March 09, 2010

Seattle, Bellevue, and Issaquah: School Districts Versus Good Math Education

Major Update: Tonight (Thursday night) the Bellevue Math Adoption Committee voted to adopt Holt instead of the Discovering Math series. This is extraordinary good news and one can assume that school board will follow suit. It was clear to those attending that the massive intervention of Bellevue parents was a major factor. The School district received over a 100 comments, most in support of Holt, and a new analysis by Bellevue parent Jock Mackinlay of the piloting data showed the clear superiority of Holt in supporting student learning. Active, determined parental intervention can make a huge difference and it happened in Bellevue tonight. One can also thank the district for leaving ideology behind and using real data and parental wishes as guides for their actions. Now all eyes turn to Issaquah, which is now in the midst of making the same decision. And for me, back to weather!

If you are a parent in cities such as Bellevue, Issaquah or Seattle, your kids are being short-changed--being provided an inferior math education that could cripple their future aspirations--and you need to act. This blog will tell the story of an unresponsive and wrong-headed educational bureaucracies that are dead set on continuing in the current direction. And it will tell the story of how this disaster can be turned around. Parent or not, your future depends on dealing with the problem.

Let me provide you with a view from the battlefield of the math "wars", including some information that is generally not known publicly, or has been actively suppressed by the educational establishment. Of lawsuits and locking parents out of decision making.

I know that some of you would rather that I only talk about weather, but the future of my discipline and of our highly technological society depends on mathematically literate students. Increasingly, I am finding bright students unable to complete a major in atmospheric sciences. All their lives they wanted to be a meteorologist and problems with math had ended their dreams. Most of them had excellent math grades in high school. I have talked in the past about problems with reform or discovery math; an unproven ideology-based instructional approach in vogue among the educational establishment. An approach based on student's "discovering" math principles, group learning, heavy use of calculators, lack of practice and skills building, and heavy use of superficial "spiraling" of subject matter. As I have noted before in this blog, there is no competent research that shows that this approach works and plenty to show that it doesn't. But I have covered much of this already in earlier blogs.

The administrations of three major local districts--Seattle, Issaquah, and Bellevue--are all pushing the Discovering Math series (by Key Curriculum Press) for their high schools. These are very poor books, found mathematically unsound by mathematicians hired by the State Board of Education. Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn did not recommend Discovering Math, but explicitly stated that ONLY HOLT high school math was acceptable of the reviewed texts. I have read through the Discovering books myself and invite you to review them as well--it is difficult, if not impossible, to get a good foundation in key mathematics from the Discovering Math series. Each of these districts are finding ways to marginalize parents and steer the process to secure the desired end.

Parent feedback in every forum I have attended has been overwhelmingly against this book series by wide margins. As are public comments on the internet.


The big story, in the state's largest school district, is that King County Judge Julie Spector handed down a ruling about a month ago, stating that the Seattle School Board was arbitrary and capricious in deciding to select the Discovering Math series. Essentially, she stated that no reasonable board member would be able to pick Discovering with the evidence that they had before them and that they needed to go through the process again. She did not tell them which book to pick, rather that what they had done was not reasonable--something many of us had been saying for a long time. This was a neutral jurist with no axe to grind.

Last week, the district decided to appeal the ruling. Not because the books were good, but because they didn't like a judge telling them that they had messed up. Two school members (Michael DeBell, Kay Smith Blum) stood against the appeal to their credit, but they were outvoted by the rest (except Betty Patu who was absent). A major issue is whether school board members have any real function or responsibility. Are they there to judge whether the district is doing the right thing or simply there to insure that a process was followed?

The Seattle ruling has had a large national impact, emails are pouring in from around the U.S. and the ruling was even discussed in Scientific American and newspapers around the country. The publisher Key Curriculum Press even created a website on the decision that is full of untruths ( A big one is the statement that it is our "contention that offering students of color anything other than a diet of “explicit instruction” is “racist.”" Go to their list of "mathematics professionals" in support of their curricula. The first is Dr. James King of the UW (he teaches math education classes). This gentleman is a fierce supporter of discovery and reform math approaches and set up a web site ("") designed to confuse individuals looking for my groups website (""). And he is a Key Curriculum author. So much for unbiased viewpoints on that website! This publisher is now emailing teachers around the country trying to stir up support for their books.

Interestingly, Key Curriculum Press sued the State of Washington, because Superintendent Dorn only supported the Holt textbook. They lost a few weeks ago. But because of the lawsuit, the Superintendent's office has been muzzled by the State Attorney General's office and is still muzzled because of a worry about an appeal. So Key Curriculum has prevented OSPI (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) from making it explicitly clear that Discovering is
unacceptable. They got what they wanted.


Many look at Bellevue as one of the flagship districts of our state--rich, highly educated, full of high-tech types who value education. Surely, they wouldn't pick a weak, "unsound" math curriculum! But they seem hell-bent to do exactly that.

Bellevue set up a math adoption process (see for their website), centered around a math adoption committee of 24 Bellevue School staff and 4 parents. No math or technical professionals. A parent representative on the adoption committee made it clear to several of us that the committee discussions were clearly biased towards Discovering. They held four "information sessions" in which parent feedback or comments were not allowed (hard to believe but true). They also piloted both Holt and Discovering math in some schools.

The PTSA set up a meeting to discuss the math adoption and invited district reps and parents and others with interest in the subject. A few days before the meeting, Judge Spector ruled in favor of Seattle (see above), finding that the adoption of Discovering Math was done in an arbitrary and capricious way. Hours later, the PTSA president, after talking to district officials and others, decided to cancel the math information gathering. The district offered to set up another meeting, but only if parents were not allowed to comment or provide testimony. Disgusted by this, a group of parents set up another gathering on February 24, inviting the district to send reps to provide their viewpoint. None of them showed, not event the Bellevue Superintendent who promised to be there. But the crowd was huge, with roughly 120 parents in attendance. The overwhelming majority of them were dead set against Discovering and frustrated that the District had little interest in their feedback.

Recently, the results of the Holt/Discovering pilot in Bellevue Schools were released, one in which the students took the same diagnostic test (based on the current, mainly reform/disovery type of learning). Bellevue parent Jock Mackinlay put together the following summary of the results for Algebra (red indicates Holt was superior):

The results are clear. Holt is compellingly better than Discovering Algebra based on this pilot.

There is so much more I could share, but I will leave it at that. Bellevue parents need to educate themselves about this potential disaster and contact their school board members and Superintendent immediately. They will be making the decision later this month. Will Bellevue adopt a book found unsound by the State and which tested worst in their own trials?


Another highly educated and high-tech community, whose administration is determined to adopt Discovering Math. Their Curricular Area Review Committee (CARC), which has no parents on it, voted unanimously in support of the Discovering Math text series and District Superintendent Rasmussen distributed a letter strongly in support of Discovering Math ( Much of this letter is full of misinformation. For example, in contrast to this memo, OSPI only supports Holt, Discovering is excluded. I have confirmed this with OSPI.

Recently, one of the top international experts on learning (Psychology Professor Paul Kirshner, Director of the Learning and Cognition Program, University of the Netherlands), commented on Issaquah's adoption of Discovering Math, noting that that studies of long and short-term memory indicate that such approaches are generally ineffective.
( see

Issaquah now has very poor reform books in the elementary school and middle school level (Everyday Math, Connected Math). If you go to the Issaquah math adoption page you will amazingly read that this is in fact a reason to go with Discovering Math:

"EveryDay Math in K-5, Connected Math from 6th through Algebra 1, and Discovering Mathematics from Geometry through Calculus. Dr. Steve Leinwand, Principal Research Analyst, American Institutes for Research, also works with our district on the Microsoft Math Project. Dr. Leinwand stated that: "For a district using Connected Math, I believe that the Discovering Algebras and Geometry are a more appropriate continuation of the middle school program than the Holt series would be. Holt is a good traditional program that aligns well with a traditional middle school program. I believe that students coming from a Connected Math experience will be better supported by the Discovering Mathematics books at the high school level."

Translation: If students don't know the fundamentals of real math because they have had discovery curricula in K-8, they need to stay with reform/discovery math the entire way through. If his advice is followed, the damage to the math education of those children would be profound.

A good source of information about the math situation in Issaquah is:

The vote on the Issaquah math adoption is only days away, so again, parents need to contact their school board members immediately.

In Summary

Although a number of districts have moved away from discovery math (like Shoreline and Northshore), three major districts have either adopted the Discovering Math series (Seattle) or seriously considering it (Issaquah, Bellevue) even though OSPI is not recommending it, the State Board of Education mathematicians found it unsound, and piloting in Bellevue demonstrated its inferiority. Why such irrational behavior? Because many in the educational community are believers in discovery approaches, based on a near religious zeal. And many were taught to believe it in Ed Schools. Education in the U.S. is in deep trouble, a fact noted increasingly by the popular press and experienced every day by parents. It is the responsibility of parents and for the community to intervene.


  1. I support solid math education and believe that students will rise to whatever heights (or lack thereof) that their parents and teachers expect of them.

    What I don't understand is why so many teachers and school board members are pushing so hard for the Discovering Math curriculum. If it doesn't perform as well in real-world application, what's the appeal?

    I would love to hear your perspective on this, Cliff, as it sounds like there is something weird going on. Is it marketing, or a financial conflict of interest, or just some educational fad?

  2. Cliff, I'm a writer for the Seattle P-I Bellevue City News blog. I'm probably going to write about this issue this week (Thursday). Is it OK to quote you?


  3. Cliff,

    Do you know anything about new math books from Pearson that the Northshore SD is using? It would be great.


  4. Cliff, thanks for the expose. I forwarded your site to several folks in Seattle and a super math teach on Bainbridge where my family lives. Don't know the math instruction method used there but will find out today. Marc

  5. Cliff -- is this what the Seattle School district is currently using? I tutor in middle and high schools, and I can tell you that the middle school textbooks are horrible! The kids are so lost, and they have no idea why they are doing what they are doing.

  6. Ten years ago I was an Issaquah parent fighting this same math curriculum battle on behalf of my then middle school and high school aged children. It's depressing that the same mistake keeps being made over and over again now.

    Our struggle back then emerged when we realized that DOZENS of Issaquah families were paying money for outside math tutoring every week because our kids weren't learning any math in school. Besides the troubling economics behind this situation -- only those who could afford it were "buying" proper college-prep math instruction privately -- was the reality that the successful tutoring was simply an opportunity for traditional math instruction, practice, and drilling for our kids.

    We don't expect musicians to be proficient at a difficult but valuable skill without drills --but somehow we expect children to...? That doesn't make any rational sense at all.

    My husband is a research engineer and he couldn't believe what was passing for math education for our kids. He sees firsthand every day the dearth of American college graduates with sufficient math/science education to succeed in his highly technical field. I am an academic myself and have been hearing from my science colleagues at the university for 20 years now that students CANNOT DO MATH WHEN THEY GET TO UNIVERSITY IN THIS STATE.

    Long story short -- the FEROCIOUS protection of this curriculum by Education administrators remains almost unfathomable, both then and now. It is my experience that these folks are so wedded to the ideology behind the program that they refuse to be rational about the evidence that it doesn't work. It just seems that it SHOULD work...because who wouldn't want to just think about, and write about, and "discover" their own math, right? Doesn't that sound nice? Oy vey....

    So keep up the good work, Cliff and the others who are working so hard on this problem.

    But, sadly, I do expect that until this current generation of academics in Education departments passes on into retirement you will still be fighting this crazy ideological battle for years to come.

    Thanks for letting me lend some historical perspective -- as well as to vent....;-)

  7. Cliff, your energy in keeping after this matter is really admirable. Thank you.

    I agree with your position and share your concerns. My son, a B'vue District high school graduate, managed to get an engineering degree from UW and a graduate degree from Hopkins, but only with difficulty (and some tutoring from me). His HS math was not nearly so rigorous as mine a generation (well, more than a generation) ago. And I gather that most likely the situation has worsened since his time.

    But here's a practical question for you. I can't participate in the public discussions because I haven't read the books, and I'm certainly not about to buy them! Further, while I have a good deal of relevant experience, having taught math in the U. S. and overseas, at high school and college level, I don't have money to contribute--only time.

    If volunteers with time on their hands would be valuable to your campaign, the Where's The Math Web site doesn't make this very clear.

    Question: what can a poor person do to help?

  8. It is truly scandalous that schools of education and pedagogy aren't using any sort of epidemiological methods to test whether curricula are effective or not. Education is just as important as the safety of drugs and medical devices, but doesn't undergo any of the rigorous testing we require for medicine. Or really any other science.

  9. Keep fighting on this! I am disappointed in Mary Bass, who represents my district, for voting for the appeal.

  10. No apologies necessary for this type of information. I come to your blog for weather and math...

    I am fortunate to have kids who "get" math, even with the Discovery books. I do a lot of math with them on everyday subjects and require that they be able to solve questions on their own.

    As for why do school districts eat this stuff up? I think it was Cliff that proposed that most individuals who sit on school boards found math hard in school and blame the curriculum. They want a simple solution to a complex problem. Dumbing down the math program, to them is the way to go so everyone can "get" math.

    Not sure why society want things to be easy rather than correct.

    "... not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win ..."

    -- John F. Kennedy

  11. Thanks for the post, Cliff.
    I have used California's version of "discovery" math (CPM) as a student and have tutors students at all skill levels using CPM and can assert from experience that it is complete garbage. I was lucky my high school didn't have the money to buy new textbooks so they stuck with the traditional ones.

    - Bonnie B.

  12. Cliff, has it really changed? I took the equivalent of Chem 142 back in 1971 and I remember the professor had to waste a couple of lectures explaining logarithms BEFORE he could explain pH. I also had "new math" in grade school. The small percentage of motivated students will still figure out how to get the knowledge. I understand your fight, but I think the trick is to maintain your standards and expectations, so that students know they need to study on their own.

  13. I teach 8th grade math and a class of geometry to advanced 8th graders in a Seattle school. For Math 8, I use CMP2, which is an inquiry-based curriculum that is indeed challenging for parents to help with and for some students to understand. For Geometry, I use "Discovering Geometry," which I find to be quite good. It is VERY different from CMP2. It includes clear examples that students can use at home if they have questions. It is true that there are some investigations to do in the classroom that lead students to figure out some of the conjectures for themselves, but the investigations are great! They make the class more interesting than if the teacher just lays out the conjecture, and once we have finished an investigation we take notes on the relevant material. Pure mathematical homework problems from the book and in-class practice cement understanding.
    I absolutely understand where you are coming from, Cliff, in terms of curricula such as CMP2, CPM, and others, but I have to disagree about the Discovering Math series. My colleagues and I are finding it to be student-, parent-, and teacher-friendly, and the students are LEARNING.

  14. Math is one of the few subjects that has an objective measure of competency, and it's tailor-made to measure the comprehension. Either the student can do the math or they cannot.

    What that means is that math, of all the subjects, scares the hell out of teachers unions. If they do a poor job of teaching this subject it shows and is easily measured and quantified.

    If all of the students fail math it's not a teach problem -- and that's what these books do. They supply a dumbed-down curriculum that results in students testing poorly regardless of the quality of the teachers -- which suits the union just fine. No worries about merit raises when everyone fails.

  15. Keep up the good work. I tried to do my daughter's homework (Bellevue HS, 10th grade) Monday night, and it was ridiculously confusing, and I know some math.

  16. Boy, am I going to get a lot of students to tutor!
    I believe that "Discovering Math" is great for SOME students.
    If we do not want to close any doors for our students, they need to learn skills as well as problem solving.

  17. As a Bellevue parent, we paid for outside Math education for our kid. Who is now in college thanks to our support. But as to those awful books I don't understand who is being paid off but it sure looks like they have anyone but the kids best interest at heart.

  18. Thank you, Cliff Mass for bothering to be so vocal about your opposition to the discovery math debacle. I welcome your thoughts on this and other issues about which you feel so strongly. Cheers

  19. The school board could care less about the kids - proven easily when they support inferior math texts. Says a lot about their integrtity, doesn't it?

  20. Our son is about to enter High School. As we toured several high schools in the Seattle District we made special effort to ensure we talked with math teachers. The results were that the teachers carefully skirted the issue by saying they were having challenges with some of the text and used a great deal of supplementation. They stated that the book is only one tool, and how the teacher approaches the material is more important. We got the overall impression that the teachers don’t like the text and are finding ways to work around it.

    Last summer we hired a math tutor, not because our son needs extra support, but because we wanted him to learn math in a logical way before being exposed to this ridiculous program. After four months in the Discovery Geometry program, we have now taken our son out of the Seattle Schools math program and have him doing a private online school math course as an equivalency course.

    At one of the high schools the principal asked us to think carefully about why we were rushing him through math (he’s finished Algebra I, which we had him do because we were certain he missed some important foundational concepts, and will start Geometry in mid April). We thought carefully about the principal’s question. Was it that we were overbearing parents pushing our child? The answer was no. The reasons we are hurrying him through math at the private online school are 1) he loves math and wants to keep going, and 2) we simply want to get him past the Discovering Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II texts. The Key Curriculum Press pre-calc and calculus books are excellent and it will come as no surprise that they are written by different authors from the earlier texts.

    I am so grateful to you Cliff for bringing this up in your blog. I would never have know about it without your posts. You have saved at least one child’s math education, and both he and I are very grateful.

  21. Kerry asks why so many teachers are pushing so hard for Discovery. As a retired high school math teacher, I can give you my perspective. It is because teachers generally are word-oriented. The are verbal learners. They, even those who go into teaching math, are most comfortable with literature and verbal language, not symbolic language (logic, math). They got through college and grad school writing essays, not writing formulas. Their recreation is reading, doing crossword puzzles, watching plays, and other verbal activities, not playing chess, reading Euclid for enjoyment (he's fascinating and fun to read), or doing logic or math based games and recreations.

    Thus, when they come to teach a subject, because they are more comfortable with a language based approach, that is what they prefer to use. This is how they learned, obviously they are highly intelligent and successful people, so this is how they feel most comfortable teaching and how they think teaching SHOULD go. There's nothing vindictive or anti-student about it. It's just that this is their comfort level, this is their sincere belief in what education is all about. Because writing essays is the way they learned and what they are most successful at, they really believe that the way to learn to solve math problems is not to solve problems, but to write essays about solving problems.

    The real problem isn't with the math books, though they are certainly part of the problem. The real problem is having the language of math taught by people whose core language literacy is in English and not in mathematics.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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