May 18, 2014

Is Mediocre Math Good Enough for Seattle Public Schools?

On Wednesday, the Seattle School Board will consider the selection of Seattle's future elementary school math curriculum.

For the past several years, Seattle Schools has used one of the worst math curricula imaginable, Everyday Math.  These texts, based on "discovery principles", ensure that students don't gain competency in basic mathematics but spend a lot of time in group discussions, calculator use, and learning arcane and inefficient approaches to mathematics.   Districts across the country have dropped it, including most districts here in the Northwest.  A complete disaster for students with objective scores showing that it ill-prepares students for middle or high school math.

So after such failure, you would think that the Seattle School district and its curriculum administrators would want to get it right this time.  I have a story to tell here and will outline some options that the School Board might consider to salvage the math education of Seattle's children, with most important being dual adoption of Math in Focus and enVision math.

To understand what has happened here in Seattle, a key problem has been the Seattle district bureaucrats that oversee curriculum development.  They have repeatedly attempted to push the curriculum choice towards discovery math and have evinced a highly anti-democratic stance, suppressing the influence of community input.  But we are also fortunate that a majority of  the school board (Peaslee, McLaren, Peters, and Patu) have interceded time and again to ensure our students have a chance for a better math education.  Without them we would be lost.

Last year, the district established an Elementary Mathematics Adoption Committee (MAC) and announced it would be open to applications from the community. After the district administrators repeatedly found excuses to reject candidates that were known to support direct instruction (explaining a concept, demonstrating it, and then doing exercises to ensure mastery), the School Board stepped in and asked Superintendent Banda to make sure there was some balance on the MAC.  A few reasonable folks were added (but still a minority).

An initial screening of the available curricula identified 8 programs:

Math in Focus
My Math
Go Math!
Ready Common Core
Connecting Math Concepts
Origo Stepping Stones

As I have described in some of my previous blogs, it was clear that the best curriculum was JUMP math, with Math in Focus (the American version of the justly well-known and effective Singapore Math) a clear second.  EnVision was third, based on its excessive verbiage and attempts to satisfy discovery math proponents.  JUMP math uses an incremental approach that explicitly takes the reader through every step in the thought process. The content is rich, deep, and contains considerably more mathematical insight than the other programs. JUMP math is also inexpensive, without the excessive color graphics U.S. publishers use to hike the costs.

The MAC committee allowed online and limited community walk-in  feedback.   The community online feedback was overwhelmingly supportive of Math in Focus and Jump Math .  The walk-ins went strongly for Math in Focus, with JUMP Math and Go Math as close seconds.

The MAC committee was supposed to select three finalists..instead it picked four, including My Math, a poor choice for a number of reasons (including being an Everyday Math clone).  Even though JUMP math was a clear favorite by the community, the MAC committee did not select it because it did not "align well" with Common Core.

(Common Core is a national math standard devised by the National Governor's Association with funding from the Gates Foundation and others.   It is the latest education fad and there is little evidence that t  promotes better understanding of or facility with mathematics.  A careful review of Common Core math revealed that it is inferior to the current Washington State math standards)

However, the local representative for My Math went against district policy in contacting schools throughout the district and was forced to withdraw.

So we were down to three curricula as finalists.

Math in Focus
Go Math!

and the superior and inexpensive JUMP math was removed. Go Math is a very poor book, heavy on color graphics and very light on math.   Two weeks ago, the MAC committee released their final rankings:

1. enVision
2. Go Math!
3. Math in Focus (MiF)
4. No Recommendation

Unbelievable.  Math in Focus, based on the highly successful Singapore math approach was not recommended.  Glossy, weak  Go Math! was second.  And the mediocre (but better than the current Everyday Math) was first.    Community input was ignored.

You would not believe one reason given to downgrade MIF:  that it advanced students too quickly and thus was not well aligned with Common Core.  You have to shake your head at such nonsense.  The MAC committee was stacked by Seattle curriculum administrators that were not sympathetic to the straightforward, skills-based Math in Focus or Jump Math. The bureaucrats did all they could to to accentuate negatives about MIF and Jump Math, made community input difficult, and downplayed community input when it was given.  They were not interested in the preferences of the community and of parents.

By the way, you remember the front page article in the Seattle Times talking about the miracle math achievement of a low-income elementary school in Auburn?  You want to know what textbook they used? Math in Focus.

So should the district accept a mediocre text (enVision) or should the Seattle School Board do something different?   Many have suggested that the Board would be well within its legal rights to vote for dual adoption: allowing Seattle public Schools to to have the choice of enVision or Math in Focus.

If legal, the board  should push for triple adoption adding Jump Math as an option.   If not, Seattle parents are well advised to pick up some JUMP Math books for their children to practice at home.

So if you are a parent or a concerned Seattle residents, please let your school board member know how you feel, particularly if they are not one of the enlightened four noted above.
Jose´ Banda, Superintendent -
Charles Wright, Deputy Superintendent -


  1. I do not have any kids, so I do not have a direct stake in the decision, but keep on fighting the good fight.

    It amazes me how so many people want to coddle kids thorough their learning, especially in subjects that are more discrete, such as math and science. A whole generation of kids will be useless for any practical jobs and will have to settle for mediocre jobs and opportunities. No wonder so many are pushing to raise the minimum wage. I guess we need to prepare for the next generation.

  2. I'm astounded. After all of that hard work to replace Everyday Math. We had the chance to put in a GREAT math program. What on earth are they thinking?

  3. The MAC had no idea about JUMP Math alignment with Common Core as the publisher only sent the currently aligned texts for grades 4, 5, 6. The grades k, 1, 2, 3 Common Core aligned texts will be ready for the coming school year. The MAC did not even request copies of the current k, 1, 2, 3 texts from JUMP.

    To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data. JUMP has proven efficacy in large double blind comparisons.

    The SPS apparently prefers dealing from a stacked deck rather than using data or actually examining all the books under consideration.

    The NSF funded largely lousy math books for decades and districts kept buying to the publishers delight. JUMP is the most inexpensive and has a proven track record of success.

    -- Dan Dempsey
    Washington State Board of Education Math Advisory Panelists for the development of the 2008 Math Standards.
    I am currently teaching from JUMP grade 8 and grade 6 materials in rural Nevada. The Smartboard files are very well done.

  4. Thank you, Cliff. Jump Math really appealed to me when I reviewed the materials last year. Math in Focus was my second choice. EnVision did not make the cut for me.

  5. When my daughter was learning division in 4th grade it was the longest most complicated way I could imagine doing it. She is in 6th grade now and is in honors math but still has trouble dividing. Also why don't they teach the times tables. Multiplication is taught in a random way. No reciting of times tables though some teachers did it at the end of class, to their credit. If they know 6 X7 equals 42 they don't understand that adding 7 to 42 equals 49. All mustiplication is learned in a random way. Go Cliff.

  6. At our Shoreline school, my daughter has an envision text book. Some of the word problems are rather convoluted and well, poorly worded. So this observation is consistent with the "excessive verbiage" comment. With the discussions from Cliff on Seattle, I wondered what evidence there was to support envision-- as it seems to be popular. So why is it popular? And Cliff, being an academic, what are some peer-reviewed references to support your position? i.e. if I'm going to goto a principal, the Shoreline school board or to the new Shoreline superintendent, and argue this isn't the best text book, I'll need a good case supported by reputable literature.

  7. I taught my child with Singapore Math, and advanced her a year over one school year + a summer. The books are excellent, very clear, and also very inexpensive. If you have the time or a tutor it's well worth doing, even if your child is getting As in math in Seattle Schools.

  8. One or more Board members may add an amendment after this motion is made on Wednesday (they are unlikely to make an amendment Wednesday and none are posted so far).

    I suspect this will indeed happen.

    The Board needs to hear from parents about what THEY want.

    I note that the motion also seems to limit the ability for schools to get a waiver to use other curriculum. Other schools have been using Singapore and Saxon math curriculum to great success but the district seems determined that all schools must use the same curriculum.

    Blame the ridiculous Common Core for this.

  9. Thanks very much for an excellent blog, Cliff.

    I teach math at Ballard High in Seattle, and I'm tired of having large numbers of students in high school who can't do basic arithmetic (times tables, and often even addition tables, simplifying, adding, and multiplying fractions, etc.), and I want improvement! I know what elementary and middle school kids need to learn, and I know what they're not learning. I want the best math texts we can get!

    I have been using and promoting use of explicit math instruction (often called direct instruction) for years. I have been successful, based on the scores of my students on state tests and AP Calculus tests, and there are many other examples in our area of tremendous success using explicit instruction.

    I'm upset with the recommendation of the adoption committee. First of all, the composition of the committee is suspect. I applied and wasn't selected; I suspect that the administration simply didn't want people like me on the committee. I think that they didn't want the kind of recommendation that I would make (and that the School Board would like).

    Second, the School Board policy calls for consideration of public input. Well, perhaps the committee did "consider" it before they disregarded it. I agree with the majority of the public input, and I provided some of it; I wanted Jump Math or Math in Focus.

    Third, the School Board policy calls for the adoption to be based on benchmarking from similar districts and other sources. The committee didn't consider benchmarking (other than comments from some committee members who were personally familiar with some situations). There is lots of data available from schools around here that supports use of explicit instruction materials. The committee has excuses for not using that or other data, but the Board called for them to use it!

    Directors Peters, Patu, Peaslee, and McLaren want to do what their constituents elected them to do. I want that too! A dual adoption of Envision and Math in Focus is the best we can do under the circumstances. If, as Cliff suggests, they could add Jump Math to the mix, that would be even better!

  10. The Drennans -

    there are 2 sets of research you can do, both will take work.

    I.) google around on what Professor Mass and dan dempsey have done online for the last 4+ years - you will find lots of links to lots of good stuff.

    II.) look at the test results for these various state math exams, broken out by income. poor kids from reformie districts do horribly on these tests when they're force fed reformie math. (Seattle!)

    finally, know your audience. if you're trying to put together a persuasive case with a bunch of reformies, I'd stick to the 2nd set of research and I'd attack the reformies as more interested in their own out of touch careers than dealing with reality - they have plenty of their phake education 'research' to back up their phake reality of ... ha ha ha ...higher order thinking.


  11. Here is my data point: just sent my comments to the school board member for my area and received a swift and dismissive reply. So much for a public process. He basically said they chose the curriculum that best aligned with the common core (while admitting none of the options perfectly align), and a dual option is too expensive. Period.

    Please contact your school board member!!! Particularly if it is Martin-Morris. He apparently need to hear more from his constituents.

  12. Tara,
    Martin-Morris has been a very poor school board member in many ways and has consistently been on the wrong side of the math issue....cliff

  13. Thank you Dr Mass. Your efforts to help Seattle children learn math have been tireless. Everyone reading your blog needs to email the Seattle School Board members and urge them to vote for inclusion of the Math In Focus text.

  14. I also sent a comment to all school board members, and received just one reply: a swift dismissal from Mr. Martin-Morris, saying the same thing he told Tara, and arguing that dual adoption wasn't feasible because kids move around between schools and it wouldn't work to have two different books.

  15. I also received the swift dismissal from Mr. Martin-Morris, saying exactly the same thing previous comments mentioned. I responded that if dual or triple adoption is not feasible, they why not just implement single adoption of Math in Focus or JUMP? That would seem to be a better option anyways, as it ensures that all elementary students get good math textbooks. I got no swift reply to my reply, however ...

  16. Has anyone "followed the money" to find out where possible kickbacks, payoffs, or conflict-of-interest-cash has flowed, i.e., audited the board members? Making that many bad decisions, for that long, smacks of either weapons-grade ideology-driven stupid, or ordinary Old-City Corruption.

  17. Never attribute to malice (or corruption) what can be adequately explained by incompetence (or stupidity).

    I expect the level of thought with these members amounts to this:
    1. "Bill Gates is smart and also very rich"
    2. "Bill Gates wants Common Core, and he is rich and smart so he must be right"
    3. "Which textbooks would Bill Gates want us to have?"

  18. This is another reason why we need better math instruction:

    The US falls behind most developed nations, even when you correlate for family income.

  19. As a parent at Schmitz Park Elementary, I am fighting to protect Singapore Math at our school. I am in opposition to the Math Adoption Committee’s recommendation to implement the enVision Math Program as the new math curriculum for all elementary schools and strongly support the continuation of our Singapore Math-based curriculum and the rigor it has created for our students.

    In 2007, our teaching staff determined Singapore Math was the best way to teach math. We are proud to be a part of a community who identifies Mathematics Mastery as a key element in elementary education. Our families, past and present, have supported the development and advancement of Singapore Math for our children. This commitment has required persistent fundraising and we are incredibly fortunate that through the generosity of families, and later the District, we have grown this program at Schmitz Park into what it is today.

    As a PTA, we have asked the Board Directors and District Staff to support our choice and respect the investment we have made in Singapore Math at Schmitz Park and take action on one of these alternatives:
    1. Reject the Math Adoption Committee’s recommendation of enVision and adopt Math in Focus as the new K-5 Math Curriculum.
    2. Approve a Dual-Adoption giving schools the choice to implement enVision – OR – Math in Focus
    3. Amend Policy No. 2020 on the Waiver of Basic Instructional Materials to allow schools using, or desiring to use, a Singapore Math-based curriculum like Math in Focus and ensure funding will be provided from the district to support an approved alternative math curriculum.

    Schmitz Park has worked hard for 7 years to build, develop and achieve the results we see year over year. Those results were hard earned and completely driven by the passion of teachers and the buy-in from parents who believe in Singapore Math. Imagine what all schools could accomplish with support from District leaders.

    Depending on the final vote, our fight may continue past June 4th.

  20. I don't think that mediocre math is good enough to teach kids the right way to solve math problems. I think, this is the right time for them to focus on Singapore Math.


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