January 23, 2010

Lawsuit Against Seattle Public Schools

On Tuesday, January 26th, at 8:30 AM, King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector will consider an appeal by a group of Seattle residents (including yours truly) regarding the selection by Seattle Public Schools of the Discovering Math series in their high schools. Although this issue is coming to a head in Seattle it influences all of you in profound ways.

In this appeal we provide clear evidence that the Discovery Math approach worsens the achievement gap between minority/disadvantaged students and their peers. We show that the Board and District failed to consider key evidence and voluminous testimony, and acted arbitrarily and capriciously by choosing a teaching method that was demonstrated to produce a stagnant or increasing achievement gap. We request that the Seattle Schools rescind their decision and re-open the textbook consideration for high school.

By selecting the Discovering Math Series, the Seattle Public Schools chose a deficient mathematics program, based on the "reform" or "discovery" approach. In fact, they are using discovery math at elementary, middle school, and high school now. In this approach math is substantially dumbed down for "equity" reasons and students are asked to discover age-old principles on their own. "Direct instruction"--that is the teacher telling the students the best approach--is frowned on, calculators are brought in very early in elementary schools, group learning is pushed, and students are encouraged to play with objects (manipulatives). But most important of all...there is no evidence that this new age approach to math education works...and plenty to show it doesn't.

How bad are things in Seattle? Very bad. Below is a table of the 5-year average pass rate for the math WASL exam at three grade levels (thanks goes to David Orbits for preparing all the graphs and tables in this blog). And remember the WASL is an easy, dumbed-down exam to start with, with the 10th grade exam testing 7th or 8th grade material. You will notice a huge difference in the performance of minority and low-income students versus their white peers. And keep in mind that the 68% percent pass rate for the white kids is nothing to brag about. Many end up at the UW without the capacity to do college math. And less than 18% of the black children are passing the exam in 10th grade, and only about a quarter of the kids on subsidized meals are securing satisfactory scores. This table, and a graph based on it below, show another serious issue--student performance gets worse as they proceed through school--particularly for black and low-income students.

But if you think this is bad, take a look at the trends, and particularly the difference in the 10th grade WASL pass rate for white and black students. You will notice that with all the transition to discovery learning of the past decade the difference is increasing--black children are falling behind their white peers. In addition, their absolute performance declined the last few years.

As an aside,why the jump in 2005? Better teaching in Seattle Schools? Unfortunately, there is another explanation. This occurred when the District required those taking the WASL to have acquired at least 5 credits in Freshman year. Thus students who failed more than one class as 9th graders were not tested and the pass rate went up 15% by excluding those students (info from Dan Dempsey).

Remember, there is NO reason to expect the difficulty of the WASL exam was the same each year--in fact the evidence is against it! From 2000-2005 the State WASLed all at grades 4, 7, 10 and gave the IOWA standardized test to all at grades 3, 6, 9. WASL reading scores rocketed up at grade 7 during that period, but the IOWA test reading scores at grades 6 and 9 were flat the whole 6 years. The WASL was a lot more OSPI public relations tool than an assessment of instructional efficacy.

The initial rise period could also reflect the adjustment period to the exam--particularly for the well-off kids whose parents realized they either had to tutor them or pay others to do so.

So you think that with this record of failure, particularly with regard to minority kids, that the Seattle School District would change direction? No way...they went ahead and selected a very poorly reviewed reform math series...the "Discovering" Algebra and Geometry textbooks.

Before the School Board made the final decision last spring they and their curriculum committee had voluminous testimony warning them of a debacle ahead. For example,
Dr. Jack Lee, a well-known professor of mathematics at the UW, and someone known not to be an ideologue, wrote a long letter criticizing this series....some quotes:

Regarding Discovering Geometry

"I would strongly discourage the District from choosing this book. It represents a highly risky and experimental approach to teaching geometry, and I think the experiment, while well-intentioned, is unlikely to have the desired effect."

Regarding Discovering Algebra

"these books have far too much verbiage for students to read, and too little in the way of clearly stated mathematical principles. Definitions, computational algorithms, and formulas seem to be stated vaguely when they are stated at all.

The Washington State Board of Education hired mathematicians to review the Discovering Math series and others. Here in a quote from the Seattle PI is what they found:
Can you imagine? They were told the series was unsound and still decided to pick these books. Just astounding.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Seattle Public Schools picked high school math books that are not only bad for everyone, but they are PARTICULARLY bad for the disadvantaged who don't have extra cash for tutoring or whose parents don't have the time or backgrounds to help their kids (of course there are exceptions to this). And they were warned of this, time and time again. This is why we have filed the lawsuit and hopefully we will prevail. Seattle Public Schools have poor discovery books now at all three levels, making it nearly impossible for Seattle kids to get a good math education...a necessity in this technological world. Other districts are getting the message and dropping discovery math...such as Shoreline and North Shore. Issaquah wisely put the adoption of Discovering Math on hold.

Finally, to show you how confused the Seattle School District is in the matter of science and math education, they are about to vote (Feb 3) on a new disaster--making Cleveland HS a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) school and spending millions of dollars to do so. Here they have an admittedly failing high school that is doing a poor job educating a nearly 100% disadvantaged population. Very few are doing well in math and science there. They are going to spend millions of dollars and make this a STEM magnet school in which all the kids will take advanced math and science. What will happen to the current kids? Few are ready for the calculus track. And they now going to bus kids in from all over the city (with all the added transportation costs) when the new district plan is to have neighborhood schools? So the district has basically decided to replace the kids! Other STEM high schools have failed in other cities with similar demographics (see comments by Dan Dempsey in the comments below).

The Seattle School Board is going to vote on whether to spend 800,000 dollars for some consultants to get the Cleveland STEM project going. A total waste of money. With the millions they are going to throw away on this, they could replace all of the bad math textbooks in the city with the good books recommended by the state superintendent of public instruction. They could jump to being the best! But they are determined to follow the same path of failure. Another gimmick. Just a tragedy. And an unnecessary one.

The only hope is that parents let the board know they have had enough. And the fact we have two new and very promising members of the school board (Betty Patu, Kay Smith-Blum), with a very capable chair (Michael DeBell), may make a big difference in overruling the current hapless bureaucracy. Keep your fingers crossed. But first there is Tuesday at 8:30 AM on the 8th floor of the King County Courthouse in Seattle.

Finally, how does this effect all of you? Bad math textbooks and curricula are found throughout the state and nation. This fight is going on throughout the country...and most Education Schools are on the wrong side...but that is another story.


  1. I was just thinking... maybe the push for the discovery method is the brainchild of the Sylvan, Huntington, and Kumon tutoring center owners. After all, if the districts picked actual math texts to use in class, the tutoring centers would not make so much money...

    Of course, I am only joking about that. But it isn't too outlandish, if you think about it. Maybe the tutoring center owners don't want our kids to be bad at math, but somebody does. Somebody in our state government is so afraid of math, he or she doesn't want anyone else to be good at it. That's the only reason I can think of for anyone anywhere to buy into the constructivist (discovery) way of thinking.
    Hoping for a good result on Tuesday...

  2. Cliff, you're my hero on this issue. I can't stand the baloney that they try to pass off as MATH now. When I was in school ~30 years ago (HS grad '85) math was HARD and we had to learn how to do it the right way. Calculators were NEVER permitted in math class, and my two-hour AP biology teacher didn't permit them in her class either.

    If you didn't understand it, you worked with the teacher after school until you did, and the homework piles were legendary... I had an hour of math homework basically every day through high school... in addition to all my other classes. And the homework was collected and graded too.

    I didn't think my math skills were all that special until I started tutoring adults preparing to take the GED; that made me realize that I had in fact learned a collection of advanced skills, though not as much as some of my physics-degree bound friends, and that happily for me, I remembered most of it too. Thanks to my dedicated teachers... Jeri Pechal, Marsha Royal, and a few others.

    Kids who graduate high school with the math they are learning in our public schools here will NOT pass the GED, which is supposed to be the equivalent of a high school exam. The reality is that the GED is "old school" and requires you to be able to understand and perform calculations and some mathematical procedures. All the group-think in the world will not get you through the GED on your own!

    I wonder how today's kids are doing on the SAT? Back in the days when the SAT had a 1600-point perfect score, I got a 1590 -- I missed one math problem. Is that as hard as it used to be, or has the SAT also been dumbed down?

    Please keep us posted on the lawsuit's progress. It matters here in Bellevue too. Thanks again.

  3. You might be interested in this:

    Think of An Inconvenient Truth for public education. Bill Gates is in it and agrees with the findings (imagine the additional expense of importing suitable employees from China and India).

  4. As a retired teacher who taught EVERY grade level from pre-school to 12th grade in my career I can fully attest to the debacle that Cliff talks about in this blog. Discovery math is a travesty. It gives students NO practical math skills for use in life either on the job or in higher education. My wife and I were teaching in Alaskan Eskimo villages when the "movement" came along. What a disaster! Programs like this (it is also happening in other subjects as well) drove us out of public education and into alternative settings where, despite the fact that we made much less money we were able to provide our students with a useful education. Thank you Cliff for the commitment to sound educational principles.
    Mike DeMarco

  5. I haven't followed this issue closely as our family is pretty new to the school system (1st grader right now, crash course in Everyday Math for the whole family)

    I'm trying to make sense of the graph of pass rates for the last decade. When did the high schools adopt Discovery Math? To the naive observer, that graph seems to say that white children have made significant gains in math in the last decade, going from a 40% pass rate to around 70% now. What accounts for those gains? Thanks.

  6. I didn't think we lived in a litigious society. Democracy sucks sometimes but it was never defined as "getting your way" every time you speak. Only that your voice will be heard.

    I wish I could sue each time my opinion was rebuked by elected officials. If the entity refused an electoral mandate,or court order, then yes, by all means, sue away. But this was a decision that people lost in a hearing, not at the ballot box.

    This is probably a crappy math program, but voting out those who approved it seems more democratic.

  7. Hey I'm a long time follower but first time poster. I completely agree with everything you said and I took the IMP program during high school (grad '07) and was completely unprepared for college level math. I did not learn the set of skills necessary for an intro college calculus class, a class that I didn't even HAVE in high school! I don't want any government official to lament the status of young americans' math skills if they continue to dumb down the math/science difficulty. Also I don't want anyone to complain about our academic levels if they still charge us 40k a year to go to school!!

    Anyway, love the blog and am glad you are standing up for Seattle schools and hope it trickles down to Tacoma, where I'm from.

  8. The Superintendent has learned nothing from all this. MGJ has already turned Cleveland into an Option school that supposedly will be focused on Math and Science. Hundreds of students and parents were at the Cleveland STEM open house on Saturday where they watched a video of New Tech Sacramento an NTN demonstration school.

    MGJ has already selected a vendor for the $800,000 contract to guide Cleveland to success. New Technology Network gets the district nod. The district admin claims all 41 NTN schools are successful but there was no data reported from New Tech Sacramento.

    NT Sacramento has demographics similar to Seattle's and fortunately California has End of Course testing for students and an Academic Performance index for all high Schools. A quick look will tell you why the district presented no data to prospective student families at the open house.

    NT Sacramento:
    Here are the California API rankings for NT Sacramento & enrollment:
    Year API ranking enrollment
    2005 : 6 : 240
    2006 : 5 : 239
    2007 : 4 : 236
    2008 : 3 : 223

    API 10 = top ten percent of CA high schools
    API 1 = bottom ten percent
    API 6 = slightly above average
    API 5 = slightly below average

    Normally a high school API varies at most by 1 point over 5 years but NT Sacramento drops 1 point per year.

    Things are even worse in Math in 2009 End of Course testing of 50 Algebra II students showed
    Advanced = 0 students
    Proficient = 1 student
    Basic = 2 students
    Below basic = 18 students
    Far Below Basic = 29 students

    NT Sacramento is spending more than the district average to produce these awful results. Seattle CAO Dr. Susan Enfield informs us that all 41 NTN Schools are successful.

    LA Global is another NTN demonstration school in CA.

    It has been open for three years
    2007 API 1
    2008 API 1

    Remember NT Sacramento is a demonstration school that has been in operation for some time.

    Here are some more end of course test results from NTN California schools.

    At New Tech Sacramento and LA Global (LAUSD) two demo schools as well as Student Empowerment Academy (LAUSD) there are no math classes taught below Algebra I. Here are the percentages of students testing at Below Basic or Far Below Basic for each of the last three years on End Of Course assessments.

    Algebra I assessment.
    2007 . 2008 . 2009
    (77) : (70) : (57) .. Global
    (52) : (53) : (80) . Sacramento
    (67) : (54) : (43) . StudentEmpower

    in Geometry
    2007 . 2008 . 2009
    (55) : (94) : (84) .. Global
    (63) : (65) : (69) . Sacramento
    (87) : (90) : (85) . StudentEmpower

    in Algebra II
    2007 . 2008 . 2009
    (55) : (75) : (82) .. Global
    (79) : (89) : (94) . Sacramento
    (85) : (77) : (77) . StudentEmpower

    The fact that Susan Enfield is talking about Calculus at Cleveland as a graduation requirement shows a disconnect in planning.

    Given a continued emphasis on Discovery/Inquiry math and a cutback in proposed after school funding etc., math achievement at Cleveland STEM will be far below expectations.

    Two more NTN schools will follow

  9. Two more NTN schools.
    BizTech in Portland and Welby New Tech High near Denver School District.

    CSAP Results for Welby New Tech grades 9 and grades 10

    Scale: % at or above proficient
    Grade 9
    36% (2009)
    30% (2008)
    31% (2007)
    32% (2006)
    The state average for Reading was 67% in 2009.

    14% (2009)
    16% (2008)
    19% (2007)
    13% (2006)
    The state average for Writing was 51% in 2009.

    11% (2009)
    10% (2008)
    10% (2007)
    7% (2006)
    The state average for Math was 35% in 2009.

    Source: CO Dept. of Education, 2008-2009
    Grade 10
    39% (2009)
    41% (2008)
    43% (2007)
    15% (2006)
    The state average for Reading was 69% in 2009.

    18% (2009)
    31% (2008)
    The state average for Science was 50% in 2009.

    20% (2009)
    20% (2008)
    19% (2007)
    9% (2006)
    The state average for Writing was 49% in 2009.

    4% (2009)
    7% (2008)
    1% (2007)
    8% (2006)
    The state average for Math was 30% in 2009.

    At Welby …Note that cohort math scores actually decline from grade 9 to grade 10:
    9th at 7% in 2006 -> 1% 10th 2007
    9th at 10% in 2007 -> 7% 10th 2008
    9th at 10% in 2008 -> 4% 10th 2009

    WOW!!! from really bad to even worse. Shows what two years at this NTN school can do.

    Now for Oregon's BizTech

    Scale: % meeting or exceeding standards
    Grade 10
    43% (2009)
    52% (2008)
    41% (2007)
    The state average for Reading was 66% in 2009.

    40% (2009)
    33% (2008)
    The state average for Science was 58% in 2009.

    46% (2009)
    52% (2008)
    32% (2007)
    The state average for Writing was 55% in 2009.

    32% (2009)
    33% (2008)
    35% (2007)
    The state average for Math was 54% in 2009.

    BizTech is classified as "In Improvement" under NCLB.
    The Central Administration sees 1000 students at New Tech Cleveland with 250 per class but at demo school New Tech Sacramento the 11th grade enrollments are only 65% of the 9th grade enrollments.

    Both New Tech Sacramento and BizTech are under 300 enrollment and going down.

    BizTech's peak enrollment was 297 in 2005
    Year 9 10 11 12 TOTAL
    2004 53 47 73 44 217
    2005 109 68 77 43 297
    2006 84 104 67 37 292
    2007 66 81 80 35 262
    2008 89 65 65 60 279

    following cohorts from grade 9 to grade 12 shows:
    53 68 67 35
    109 104 80 60

    Any school Board member who votes to spend $800,000 for NTN guidance on Feb 3, 2010 should be recalled.

    To Improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data. MGJ has never figured this out.

    Nor does she pay much attention to effect sizes based on large numbers of statistical studies.

    Effect sizes reported in John Hattie's Visible Learning.

    Problem Base Learning 0.15
    Inquiry Learning 0.31

    Direct Instruction 0.59
    Mastery Learning 0.61

    Our Superintendent believes in using practices that are inferior and not using practices that are superior. So far the Seattle School Board has bought this baloney.

    Will they still be buying on Feb. 3, 2010?

  10. It's not a question of being litigious but voting out board members -- who may be doing a fine job otherwise -- takes too long. How many kids do we want to lose in the meantime?

    The argument of the documentary mentioned upthread is that the teaching profession has morphed from being a valuable public service to a sinecure. And the fault for that lies with us for not being involved in the classroom. Nothing means more to kids in a classroom than genuine adult approval and encouragement. We've abdicated responsibility to educational theorists who make their bones coming up with new educational methods, no
    matter how well the old ones have worked.

    The educational methods of the 40s and 50s put men on the moon with sliderules. The kids of tomorrow aren't being taught how to make change from a dollar or figure sales tax without a chart or a cash register display.

  11. @Mainstreeter

    Yes, you're probably right that the long term solution could be to vote out the board members. But they may be doing an fine job on other fronts and it's a bit of a sledgehammer, when you might just need a scalpel. It's a fundamental point of Administrative Law that decisions by public boards, such as this, should be well grounded and neutral, with reasonable justifications, not unduly burden minority groups if at all possible, and open to meaningful opportunity for review by the public. I'm sure the lawsuit is challenging the decision for being "arbitrary and capricious" and for implicitly violating the Constitutional rights of poor minority students, in that it appears that the board did not even consider the pile of evidence that these textbooks are unfit and disproportionately impact the learning of lower class and minority students. Without any reasonable refutation of the evidence against the textbooks, this decision would appear on face to be 'arbitrary and capricious'. ('Arbitrary and Capricious' are legal magic words, hence the repetition.) It's by no means a done deal though. Typically the courts side with the local governments, giving deference to their elected decision-making powers. Which is why it's up to people like Cliff to show just how ridiculous and wrongheaded the board's decision was.

  12. Crank..I think you are making blanket statements based on what might be happening in a few locations. Not all public schools are falling down on the job in teaching math.

    As far as using the WASL as a measuring stick for any kind of academic progress...well, I could tell you all sorts of stories that bring the validity of those score into question.

    I can't speak for the Seattle School District. I don't usually agree with a lot of the decisions that are handed down from my own district. Please remember that teachers are caught in the middle of this. My students are most certainly being taught the essential math skills you, and others here, have mentioned, without the use of calculators.
    This blog attracts highly intelligent people who obviously had no trouble learning math. For many children, that is not the case. In fact, many many adults, who learned in more traditional ways, will admit to still being terrible at math. No single way works for all students. A combination of drilling for facts and teaching kids how to apply those facts to real life and analyzing how answers are found is usually the most successful. But that is speaking from 33 years of teaching experience.

    I have not seen the curriculum in question. I understand that the Seattle board can be dictatorial.
    Unfortunately, a lawsuit is going to drain funds from the district that could be used to directly help struggling students.

  13. I would like to caution Seattle on their STEM school idea.

    Here in Oklahoma City we tried a Magnet school approach with major Federal money. North Highland Elementary (99% Black) was one of the schools chosen to be a Math & Science School, with the hopes it would bring up the minority students and get white parents to send their kids too. We also tried the free bussing from all over town and it was a disaster. There was no way to get kids from all over town to school on time. Some kids were averaging a two hour bus ride one way. This quickly had the white and more affluent parents pulling their children from the school.

    The only magnet school to show major gains and receive high national rankings is Classen School of Advanced Studies. It is a magnet school serving 6-12 grade. The only problem with it is, it only serves smart kids. There are rigorous standards for acceptance. So while it helps smart poor and rich kids alike, it does not address the major problems we are all facing with our public school system.

  14. mainstreeter, ideally we could replace the board that accepted the textbook committee's recommendation. The trouble with the board is that they are paid only a token and thus only have a few hours a week to devote to their board service. The result is they tend to accept uncritically everything the district staff tells them. The district staff have true believers in discovery math and make sure they are a majority of the textbook adoption committee. They don't give a voice to people like professors of science and math who teach the graduates of the public schools. The board could have rejected the committee's decision, but the old textbooks were worn out and a new committee would have taken a year.

    But do note that one of the most notorious rubberstamps on the board decided not to run for reelection this time.

  15. Interesting that math gets more responses than cliff talking about the weather. Just like No child left behind we are trying to fix a broken seawall with a patch of silly puddy. Yes discovery math is horrid,but remember where it came from, someone thinking that previous textbooks where contributing to the downfall of math education. I thought only right-wing groups could bring lawsuits surrounding textbooks...:)

  16. After seeing this video,


    it is amazing that any school board could view the proposed curriculum favourably.

    Good luck.

  17. No, conservative/anti-science groups rewrite the textbooks (see the current situation in Texas where such luminaries as Newt Gingrich and Phyllis Schlafly are due to be enshrined in a US history textbook).

    As I mentioned above, there's money to
    be made and papers to be published on educational
    theory and curriculum design. So long as there is an incentive to screw up generations of students on the name of Progress, it'll keep on happening. I was victimized by the New Math back in my day: we went from simple counting and the familiar operations to set theory and allocations all at once and when it fell out of favor, we switched back. I, and probably a few others, fell through the cracks and was lost.

    As a result, I have a special fondness for educational theorists. I'm all for adding new techniques that might help the very advanced or those who are struggling but wholesale replacement is just dumb.

  18. Interesting that at the Cleveland High School STEM open houses they are telling parents that the teachers don't need to use the Discovery Math books as long as they cover core subject matter.

    Interesting that Cleveland High School was where they piloted the DM text books, which showed dismal results.

    Interesting that Cleveland is being dismantled as we know it - with their historical failures - at this very moment.

    Good luck and and really hoping you prevail in this case. Our kids are counting on it!

  19. I have no doubt that the Seattle school system is handling things badly, given the experiences I have had with it.
    But one of the graphs you provide in support of the view that things are not going well seems to show a step increase in both white and black student scores occuring at the end of the 04-05 school year. Is that a sign that some change was made that had an effect? It is also my understanding that national math SAT scores have increased since at least the 1980s. Does your observation of declining math skills at UW contradict that? Also is there any information on how average annual scores of students in Seattle public schools have been doing?
    Thanks for any info you can provide. Part of being a good "progressive" is making sure one's informatin is as strong as one's opinion.

  20. About voting out the board for improvement.......

    Check history the board approved Everyday Math by a vote of 6-0.

    The next election saw 4 new directors.
    Three of these four voted for the "Discovering High School math adoption"

    The vote was 4-3 in favor of this unsound math program.

    Carr*, Sundquist*, Maier*, Chow

    Note the three newbies all had campaign donations in excess of $120,000 each. Maier at $167,000.

    Voting out the board to get Math improvement has not happened in the past. Send your money to Marty McLaren to fund this lawsuit. She has been the person doing all the leg work. She is the person that guaranteed the attorney would get paid. Without her this legal action never would have started.

    Note: Many thanks to all of you who have offered generous support. Further donations are received with gratitude.

    Checks may be made out to Seattle Math Group and mailed to
    Marty McLaren

    7020 18th SW, J22
    Seattle, WA 98106

    Donations can also be made through Paypal for a small fee.
    to mmcl@pugetridge.net

  21. Correction to SPS Mom.

    You said: "Interesting that Cleveland High School was where they piloted the DM text books,"

    I don't think so. Cleveland used a full blown high financed implementation of IMP (Integrated Mathematics Program)with lots of assistance from UW via an NSF grant. Lasted for three years full school years: Fall 2006 thru June 2009.

    This is the IMP that MGJ tried to get past the school board in Spring 2008. In 2009 DM was the board acceptable substitute for IMP. DM has more numbers in it than IMP.

    Take a look here for the Discovering Algebra textbook that was purchased. It is compared with Prentice Hall Algebra.

  22. And as the schools fail, so go the middle class families to the burb's to escape crappy school systems.

    What is amazing to me is that all of this math was known by the mid 1700's. There should be by now a clear understanding of what works to teach it.

  23. Dear 32.5 East,

    The blip up that you refer to is a 15% rise in scores from 40% passing to 55% passing. This occurred when the District required those taking the WASL to have acquired at least 5 credits in Freshman year. Thus students who failed more than one class as 9th graders were not tested and the pass rate went up 15% by excluding those students.

    The SPS has yet to disclose the results from the 2008 PSAT tests given district wide.

    The WASL does not tell us much and the district refuses to disclose anything else.

  24. Why is race part of this discussion at all? That is completely offensive. The quality of the math curriculum doesn't have anything to do with race. If a math program seems to have a disproportionate affect on one race over another then there is almost certainly something else at work other than the math program.

  25. My point too, David. If it's bad, it affects all.

  26. Dear David Bryan,

    I used to share your view as well. Then I read Project Follow Through research results.

    It turns out that kids from poverty and disadvantaged backgrounds have a really hard time with crappy instructional practices and materials.

    What is really offensive is leaving those students without access to private tutoring and knowledgeable family members stuck with the Stuff the Seattle School Board approves.

    Thanks for voicing your concern. I used to see it exactly the same way.


  27. Dear Mainstreeter,

    You are absolutely correct. This stuff is bad and it certainly effects almost all. However, that will not win a legal action against the district for their continued disregard for proven methods and materials for mathematics instruction.

    The continued violation of article IX of the state constitution could well make this appeal successful.

  28. Dear GaryLamda,

    My good friend Sudhakar Kudva, who lives in Vancouver WA but was born in India and graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology said:

    "In India we have been learning math for thousands of years. When something works we keep it, if it does not work we throw it out."

    In the USA we try something new every decade. Apparently whether it works or not does not matter.

    It sure does not matter to the Seattle Central Administration or the majority of Seattle School Directors.

  29. @David Bryan, the correlation between race and socio-economic status and academic performance is not new. Segregated schools, mandatory busing, separate but equal dates back to 60+ years.

    I agree that it's offensive but perhaps not for the reasons you intended. It should offend everyone that the geographic location of a child's school has any bearing on the quality of education he receives. It should offend us that the number of free and reduced lunch students is an accurate predictor of academic performance, tardiness, absenteeism, and dropout rates.

    including race as a factor in these discussions may seem
    offensive but the real issue is that we have to think about it all.

  30. Perhaps there's a clue here: in this documentary, the young hero must take an exam to move on to the next level of schooling. Obviously, he passes though the percentage who do isn't mentioned. In other words, where a boy in a mud house in Kenya sees education as an opportunity (as does his benefactor on Sweden), we see it as an entitlement. We think everyone should to higher ed, if for no other reason than to say we have a high %age of college-educated workers.

    "A Small Act" centers on the life story of Chris Mburu, who as a small boy living in a mud house in a Kenyan village had his primary and secondary education paid for by a Swedish woman. This cost her $15 a month. They had never met. He went on to the University of Nairobi, graduated from Harvard Law School, and is today a United Nations Human Rights Commissioner.


    Couple this with the low numbers of people going into
    the trades and I'd say we have a problem. A diploma is an education and no honest work should be beneath anyone.

  31. i disagree that calculators should not be allowed but my 15yo math teacher gives 2 sections on his pre-cal test: one with calculator the other without, forcing his students to know how to do pre-cal without a calculator. But I could never have passed stats or college algebra without my TI!

  32. MRB,
    The problem is calcuators in elementary school...they never learn basic operations...cliff

  33. Lori,

    About those WASL gains, who knows if they are even real gains. We have nothing to tie it to.

    From 2000-2005 the State WASLed all at grades 4, 7, 10 and IOWA tested all at grades 3, 6, 9.

    WASL reading scores rocketed up at grade 7 during that period, but the IOWA test reading scores at grades 6 and 9 were flat the whole 6 years. The WASL was a lot more OSPI public relations tool than an assessment of instructional efficacy.

    I could cite a lot of other examples from the 2000-2005 WASL - ITBS testing era. Since then it is all WASL with no connection to reality. Seattle has actively suppressed releasing the 2008 PSAT results. Our kids may not know enough but we know even less about what they know because that is the way educational administrators like it.

  34. There is a lively discussion of your blog post between mostly 20-30 year old, smart, computer programmer/startup type people over on this website:

  35. thank you for clarifying on the use in elementary school, cliff. I appreciate it.

  36. Learning math is work, which can be made fun with ice cream for 6 yr olds. They must memorize the basics; no calculators. Then practice, practice, practice. Dumbing down curricula dishonors our youth. "Thou shall not curse our children by making their lives easy." Thank-you Dr Mass for sticking your needles in the baloon of the Seattle School's disfunctional math education program.

  37. So, Cliff et al., what do you think of the Investigations math curriculum used by the Lake Washington school district? It's also used at our daughter's private school (The Little School, in Bellevue). I'm pretty sure it's NOT "discovery math", but it would be nice to know your opinions. Thanks.

  38. Jeff...Investigations is a discovery/reform/fuzzy curriculum and in fact is one of the worst. I mean really, really bad.....cliff

  39. A top kid in TERC/Investgations will likely leave grade 5 with third grade arithmetic skills.

    Go to Singaporemath.com and buy a real math book and accompanying workbook, as used by kids in the highest math performing nation

    Leave grade 5 with grade 7 skills or better.

  40. Part I

    The Seattle district math WASL results from the WA OSPI Report Card for School Year 2008-09 shows that:
    1. 49% of Low-Income 3rd graders (753 students) failed with 30% (468) scoring at Level 1 (well below standard),
    2. 64% of Low-Income 4th graders (948 students) failed with 38% (568) at Level 1,
    3. 67% of Low-Income 7th graders (839 students) failed with 48% (604) at Level 1,
    4. 79% of Low-Income 10th graders (847 students) failed with 43% (462) at Level 1
    (the failure rate of 10th graders doesn’t count the students who dropped out.).

    State wide the percentages are similar but the student numbers are much higher:
    1. 48% of Low-Income 3rd graders (16,742 students) failed with 28% (9,565) scoring at Level 1 (well below standard),
    2. 64% of Low-Income 4th graders (21,983) failed with 36% (13,348) at Level 1,
    3. 66% of Low-Income 7th graders (20,470) failed with 45% (13,855) at Level 1,
    4. 79% of Low-Income 10th graders (18,932) failed with 46% (11,129) at Level 1.

    A primary goal for the Discovery/Inquiry style of math instruction was to make math accessible to the broad range of students. Well, this unscientifically tested program (no large scale random trials with controls) inflicted on the students of WA state over the last 12+ years by Terry Bergeson and dreamy eyed education professors in ivory towers has done, and continues to do, serious damage to the most vulnerable group in our society. An OSPI report shows 80% of elementary school students in the state are taught by a Discovery style curriculum (e.g. Everyday Math, TERC Investigations, etc). The WASL was constructed by Dr. Bergeson and her colleagues in University Departments of Education. So the Curriculum, Teaching Style, and test match. In addition, for 10+ years, Colleges of Education in WA have been training new teachers in Discovery/Inquiry based teaching methods for k-12 math based on a philosophy of learning without testing it using sound scientifically based experimental design and statistical analysis. The reason for this is simply that most Education Researchers have never received any training in experimental design and statistical analysis, a well developed field for the last 40 or 50 years. It is one thing to have a new idea; it is another to put it into production without proper testing. Imagine the consequences if the FDA allowed that.

    The Report of the National Math Advisory Panel in 2008 clearly stated that most of the Education Community does not know how to conduct scientific research. A quote from their recommendations reads, “the Subcommittee on Standards of Evidence recommends that the rigor and amount of course work in statistics and experimental design be increased in graduate training in education. Such knowledge is essential to produce and to evaluate scientific research in crucial areas of national need, including mathematics education.“ The NMAP panel goes on to say, “The Panel’s systematic reviews have yielded hundreds of studies on important topics, but only a small proportion of those studies have met methodological standards. Most studies have failed to meet standards of quality because they do not permit strong inferences about causation or causal mechanisms (Mosteller & Boruch, 2002; Platt, 1964). Many studies rely on self-report, introspection about what has been learned or about learning processes, and open-ended interviewing techniques, despite well-known limitations of such methods (e.g., Brainerd, 1973; Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Woodworth, 1948).”

    continued with Part II

  41. Part II

    "... Despite well-known limitations of such methods ..."

    Is it any wonder that the Education Community lurches from fad to fad, remember the "whole language" fiasco for teaching reading in the early 90's. A recent book by cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, "Reading and the Brain", has a nice discussion of this and how it still lingers today.

    The unintended consequence is that 79% of Low-Income 10th graders will never even have the choice of pursuing careers where math is an essential part of the college course work. Well paying careers in medicine, engineering, sciences, etc. I think it is fair to say that many of these Low-Income students were denied this career option as early as 4th grade where 38% were scoring at Level 1, well below standard. Not many of these students will make it out of this hole to pass the WASL by 7th or 10th grade; indeed 48% are in the Level-1 hole by 7th grade. Yet elementary school students in Seattle are using Everyday Math.

    This record of poor performance among Seattle’s low-income students stretches back 8 years for 4th graders, and 6 years for 7th and 10th graders. This is the record of educational wreckage the SPS administration wants to continue. I think the data speaks for itself, both in Seattle and across the state. Yet elementary school students in Seattle are using Everyday Math.

    It is no good blaming the test, or the teachers, or teacher training, or the professional development. Discovery / Inquiry based learning is a weak method of instruction as shown by both the WASL results and a broader analysis of education methods in the book, “Visible Learning” by John Hattie, ISBN-0415476186.

    The attorney for SPS asserted that the math textbook is just one component in the education system, as if to say it's ok if Seattle students use a poor text book for HS math because the rest of the system will pick up the slack. I submit that the curriculum and textbook materials matter a great deal to both new and weak teachers as well as to the weakest students and parents. Well structured materials with solid math, clear examples and plentiful practice problems spaced out in time for long-term memory development are critical to provide the best support to the weakest of our students and teachers and to enable the best possible home support for all students. Many Low-Income students come to school with a lower stock of knowledge so class time is precious and time efficiency of the curriculum critical. Too often group work has a very low learning payback for the class time spent. I speak from my experience as a retired engineer having spent 600+ hours as a teacher's aide in 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade math classrooms during the past 3 years at a Title I school with 40% Low-Income students, a 50% 4th grade pass rate, and using TERC Investigations. We can do much better.

    Perhaps the Seattle schools curriculum selection committee, the SPS administration and the school board could spare a thought for all the Low-Income students that Inquiry/Discovery based learning has left and is continuing to leave in the ditch.


  42. Hi Cliff -- Do you have a link to the complaint you filed with the court? Wondering on what basis the judge could overturn the board's decision? And what would be the remedy? Could she force the board to choose a different math approach?

  43. Ugh, discovery math. Stuck with for the rest of high school (in Nortshore SD and honors) because we wouldn't learn everything if we switched to the new books everyone else gets (which isn't discovery but something else)

  44. Where the hell are the stats for East Asian kids? There are a lot of children with Chinese/Japanese/Korean ancestry. Why the glaring omission????? That group should not be lumped in with blacks and Hispanics as "minority", because East Asians are at the top, and the other minority groups at the bottom, with whites in the middle.

  45. Rich,

    There are many Federal Government defined sub-groups including Asian, Pacific-Islander, Native American, etc.

    White students are used as the reference because in most schools they form the majority and can serve as a comparison group for WASL pass rates. Asian students as a group often do better than the White student group although the Asian group is not present in many schools across districts. For the purpose of this study only the White, Low-Income, Hispanic or Black groups are shown since that is sufficient to demonstrate both school to school variation and the achievement gaps between these groups. No slight is intended toward the other WASL subgroups: American Indian, Asian, Pacific Islander, Asian/Pacific Islander, Limited English, Migrant, Special Education, Title I Targeted Reading, or Title I Targeted Math.

    None of the other ethnic groups are "lumped in" with the Hispanic, Black or White subgroups.

  46. Cliff - I just read in the Bellevue Reporter that BSD is now considering the Discovery Math curriculum. I hope those reading this blog in Bellevue will also contact the district to try to stop this before any decisions are made. More info is available here New Bellevue Math Curriculum.

    The letter also states "The Bellevue PTSA Council is having a guided tour and discussion of these math textbooks from 7-9 p.m. on Feb. 8 in the International School cafeteria. ... you may write directly to the committee at MathAdoption@bsd405.org."

  47. Cliff, something that would be very helpful would be a clear list of which curricula you recommend and don't recommend, and why. wheresthemath.com unfortunately drops the ball on this -- it's kind of a disorganized site at the moment, and a little hard to extract "what should I, as a parent, do?" information from it.

    For example, of these curricula, which is the best?

    ... [others]

    This is the information I want the most, but wheresthemath.com does not do much to help me right now.

  48. Congratulations, Cliff! It's not the end, but it's a big step.

    "The court finds, based upon a review of the entire administrative record, that there is insufficient evidence for any reasonable Board member to approve the selection of the Discovering Series."

    Conclusions of Law:

    1) Court has jurisdiction under RCW 28A.645.010 to evaluate the Board's decision for whether it si arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law;
    2) The Board's selection of the Discovering Series was arbitrary;
    3) The Board's selection of the Discovering Series was capricious;
    4) this court has the authority to remand the Board's decision for further review;
    5) any conclusion of law which is ore appropriately characterized as a Finding of Fact is adopted as such, and any Finding of Fact more appropriately characterized as a Conclusion of Law is adopted as such.

    It is hereby ordered:
    The decision of the Board to adopt the Discovering Series is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."


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