May 17, 2011

Seattle Schools Lawsuit, Enfield, and Common Core

I would like to update you on the math lawsuit against Seattle Public Schools, reveal an interesting encounter with Seattle Superintendent Susan Enfield, and tell you the depressing tale of our state's math curriculum.

As many of you know, I was involved in a lawsuit against Seattle Public Schools with two other local residents, Martha McLaren and DaZanne Porter, over problems with Seattle's adoption of the Discovering Math series. This math curriculum was found to be"unsound" by the WA State Board of Education and is a very poor discovery-type math text (students are not taught concepts but must "discover" them for themselves, lots of calculators, little learning of basic skills). The Seattle School Board adopted them, knowing about the problems and without a proper review.

In Feb. 2010, King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector ruled in our favor, finding the School Board's decision to be "arbitrary and capricious." She instructed the board to review their decision. All they had to had to do was to go through a thorough review of these books. The District refused and decided to spend many thousands of dollars in appealing the case. Just amazing--that money was critically needed for student support. The Court of Appeals did in fact overturn Spector's courageous decision, based on the usual reticence of the courts to get involved in educational decisions.

Although our lawyer felt our case was sufficiently strong that we might prevail in a further appeal, we decided not to proceed with a lawsuit and instead put our resources into getting at one of the sources of the problem--the dysfunctional, rubber-stamping school board running the Seattle School District. Furthermore, we did not want the district to waste any more money on the lawsuit. Two of the school board members who voted for the bad math books--with clear knowledge they were unsound and damaging to students-- are Peter Maier and Sherry Carr. They should NOT be reelected. (Note--some of the most recent additions to the Board show substantial promise: Directors Patu and Smith Blum--and Director DeBell was a leader in trying to stop the bad math). Replacing a few of the bad apples could result in a far more active and functional board.

During the past few months, the ineptness of the current school board and the administrators they have selected have been amply demonstrated, requiring the firing of Marie Goodloe Johnson, the past superintendent. Their poor choice for interim superintendent (Susan Enfield) is now in trouble, having fired and now forced to rehire the principle of Ingraham High School.

Cartoon courtesy of David Horsey and the Seattle PI.

Now here is a story that has not been in the newspapers. Several parents involved in improving math education secured a meeting with Susan Enfield BEFORE the Discovering Math books were selected. At that time she was the chief academic officer of the district. They told her about all the weaknesses of the books and reviewed objective studies that demonstrated that they are particularly damaging to minorities and English As a Second Language learners. She listened and smiled and did nothing. Thus, it is extraordinarily hypocritical that she decided to fire Ingraham HS Principal Floe for poor math scores at his school (which has a large minority population) since she KNOWINGLY allowed a book that preferentially damages such groups to be used district wide. What is also not well known is that Principal Floe has been open to using good math books in his high school, rather than using the fuzzy, discovery texts preferred by the central administrative offices of the Seattle School District.

I can't help but ask the following question: if Martin Floe deserved to be fired for the supposed lack of performance of his high school, shouldn't the Chief Academic Officer of the district (Susan Enfield) have been fired for the overall district-wide stagnation of academic performance, particularly of lower-income students? Why does the buck stop at the principals' door and not at the door of higher (and very high price) administrators like Enfield and her associate Bree Dusseault?

My only hope is that recent demonstration of management and oversight incompetence by the Seattle School District will result in the replacement of School Board members Maier and Carr with people willing to ask questions, and the replacement of the Interim Superintendent Enfield and her equally incompetent, management staff (like Bree Dusseault who recommended the firing). Then the district can take some positive steps like replacing the math textbooks for K-12, since all of them are hopelessly fuzzy and poor.

Finally, some have asked what has happened with the Common Core standards. I am sad to note that the State legislature has done nothing, which means (as a result of legislation passed last year) that our state will now adopt the new "national" standards. Not standards created by a Federal agency and carefully tested to prove their worth. Rather, standards that were created by a group empowered by the National Governor's Association and the State Superintendent's association, and strongly pushed by the Gates Foundation. These standards have major problems (such as being nearly unreadable), have never been tested in the classroom, and associated assessments do not exist. Furthermore, we are now scrapping the new, and quite good, math standards we just adopted--standards that cost our state over 100 million dollars . Finally, we have essentially given up local control of our educational standards to individuals that are not responsible to anyone.

My group,, has talked to several state legislators who sheepishly admitted they are very uncomfortable with their votes, but that it was highly political, with the Governor, the Obama administration, and well-connected/well-financed foundations supporting this agenda. Not long ago, the Gates Foundation was pushing small schools as a solution to student learning. After wasting hundreds of millions of dollars, they admit it didn't work. Now it is Common Core standards. Don't get me wrong--strong, well-written and well-tested national standards could be useful models for the nation. Common Core is not those standards.

Well, all of this education stuff is getting depressing! I need to get back to weather. But I wonder sometimes that great nations have a self-destruct mechanism and that our educational system is a reflection of that. Our education industry is so sick-- Ed Schools that follow trendy, unproven ideas, teacher's unions that work against accountability, school districts that don't let empirical information on program effectiveness guide their work, school administrators without the experience and knowledge to know what they are doing (like here in Seattle!), school board members without the time and tools to oversee complex district activities, and much more. Grade inflation and "don't damage their ego" approaches to student learning have allowed an atrophication of student attitudes and initiative. Other nations are doing a far better job than we and we refuse to learn from them.

Just so sad and so unnecessary. We could do so much better.


  1. I have been somewhat encouraged by Susan Enfield so far, though it would be hard *not* to find her an improvement over her predecessor. And while she may have allowed those textbooks to be implemented, I wonder how these decisions get made and how much power any one person, even the chief academic officer, has.

    There is a lot to unpack, between your comments and the letter that went out from Sup't Enfield about Ingraham, especially about the whole business of assessment and evaluation. We say these tests are to measure student achievement but too often they are interpreted as an assessment of a school or district, including (especially?) the teachers. Given the variables in the student populations across a large district, how accurate are these exercises?

  2. Awful. Between terrifyingly expensive healthcare and schools that seem to be hopelessly broken, I'm surprised anyone has kids in the US.

  3. Schmitz Park Elementary was in the news in April for winning a Washington Achievement Award, with additional honors in math achievement. The interesting element is that they do are not using the same math program as the rest of the district...

  4. Cliff, hats off to you! You hit the nail on the head.

    I'm glad to see that there are some out there that understand the issues facing our education system.

    I don't want to outright say that our education system in this country is a joke, but there are many times where I'm left scratching my head in amazement.

    As you noted, there are several areas where our schooling system is failing.

    The goal of the system is to produce well educated individuals who can succeed in the real world. If that is not happening, then we need to discover what the cause is. As you've noted, there's no one cause of these issues. It's not just teachers, students, or testing, but also the policies, curriculums, and some of the people running the districts. If we do not address ALL of these issues, and put politics aside (for the love of all that is good can we PLEASE put politics aside), then we are doomed to fail.

    If we, as a nation, plan to have any success in the future, it is time that we start taking education incredibly serious. Without an educated population, what do we have to offer? How do we plan to compete in the world?

  5. Thanks for writing this, Cliff. On replacing current Seattle school board members, what is your opinion of the challengers that have announced so far? Anyone you and the Seattle Math Group will choose to endorse?

  6. Clif, We don't hear much about Fukushima any more. It sounds like they were looking at meltdown conditions within a day of the earthquake, but failed to disclose promptly.

    Would you care to comment on this paper?

    Atmosphere-Ionosphere Response to the M9 Tohoku Earthquake
    Revealed by Joined Satellite and Ground Observations. Preliminary

    Dimitar Ouzounov, Sergey Pulinets, Alexey Romanov, Alexander Romanov,
    Konstantin Tsybulya, Dimitri Davidenko, Menas Kafatos and Patrick Taylor

  7. Here's something that will depress you further. Way back in 1969, my school adopted 'new math', in which they tried teaching nine year olds set theory. My math understanding and grades plummeted because I wasn't ready for it and I never recovered. My last math score in high school was a solid D in geometry, and I never took another math class.

    Math is key to everything. I daresay that had I had a good understanding of math, I would never have dropped out of college and I would have taken a degree, probably in engineering. My major was going to be industrial design, but I think that was largely due to it not requiring math. Maybe I'd be working on solving the world's energy needs right now. As it is, I'm fifty-one and can't find a job because I have no sheepskin.

    Math is key. Good luck with your fight, but in the meantime, get a tutor or your children may never recover the loss of a proper skill base. I sure wish I had had one.

  8. I think Bree Dusseault's name is misspelled in this article.

  9. On a tangent...

    The board has heard lots of push-back from parents and teachers regarding the MAP assessment. It is not useful for teachers, disruptive, unreliable, etc. (Did you know that for many kids, expected growth is less than the standard error? But that the district staff, in the words of former Broad resident Jessica DeBarros, claims that the district has found a way to reduce standard error from what the NWEA claims it to be? Is that credible? Not to me.)

    So at the latest strategic plan workshop, the board was pushing back against MAP and the district's response from Mark Teoh, head of assessment, was that its main use was comparing schools to see what works. Well, how about that.

    If that were really and truly the case, then more focus would be on Schmitz Park math scores, eh?

  10. Please don't relent a whit in your vital math education efforts, Professor! It's deeply appreciated among those of us that have long understood the unexplained validity of Twain's famous saying, (probably already quoted here often?):

    "In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards." --Mark Twain, "Following the Equator"

  11. Cliff, I took on the job of teaching algebra to some advanced 8th-grade students this year as a parent volunteer. I was horrified at the "Connected Math" books the middle school uses, and the "Discovering" algebra book was marginally better but still pretty awful. I wound up teaching pretty much without a textbook. For future reference, do you have a suggestion (or several suggestions?) for a high-school level algebra text?

  12. Why does Washington/Seattle keep voting for Democrats? Honestly? Track record of failure on education matters + empirically less likely to deal with the litany of issues you ended your post with...

    We all know the Democrats will never let any of the litany of issues you end your article with be addressed. They’ve had 10+ years of majority or super-majority rule in the state and have used that power to move us farther away from solutions and in fact re-entrench the issues you cite.

    Would charter schools and/or school vouchers really NOT be better than this? Wouldn’t trying some Republican ideas and leaders for even one term be an interesting experiment?

    Or am I doomed to live forever amongst a set of people who cite obvious problems and then elect people who have proven track records of doing nothing about them?

  13. I am a high school sophomore in honors math and having to take an end of course exam, a part of HSPE and graduation requirements in less than a month. There are two different exams in my grade, geometry and algebra 1. My math teacher didn't know who would be taking which exam until a couple weeks ago and even then she keeps finding out more about what's on it.

  14. Why bother?

    I mean, seriously, the Seattle School District is fundamentally damaged and broken. There's no way they'll bother to do the right thing, or improve things. It's a good old boys network of cronyism and nepotism. They have no interest in doing what's best for students.

  15. I loath fighting with bureaucrats because in the end most of them don't seem to care. I rather choose to make little improvements. Minorities, as Cliff mentions, are hurt more by this math policy. If you can afford it, opt out of the system. There are lots of good private schools where your voice can be heard. If you can't do that, donate to groups that work for better schools and help minorities: The Seattle Foundation, The Fulcrum Foundation, or the church/local school of your choice. Go to local meetings. Get involved at the "rubber meets the road" level. I'll leave the high profile fighting for Cliff.

  16. Thanks for bringing this issue into the spotlight. I'm a 'former student' of the new math from elementary school all the way to high school (Redmond High 2003) and I can't do simple math because I was taught to use my calculator. Even in college I had to take remindal courses just to place in 100 level classes! Even my dad a civil engineer (PE) tried to teach us kids math a home, but we were told at school that the way he showed us how to solve problems was 'incorrect' because it didn't follow the text book. But we still got the same answers? But they were 'considered' wrong! Lesson learned, teach your kids yourself, and learn the basic math facts.

  17. @Josh Hayes:
    There are many poor textbooks around, especially at that level. I personally thought
    Precalculus: Mathematics for Calculus by James Stewart was a pretty decent text around that level (I used the 4th edition, but I imagine they're all pretty similar). It might be a little more advanced than you're looking for, but when it comes down to it, precalc. and algebra are essentially the same. I wouldn't call it my favorite text of all time, but it's a very solid text and *way* better than any math text I've seen in use in a public school. Stewart is well known for his calculus textbooks (UW uses his texts in the intro. calc. series); if you're familiar with those, it's a similar format.

  18. Cliff - Thanks for continuing to fight the good fight and for exposing the truth of what is going on at the district level.

    I'm in the Olympia School District and the board members are just as apathetic here as they are in the SPS. A few years ago (during the adoption of CMP2) two board members asked questions and spoke up about the potential problems with CMP2 (which were pointed out by parents and swept under the rug by district administrators). They were vilified by the superintendent, district administrators and other board members. A few months after the adoption they both stepped down and their positions were filled by two "yes" board members. The appointed members are both intelligent and I know they question things (not out loud) but they don't want to rock the boat and ask questions.

    I hope you are able to get some good Board members in SPS who will actually represent their constituents.

    @Mason - good luck on the math HSPE. My daughter is a sophomore and is in pre-calculus and she has to take the test in Algebra 1 (she took it in 7th grade--three years ago!). As long as they actually test math skills you and my daughter should be okay but with state assessments, you never know what will be on the tests. My older daughter had car insurance and "write how you would describe a math worksheet over the phone to a friend who missed class" questions on the math WASL a few years ago. Neither question required any math skills and they were on the section that allowed the use of a calculator :(.

  19. While I have the highest respect for Mr. Mass, his achievements, and his right to express his opinion, I thought this was a weather blog...

  20. @Just AboveNOAA -

    Another quote from Mark Twain:

    "The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right."

    The bureaucrats and legislators of this state have shown themselves to be a clear and present threat to the future of your kids. Deal with them as such if you want your kids to have a fighting chance.

  21. Cliff, I was just thinking about you yesterday when I was reading the TED post with Conrad Wolfram:

    Any thoughts about this? Some of what's he's saying points to validation of your issues as a university professor, but then he also suggests that traditional math needs to be moved in a more conceptual direction. Castles in the sand if you don't have foundational math knowledge.

  22. "Patrick" from May 18 at 9:54 AM, the dysfunctional reform movement and miserable watered-down self-discovery math is not a Republican or Democratic issue. People on both sides are from both parties.

    Incidentally, charter schools have been shown to produce no better test results than public schools, and most are a bit worse. See the study at

  23. Keep at it Cliff, we need to know about this stuff! I'm glad people are taking a stand on issues like this and working for change.

  24. Hello.
    Yes, the math program in Seattle Public Schools is weak. I can tell it because I experienced it by myself.
    I started attending a school in 2008. Since I was from another country, my counselor first registered me for a statistics class. Since I didn't know English well, the class was hard for me, so I asked him to change my class. Eventually I got a very simple math class, in 12th grade. The concepts taught in that class were extremely simple and non-challenging. Well, they weren't concepts, they were "stories". The whole math was about silly stories where I had to find how much Jake owes to John or something similar. I would be fine with that, but we were on each new subject for a month or sometimes even more, which wasn't necessary at all. I regret that I didn't take a different class where I could actually learn something, but that period was too stressful for me and I was too disoriented. And yes, I was a senior when I took that class. In the country where I'm from, we learned these kinds of concepts in 8th-9th grades.


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