June 09, 2014

Some Seattle School District Administrators Are Attempting to Undermine The Seattle School Board's Decision on Math

Some folks don't believe in democracy.    

And it is extremely disappointing that some of these individuals hold senior administrative positions in the Seattle School District.

Last week, the Seattle School Board voted to adopt an excellent math curriculum for Seattle's elementary schools (Math in Focus).  An American version of Singapore math (Singapore is one of the top two countries in the world in terms of math performance of its students) that has PROVEN itself superior in tests at local schools (such as Seattle's Schmitz Park Elementary, see information here and  here).

But several Seattle School District administrators are playing an unethical, and probably illegal, game of trying to undermine the school board decision by encouraging and organizing principals to push for waivers from using Math in Focus in order to adopt an inferior textbook, enVision.

There is a battle going on in the district for quality math, a conflict that will decide the futures of hundreds of thousands of kids over the next decade.

On one hand, there are those who believe in discovery math, lots of writing about math, the use of calculators in early grades, group work, and the belief that the Gates Foundation funded Common Core standards  will fix the failures in our children's math education.  These are folks pushing enVision, and including several Seattle district administrators and "curriculum specialists." (many of the latter have no math or technical background I should note).

Then there are those that believe in direct instruction, learning of basic algorithms, practice to masterly, and basing teaching practices based on curriculum that have been  PROVEN to work.  These individuals are pushing for Math in Focus.  I am sympathetic to this approach and so is the majority of the school board.

During the past 6 months, the Seattle School Administration has overseen the process of selecting a new elementary textbook.  They began by packing the review committee with similarly minded folks.  Then the process was designed to minimize public commentary and when the public comments were overwhelmingly in favor of Math in Focus, they were ignored.

In the end the committee recommended three books, with enVision first and Math in Focus third.  One reason why the committee down-rated Math in Focus was because it pushed kids along faster than Common Core.   Many of the school board members, elected in part based on their platforms to ensure quality math in Seattle, selected  Math on Focus, based on a wide range of objective data and the overwhelming preferences of Seattle residents that examined and comments on the materials.

But as described in the Seattle School Blog, several in the Seattle Public Schools administration have been putting pressure on principals to request waivers to use enVision, in direct contradiction to the School Board decision.  Without telling the school board, eleven elementary schools have begun illegally piloting enVision. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of how Seattle School District administrators have been working behind the backs of the school board.  Some of them should be asked to leave the district if what appears to be happening can be supported with written evidence.

In any case, it is very important that Seattle elementary school parents (and those who will soon have children in them), immediately contact their elementary school principals expressing their strong preference for Math in Focus.  And emails to Superintendent Banda would be useful as well.  And if they are getting pressured by their principals, the emails or notes should be forwarded to Seattle School Board members.


  1. Cliff, as you are part of the UW system, are there not other like-minded people at the University that could be helping raise awareness of this as well? Your blog has a reach that is pretty specific; more voices to get more attention would likely help in this effort. Then again, I do not know how other academics view this issue, as I am sure many learn towards the whole common core/Gates ideology.

  2. The discussion by the school board members at their meeting last week was fascinating. I would like to see the district re-evaluate their curriculum once every five years or so, based on hard evidence and statistics. Part of the reason that the district was able to choose Math in Focus was the existence of small pilot programs in schools within the district that had been piloting Math in Focus. What we need to do now is plan for the hard criteria and objective measures that will be used to evaluate programs the next time curriculum is chosen. Even though we had some criteria this time, they were often really hard to use for clearly controlled comparisons. It is an excellent idea to have some schools use waivers to test programs. Two of the main drivers for the choice of Math in Focus by the school board were that they wanted a uniform curriculum for mobile students moving from school to school and they needed a program that could serve poorer students without as much access to technology. So waiver schools should be selected to be more affluent schools with less mobile populations.

  3. I doesn't make any sense to not use In Focus because it moves kids faster than common core standards. Such backward thinking. Isn't it a good thing if kids can learn more sooner. I hope Seattle does the right thing or I fear very few kids will be able to go on to STEM degrees in college.

  4. A couple of things:

    first, thank you, Cliff, for staying on this.

    Second, as someone watching this (and I attended a Board committee meeting yesterday where it was discussed), I believe it is still not a done deal. The superintendent's letter was very carefully phrased. But Board members were pretty firm in their disappointment so if anything changes in the next year, I predict heads will roll.

    To have people taking such a gamble for their own reasons is deeply troubling.

    3) Way too much emphasis is being placed on the "committee recommendation." I was on a Board Committee and guess what? The Board rarely endorses all that these committees say AND they are under no legal obligation to enact any recommendation.

  5. I agree pressuring principals to request waivers is not right. However, I do believe it's important that teachers and schools have freedom to deviate from district curriculum. While Math in Focus was the selected curriculum, it's clear many teachers prefer other providers' curriculum (or may even choose to use their own materials in the vein of Dan Meyer - see http://blog.mrmeyer.com/).

    Other parts of your post are unfair characterizations. The biggest one is the claim that supporters of a more constructivist approach to learning math also believe in the Gates funded Common Core. This is like lumping the legitimate Common Core critics with the Glenn Beck tea party nut-jobs who just want to undermine public ed. One of the biggest Common Core critics, Alfie Kohn, also happens to be a strong proponent of constructivist approaches to math (and other subjects). There is a strong tradition in progressive ed circles of both support for constructivist learning and opposition to national (or even state) standards of the sort represented by Common Core.

    Moreover, to claim the superiority of Singapore math based on a couple examples is hardly conclusive. Singapore as a country is hardly representative. There are legitimate benefits and issues with either approach and the research (which tends to focus on test scores) is not that definitive. For a thoughtful critique of direct instruction, check out http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/math.htm

  6. Dear Professor Mass:

    Thank you once again for staying on top of this elementary school math text selection.

    We're parents of twins at the B.F. Day Elementary school. We thought after the school board vote for Math In Focus that this story was over. But as you're fond of saying: "Wait there's more!"

    First, late last Friday evening, the teachers were notified there would be an early Monday morning "vote" to determine the math text selection for this next year. Who reads their work email over the weekend, especially after you've been dealing with the kids all week? When I learned about this - I was alarmed and astounded. On Monday morning (yesterday) I told our school folks that this "vote" was being taken without any input from school parents. Well, well well. Last night, late, school parents received an "emergency survey" that was due this morning asking us to vote on whether or not we agreed that the next elementary math text should be aligned with the "common core standards" or not. Now as you know, alignment with common core was the best excuse the MAC used to pick the EnVision text over Math In Focus. I wrote them a nice letter letting them know what I thought of their emergency survey. In addition, I reiterated all my reasons why Math In Focus is the best choice (especially for our English Second Language kids - and our school has a lot of those). I don't know how our teachers voted; however, I believe they were just as amazed and blindsided by this as I was.

    Bottom line - something really stinky is going on here. For a bunch of school administrators to go rogue and try to end run around the parents of this city, the school board, and the superintendent really surprises. A house cleaning with lots of bleach is in order... again, Dr. Mass, thank for your generouse efforts on this matter.

  7. Big Wave...can you send your comment to the school board and Superintendent Banda...this is important...thanks, cliff

  8. I teach in the Highline School District. We have used Math in Focus for three years now and I LOVE the way students lose their math phobia and learn to have fun with new concepts and ideas. Highline brought Yeap Bon Har from Singapore to the district last year. Bon Har really brought the program to life. I would encourage Seattle parents and teachers to support the school board decision. An investigation needs to be done to determine why senior administrators are promoting EnVision rather than a well framed outstanding curriculum like Math in Focus. Follow the money. It will surely lead back to the Gates Foundation or Pearson Publishing. If you really want to let Gates know how you feel please join our rally on June 26th. A very determined group of public school teachers would like to keep education public. http://wabatsrally.weebly.com/

  9. In a previous post (submitted, buthttp://www.pearsonschool.com/index.cfm?locator=PS1zHe&PMDbSiteId=2781&PMDbSolutionId=6724&PMDbSubSolutionId=&PMDbCategoryId=806&PMDbSubCategoryId=25741&PMDbSubjectAreaId=&PMDbProgramId=76981 not yet approved) I said, "Follow the money." The push to put EnVision in the Seattle School District is indeed tied to Pearson Publishing and the Gates Foundation.

  10. The news on this has been through a number of cycles now.

    First there was the news of a possible dual adoption. Some Board Directors proposed it, but the District legal staff told them they could not propose it. Moreover, the District staff told them that it would be beyond their resources, inequitable, and be bad for mobile students.

    Then the Board went for Math in Focus as a sole adoption.

    That set off a number of responses. The senior staff quickly assembled a highly speculative list of what would be cut from the budget to pay the higher cost of Math in Focus. The list is a work of fiction.

    Others organized principals into seeking waivers en masse so they could use enVision. The rationale for the waiver effort was indignation about the District's failure to follow the committee recommendation. Of course, none of these people had ever felt any such outrage when the District failed to follow the recommendations of every other advisory committee ever assembled.

    The real source of the opposition appears to be from district administrators who did not like the fact that their personal choice was overruled by the Board, whom they hold in contempt.

    The waivers were given urgency since the senior administrators told the Board that the District has to place their book order on June 10 (another fiction). The idea was that if the waiver applications were received on the 9th, then the schools could get some district money to pay for the alternative books.

    All of this waiver effort, however, came without any real understanding of the waiver process. First, a school cannot even ask for a waiver unless they can make the argument that the adopted materials don't work for their students. Since these schools had never tried Math in Focus, they had no basis for any such claim. Second, schools have to pay for their own materials if they seek a waiver.

    It is all part of the culture of lawlessness in Seattle Public Schools that none of these people had bothered to read or learn the rules that govern waivers before taking action. They never bother to read the rules because in Seattle Public Schools, the rules don't matter. An excellent demonstration of this is the fact that 14 elementary schools were using alternative textbooks but only three had waivers from the District. Schools don't ask for waivers because it takes time and effort, it creates the potential for denial, and there is no enforcement or consequences from breaking the rules.

    If the District was so concerned about all schools using the same textbooks - for highly mobile students - then why did they promote the waiver uprising and why don't they address the 11 schools using alternative materials without a waiver? Oh, right. They don't really care.

    Then, on Monday, just as the waiver revolution was at its peak, the Superintendent sent a letter to principals telling them to cut it out - for this year at least.

    Now a tense peace has been restored. There's a lot of resentment towards the Board among the senior staff, but it has no legitimate basis. They just don't like it when they can't lead the Board around on a leash. They forget who is supposed to be the boss.

  11. It's been a few years, but these sorts of shenanigans and backwards thinking are what led to my wife and I fleeing Seattle back when we decided we wanted to have kids. Too many higher ups in Seattle's school system always seem to be more concerned with which way political winds are blowing and on preserving their fiefdoms - the education of our children seems at best an afterthought.

    The actors may change, but the script remains the same.

  12. It appears the administrators were successful...enVision adopted for all elementary schools in 2022. What happened?


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

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