, an approach to math instruction that covers fewer topics in a more in-depth way, using a three-step learning process. Students learn concepts by first manipulating quantities of concrete objects, then by drawing bar diagrams of these quantities and, finally, by using numbers and symbols to solve math problems in an abstract way.  

This approach to math instruction has been lauded as a reason for Singapore's economic success and high-ranking status on international education assessments.

In contrast, many U.S. schools had gravitated towards "discovery" math, which focuses on using real-life examples to solve math problems. Proponents of this approach say it engenders real understanding of concepts, rather than rote memorization. Critics say students don't end up learning essential math facts.

In 2007, SPS adopted Everyday Math, a discovery-math curriculum that proved controversial and sparked Seattle's Where's the Math? movement, which later evolved into the Seattle Math Coalition. In 2011, University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass, a supporter of both groups, lost his weekly weather segment on Seattle public radio station KUOW for expressing his outspoken views about math education. Seattle School Board directors Sue Peters and Marty McLaren were elected to their positions in part because of a history of math activism.

The trust factor

SPS leadership was reportedly disappointed that the Seattle School Board did not rely on the expertise of the math adoption committee during this most recent process. What it failed to take into account is the significance and duration of the frustration over math curriculum, the erosion of public trust in the district, and the time it will take to rebuild that trust. 

Yes, there is a new leadership team in place and yes, there is a series of checks and balances designed to prevent the financial improprieties of the past.

But there is also a history of flawed rollouts, such as last September's disastrous debut of the new computerized Student Information System, which disrupted the start of the school year.

The elephant in the room

Adoption of the Common Core State Standards is at the heart of this, and most, debates these days over education. Though the standards were designed through a collaboration of individual states to raise consistency and academic rigor nationwide, critics of Common Core say it is a corporate-driven effort to dismantle public education. There is a growing nationwide movement against Common Core and a few states have pulled out of the initiative.

This creates a catch-22 for SPS leadership. The math curriculum adoption committee chose the curriculum they thought was best-aligned to Common Core. The School Board members who voted against this curriculum are not fervent Common Core supporters. Caught in the middle are teachers, who are trying to adapt to the Common Core standards and be ready for the new Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced assessments, which debut in the spring of 2015, and now also have a new math curriculum to contend with.  

Where do we go from here?

Funding problems notwithstanding, educators I've spoken with say that both Math in Focus and enVision would provide students with a solid foundation of math. Teachers say they will supplement as needed to make sure kids learn what they need to. One hopes that SPS leadership will make sure that teachers have the training and materials to do so successfully.

This summer, when it votes on next year's budget, the Seattle School Board may have to make some tough funding decisions to pay for this curriculum and ensure its success, and will have to justify any funding cuts to the public. This, at a time when Washington has lost $40 million in federal funding and is struggling to meet basic education funding requirements set forth in the state Supreme Court's ruling in the McCleary decision

Veteran educators say they want parents and the School Board to stop second-guessing them and trust that they have the qualifications, expertise and experience to make sound decisions on how best to educate Seattle's children.

But trust has to be earned.

Until it has a proven track record of thoughtful, successful implementation of its initiatives, SPS will continue to fall under scrutiny. That same scrutiny will be applied to the Seattle School Board, which has a history of disunity and lack of public trust.

With his letter to principals, asking them to support Math in Focus, Banda took an important step in trying to foster trust.

As we embark on the 2014-15 school year, let's hope there's more trust to go around.

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