June 03, 2013

Failing Math Curriculum in Seattle Public Schools

If I was a Seattle Public School parent, I would be getting angry now.

Why?  Most Seattle students are receiving an inferior math education using math books and curriculum that will virtually insure they never achieve mastery in key mathematical subjects and thus will be unable to participate in careers that requires mathematical skills.

There are so many signs that  a profound problem exists in this city.  For example,
  • Parents see their kids unable to master basic math skills.   And they bring home math books that are nearly indecipherable to parents or other potential  tutors.
  • Nearly three quarters of Seattle Community College students require remediation in math.
  • Over one hundred Seattle students are not able to graduate high school because they could not pass state-mandated math exams.
  • Minority and economically disadvantaged students are not gaining ground in math.
Adults are failing Seattle's students and it doesn't have to be this way.  The Seattle Public Schools administration is making little progress in fixing the math problem;  fortunately, there are steps that could be taken quickly that would have major, positive impacts.  This blog will review what is wrong and curriculum changes that could make a huge difference. 

Poor Math Curriculum is Still in Place

    As I have noted in past blogs (and I am hardly the only one saying this), Seattle has extremely poor math curricula at all levels.  Seattle Public Schools is using deficient math curricula in all grades, books that use the discovery approach, which pushes group work, writing essays about math, heavy calculator use, and spending inordinate time on extraneous topics (such as fractals and projections).  Curricula that minimize the development of basic skills and rarely bring kids to mastery of essential topics.

Specifically, Seattle used Everyday Math in elementary schools, Connected Math Project (CMP2)  for middle schools, Discovering Math in the high schools.  These books don't teach many essential mathematical skills (like the use of fractions, long division, geometric proofs, to name only a few) and are NOT recommended by Washington State's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.  The State Board of Education found that Seattle's  high school math series was "mathematically unsound."

Let's consider the Middle School math textbook series used in most Seattle Schools: CMP2.  You would be hard pressed to find much math in it, with pages of prose and more writing assignments than expected in a math book.   One of the assignments is to choose a "favorite" number and write an essay about it.  Local TV meteorologist M.J. McDermott has finished a wonderful video about CMP2...click on it to see her analysis.

Reviews of CMP2 by mathematicians have been highly critical.  For example, James Milgram, Professor of Mathematics at Stanford University noted: " standard algorithms are never introduced, not even for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions; precise definitions are never given; repetitive practice for developing skills, such as basic manipulative skills is never given."

But the book is worse than weak mathematically...it is patronizing to minorities, if not on the margin of  being racist.   The book is full of children of color that are having trouble with math.  For example, Luis does not know how to use decimals (see below).  There are MANY other examples of this.  If you talk to advocates of books like this, they often talk about how minorities are not ready for the "regular" math.  This is simply insulting: all parents want their kids to learn the mathematics required for success in the real world.  Furthermore, such discovery books...heavy on language and writing... are more difficult for English as a Second Language children that have not yet developed the requisite English skills. The fact that Seattle's minority children are falling behind in math is consistent with the weaknesses I outline above and below.

At the Elementary School level Seattle now uses Everyday Math, another classic discovery math textbook that downplays (or ignores) the use of standard algorithms (like multiplication and division), includes lots of group work and writing, and which leaves kids unprepared for middle and high school math.  It encourages a heavy use of calculators in early grades.  As with CMP2, mathematicians have panned Everyday Math.  For example, California State University professor of Mathematics David Klein noted: " In particular the program fails to develop the standard algorithms of arithmetic to support California's requirements for student proficiency in later grades. It also fails to require memorization of basic addition and multiplication number facts at the grade levels specified in the California Mathematics standards."

M.J. McDermott has a viral video on some of the techniques used in Everyday Math (click on picture or link):

An important issue for Seattle's current math books is that they are not written in a way that allows a student to take them home and figure out what they need to know.  You know what I mean:  a careful description of the math algorithm followed by solved problems.  You simply don't find these in Everyday Math and CMP2 in which students are supposed to "discover" algorithms themselves and where specially designed classroom activities are central.  Similarly, parents or tutors can't figure out the lesson and help their kids. 

The current Seattle math curricula is so poor that several schools went "rogue" and moved to better books, at first against district wishes (it is now "legal" for local Seattle schools to change books if they can get the funds).  For example,  many West Seattle schools have moved away from Everyday Math to Singapore Math and Mercer Middle School dropped CMP2 for Saxon Math.

So what happened when schools dropped the discovery math books approved by the District to far better texts like Singapore and Saxon?   The performance of their students soared! 

  • Schmitz Park Elementary got permission to try Singapore Math textbooks in 2007.  Its students’ math scores jumped : in 2010 the 5th graders had the third highest passing rate on the state math test, even though the school has no gifted magnet program
  • Mercer Middle School's Seventh Grade math scores in 2011 on the MSP exam indicated that it had become the best for low income and second best for limited English.
The district has had a huge problem of minority and underprivileged kids doing much worse in math than the rest of the district.  Mercer has essentially solved the problem by going against the district's chosen curriculum.  I could give other examples, but you get the message:  hard quantitative evidence shows that moving from Seattle's poor math curriculum to world-class ones (like Singapore) results in greatly improved math skills for ALL Seattle students.

The Seattle School District Administration

Possibly part of the problem at Seattle Public Schools is that the curriculum leader for mathematics, Janet Zombro, has no mathematics or technical background.   She has a Bachelor of Arts in English, obtained from the University of Washington, and a Master's Degree of Teaching and Education, from City University.  No math degree. No science degree. No experience working in industry where math is important.  Somehow she was allowed to teach middle school and high school math and this gave her the "background" to take charge of Seattle's math curricula.  Imagine a flight training school in which the head of curriculum had never flown.   

A new superintendent started in Seattle last year:  Jose Banda.  He does not appear to be an ideologue like the previous occupant of the office, Susan Enfield, and there was relatively decent math in the district he left (Anaheim).  But he has had enough time to get his district sea legs and it is time for him to act.  This problem is now going to be his problem.  The School Board probably has a four-person majority that would vote in favor of making the necessary changes.
Jose Banda, Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools

The Seattle School District has a policy to evaluate and re-adopt core instructional materials every 7 years.   Middle school math textbooks (Connected Math Program – CMP2) were last adopted in 2006, and elementary school books (Everyday Math – EDM) was last adopted in 2007.  Even on Seattle's own schedule it is time to secure new books, but some in the district want to hold off on a new middle school adoption.  Their excuse?  Lack of funds.

This is really a poor excuse.   Money is already budgeted for the elementary school texts and middle school math books could be funded by changing priorities (like the millions put aside for TRAINING in the new Common Core standards).  Besides many PTA's can help raise money for books and I suspect there are foundations that are ready to help.  I will volunteer to help! The Gates Foundation spends tens of millions on education, including improving math literacy...let them help their own city.

In summary, Seattle has a math curriculum that:

1.  Is missing key algorithms and material.
2.  Is not approved by the State.
3.  Has been panned by mathematicians.
4.  Has have been proven to be ineffective (e.g., high remediation rates in colleges)
5.  Has been shown inferior to superior curricula by objective testing in some Seattle Public Schools.
6.  Is patronizing and destructive to underprivileged kids.

What should you do?

If you are a parent with a child in Seattle Public Schools, you have a big problem.  And if you are a citizen in the city, third-class mathematics education for the city's children is bad for you in many ways:  bad for the economy, bad for our future, a poor reflection of the shining, technologically city we are so proud of.

First, start complaining: tell your kids teachers, principal, and school administrators you want better math books.  Now.  Books that teach the requisite skills and which are approachable for parents and others.  You want some suggestions?  Saxon and Singapore Math are good, as is Math in Focus.  And there are others.

When election time comes this fall, vote for Seattle School Board candidates that support good math.  Sue Peters, is strong advocate of strong math textbooks for our city's kids.  I know she would make an excellent school board member.

Join local advocacy groups, such as the Seattle Math Coalition.
Or WherestheMath.

Folks, the math debacle in Seattle Public Schools has gone on long enough.  The future of too many Seattle kids has been undermined.   Replacing the math curriculum is not the only measure that is needed, but it will be a giant step towards rectifying the problem.


  1. Unfortunately, a similar discovery-based,similarly damaging curriculum, with glossy, expensive textbooks,"Math Makes Sense," is ruining the chances of children in British Columbia to learn basic, fundamental math. Parents or tutors have to teach math here.

  2. The Common Core State Standards is heavy on "discovery" methods. *shudder*
    I teach middle school math and I wonder why we keep asking kids to discover things that have been discovered long ago...

  3. Thanks, Cliff. I cannot believe how awful those math books are. I'm deeply concerned about the next generation of kids that are taught this. I feel so fortunate to have been taught real math in school - I would have never gotten an engineering degree. We have to save the next generation's brains!

  4. Speaking of Madison Middle School, its principal is now changing, http://westseattleblog.com/2013/06/west-seattle-schools-principal-change-for-madison-middle-school .

  5. I used the Connected math during middle school. Didn't learn a thing from 6th grade through 8th grade in math classes. The funny thing is that all the students KNEW that the Connected math books were a waste of time. However, for teachers not experienced in math, it was a very easy book for them to follow.

  6. Cliff - I urge you and interested teachers and parents to check out the JUMP math curriculum http://www.jumpmath.org/ currently available for 1 - 8 math education. Excellent program, low-cost- fun to teach to multiple levels of students and fun for students to learn! I know there are classrooms in the Seattle School District who used JUMP this year as part of a pilot program. JUMP is a Canadian non-profit company--all teacher manuals are free on-line. As a teacher, I've been using this program for 3 - 8th grade students this past year. Highly recommend you check this out!

  7. Bellevue's math situation is a bit better than Seattle's, but they are seeking to destroy a bit of science excellence in one of their elementary schools. Dean Drugge has been recognized as "Teacher of the Year" many times in his 33-year career and he was recently recognized as a local "Teacher of the Week". STAR 101.5 Teacher of the Week

    A vindictive and ignorant principal, Nicole Hepworth, has elected to not renew Mr. Drugge's contract, which will take him away from his classroom of many years and which will deny him the pension that he's earned!

    Consider speaking up here We Support Mr. Dean Drugge or to the BSD 405 superintendent BSD Administration or school board. Cliff, I would be thrilled if you would address this situation somehow... it is a nightmare and it's a huge loss for the kids of Bellevue, so many of whom have become curious scientists in his classroom.

    Here's the proof of Dean's excellent science teaching:
    5th Grade Science MSP scores:
    2011 2010 2009 2008 2007
    WA 66.3 55.7 34.4 44.9 43
    BSD 82.7 71.4 61.6 73.8 71.6
    Bennett 90.0 88.2 82.7 94.4 78.8
    Dean's students consistently get MUCH better scores than the state average and even beat the district scores handily, EVERY year. How can they get rid of this teacher??

  8. Yes, it is poor math skills. Seattle residents cannot see that 2+2 will never equal 5 and so they keep electing Democrats.

    Once in positions of power, bureaucrats like Banda who lean left, always make the same mistakes. We saw the exact same problems with Goodloe Johnson RIP, as well.

    Will Seattle ever learn?

  9. Surely part of the problem is that our schools are grossly underfunded. I find it a shame that parents will take their kids out of public school and spend thousands on private education, but they won't vote for an initiative that raises their taxes to fund public education.

    If everyone who is paying big money to private school invested the same in public education, maybe teaching would be a more desirable profession and we could buy the latest text books.

    I suspect Schmitz Park bought the curricula using donations from a PTA auction, or something of the like.


  10. Montlake Elementary is implementing "Envision Math". Pros and cons?

  11. How/where we can find a current weather forecast for Seattle area by Cliff Mass?

  12. Super important topic, thanks for the specifics and the links for further action.

  13. Odd recording on the radar weather loop, Wednesday night, 21:30 22:05(now about), does not seem to accord with the satellite loop or what I am seeing outside.

  14. I think this is best summed up in the following video from the unparalleled Tom Lehrer.


  15. As a recent student of the horrible "discovery" math system, I can attest to how bad it truly is. Growing up, I was always in advanced math classes. When I got to 8th grade, advanced math meant taking 9th grade math a year early, and the high school used the discovery based curriculum. I instantly went from a top of class student (6th highest in math scores in 5th grade), to barely scraping by a B-, thanks to the help of some class mates that somehow got it. In just a few months I went from loving math and finding it easy to hating it and not understanding anything. A series of poor math teachers didn't help either; if you're going to use this horrible curriculum you're going to need incredible teachers and much smaller class sizes to help the kids that it just doesn't click for. To me, the people that I knew that did well in this curriculum, were already incredibly gifted kids and coincidentally happened to have teachers for parents who could teach them the "standard" way of doing things. Unfortunately for me, the damage was done by the time I went to college, and I majored in communication rather than something in the STEM field. I'm happy where I am now, but can't help but wonder where I could be if my school district hadn't let me down in math/science instruction.

  16. Excellent post Cliff. As a math minor in engineering school (my mother consistently recommended that, no matter what topic I chose to study, that I should always take lots of math, and, as always she was right!). I see this not just in Seattle, but all over, as lack of math skills also means it's less likely for the student to pursue science, as as we know from Bill Nye, science is fun. Not to mention of course that people with strong math and science skills will always be able to find work. They're more versatile, and can adapt to changing situations.




  18. My son's middle school in Bellingham uses the CMP2 curriculum as well. I have had difficult evenings tutoring using the algorithms I know and being told I am doing it wrong, and then failing to help my kid. Grrr. If only there was an explanation of the method they are using!

    I am surprised by how much analysis and reflection students are asked to do, on things they don't really know about yet.

    But as much as these textbooks can improve, I can see the value of teaching the meaning of math. As long as the basics are covered! I learned how to solve arithmetic problems by rote in school and never really understood the holistic view of what I was doing, so I was ill equipped to apply what I learned to the real world.

    Regarding your comments on the discriminatory nature of the books: While I agree that the word-heavy textbooks put English language learners at a disadvantage, I don't think it is racist to show pictures of children of color in the book.

  19. @snapdragon:
    RE: The Common Core Standards are heavy on "discovery" math...
    CCSS.Math.Content.6.NS.B.2 Fluently divide multi-digit numbers using the standard algorithm.

    CCSS.Math.Content.6.NS.B.3 Fluently add, subtract, multiply, and divide multi-digit decimals using the standard algorithm for each

    CCSS.Math.Content.6.EE.A.2 Write, read, and evaluate expressions in which letters stand for numbers.

    Do these look like discovery math to you? While some of the Core Standards address understanding, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. It's important to understand the why behind the algorithm. It's just not the end of math... CMP is awful and I can't wait for it to go, but there's nothing wrong with Common Core.

  20. Help Cliff,
    My son is going in to a highly respected advanced placement program in the Renton School District, but I think they use "Discovery" math and I want to know if you have an opinion on the EnVision Math book series. I looked online but didnt find much other than it appears to be quite popular with homeschoolers.
    Any guidance you can offer to help me:
    a. Assess whether the approach to Math at my son's new school is good quality
    b. Tools to supplement his learning during summer and through school year. I noticed you have a link to IXL on your site. Is this a favorite?

    Thanks so much for all your great posts on Math education in our country. I find them excellent reading and very informative.

  21. Educating children isn't really the author's area of expertise so I'm not sure how seriously to take this, but at least I've been inspired to learn more about the math curriculum being taught to my daughter in Tacoma.

  22. Cliff,

    As a former student of yours, I know your deep knowledge in math and the learning process. Now I'm in trouble ... my son just started 1st grade "Everyday math" Issaquah SD. Even the principles have been brainwashed by Chicago and are saying things like math is no longer what it used to be. 2 + 2 used to just equal 4, but things have changed in the way to look at this with Discovery Math. Huh? The damage starts within the first few lessons. "Draw 2 pictures of something, Draw 3 pictures of something, Draw 9 pictures of something." So we start our young ones out by focusing on drawing pictures or thinking about what would be cool to draw rather than solving number problems. I'm looking for alternate books to teach my son some real math.

  23. Now is our Chance!!!

    Seattle Public Schools seeks members for Math Adoption Committee

    Seattle Public Schools (SPS) is accepting applications from SPS families and community members interested in serving on the District’s Math Adoption Committee.

    The committee will advise SPS on the selection of mathematics instructional materials for kindergarten through Grade 5 students that meet the new Common Core State Standards for mathematics. The goal is to have materials adopted in time for the 2014-15 school year.

    The committee will be composed of mathematics teachers from Seattle Public Schools, as well as community and family members with experience in mathematics and with a wide range of skills, knowledge, experience, and working style. The goal is to ensure diversity in race/ethnicity, gender, school/student population representation, and perspectives.

    Applications are due to the Math Adoption coordinator no later than Oct. 16, 2013. Those selected as committee members will be notified by email or by telephone during the first week of November.

    The Math Adoption committee will require a commitment of approximately 50 hours between November 2013 and spring 2014, including a minimum of four daytime meetings, each running from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Additional meeting dates and alternate times may be necessary.

    The first meeting date is tentatively scheduled for Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, at the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence, 2445 3rd Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98134.

    Those interested in serving on the Math Adoption Committee should complete the application form (Word or PDF) and email, fax or mail it to Math Adoption Coordinator, Curriculum and Instruction, by Oct. 16, 2013.

    The email address is mathadoption@seattleschools.org

    The mailing address is:
    P.O. Box 34165, MS 32-156
    Seattle, WA 98124-1165

    The fax number is (206) 252-0179.

  24. I am a 12 year veteran math teacher. I currently teach algebra and geometry at middle school in the Seattle District. I have taught math at the middle school and high school level in three different school districts in this state. Two of my teaching assignments were at alternative high schools in two different districts. Additionally, last summer I taught at the King County Juvenile Detention Center, i.e.Alder Academy. I know first hand about the math text book controversy both as a parent and teacher. I applaud Cliff Mass for raising the issue of effective math text books for our children. I have heard or read his entire perspective on math education. As a parent and teacher I can categorically and emphatically state that there is no perfect math text book. I teach to the Washington state math standards soon to change to the common core alignment. I supplement my instruction with material, which I construct, outside the text book;deciding to use the book as a resource book versus the only source of math information. The root cause of this country's math malaise is multifaceted and is not vetted to a text book.
    (this list is not exhaustive)
    1. Alter the existing elementary school structure of one teacher for all subjects. School districts should structure their elementary schools to have students taught math by a certificated math teacher who can competently teach at the k-5 level. The question is where does the the state, district and school obtain the resources to permit for such a transformation not to mention concerns by other disciplines about academic equity.
    2. Hire new and train existing math teachers to TEACH "all students". Many math teachers are notoriously narrow minded about whether all students can learn and achieve at a level.
    3. Focus on teaching to the standards vs. being vetted to the text book. In our open and competitive economic marketplace if there was a perfect math text districts would purchase and employ its use. Such a text does not exist! Again, "teachers must teach students the standards" damn this quagmire of consternation about "a book". This is not to imply that there is not variability with respect to math text book quality. A great tool in the hands of incompetent user with equate to its incompetent usage.
    4. Districts and schools should supplement any text with a common core aligned computer based program which provided teacher, parent and student with real time data about student deficits and strengths as well as provide the student with a pathway for improvement through focused and spiraling levels of rigorous practice.
    5. Train math teachers to be compassionate champions of the talents of our children vs. intellectually bullies who break the spirit of our children.
    6. Every school should employ standards based feedback vs. grading, i.e.have a math system which is driven by data and rewards continual student effort and achievement.

  25. I have an intellectual crush on X. Johnson. I am a parent, a former educator, and you've articulated very well how I feel. Perhaps once have I encountered a math textbook series and instructional guides for young elementary students that I thought stood heads and tails above the rest, but it required a skilled math teacher to execute it well. The materials prompted the teacher to ask students "why," explain strategies, debate the merits of several strategies, and really dig deep into the mathematics. Yeah, algorithms are important, but in this series they generally were presented after the kids started to wrap their heads around the conceptual foundations of "the problem." I loved it. But it, too, wasn't perfect, because it didn't cover all standards/content--a good math teacher needed to supplement.

    When I do math homework with my child, I ask those questions: Why? Is there another way to solve it? What math fact do you know that could help you figure out this problem? Can you show me what it looks like with these [beads, legos, buttons, loose change, whatever we have on hand]? We "look" at math in concrete ways, not just solve equations. It's fun. And it's real math. I hope my daughter gets this--and more--in her classroom with a great math teacher.

    As math becomes more complicated and students begin to struggle, it's important to know where the conceptual breakdown lies. Are there problems with basic computational competence? Something else? Competently constructed and used assessments can help identify where help is needed.

    As an aside: I will say I'm skeptical of the use of graphing calculators until very advanced mathematics--perhaps waiting until after high school--until students have a very, very solid understanding of how those graphs are created, until they can do it themselves with one hand tied behind their backs. But that's another post. :)


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

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