Lawsuit Against Seattle Public Schools

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On Tuesday, January 26th, at 8:30 AM, King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector will consider an appeal by a group of Seattle residents (including yours truly) regarding the selection by Seattle Public Schools of the Discovering Math series in their high schools. Although this issue is coming to a head in Seattle it influences all of you in profound ways.

In this appeal we provide clear evidence that the Discovery Math approach worsens the achievement gap between minority/disadvantaged students and their peers. We show that the Board and District failed to consider key evidence and voluminous testimony, and acted arbitrarily and capriciously by choosing a teaching method that was demonstrated to produce a stagnant or increasing achievement gap. We request that the Seattle Schools rescind their decision and re-open the textbook consideration for high school.

By selecting the Discovering Math Series, the Seattle Public Schools chose a deficient mathematics program, based on the "reform" or "discovery" approach. In fact, they are using discovery math at elementary, middle school, and high school now. In this approach math is substantially dumbed down for "equity" reasons and students are asked to discover age-old principles on their own. "Direct instruction"--that is the teacher telling the students the best approach--is frowned on, calculators are brought in very early in elementary schools, group learning is pushed, and students are encouraged to play with objects (manipulatives). But most important of all...there is no evidence that this new age approach to math education works...and plenty to show it doesn't.

How bad are things in Seattle? Very bad. Below is a table of the 5-year average pass rate for the math WASL exam at three grade levels (thanks goes to David Orbits for preparing all the graphs and tables in this blog). And remember the WASL is an easy, dumbed-down exam to start with, with the 10th grade exam testing 7th or 8th grade material. You will notice a huge difference in the performance of minority and low-income students versus their white peers. And keep in mind that the 68% percent pass rate for the white kids is nothing to brag about. Many end up at the UW without the capacity to do college math. And less than 18% of the black children are passing the exam in 10th grade, and only about a quarter of the kids on subsidized meals are securing satisfactory scores. This table, and a graph based on it below, show another serious issue--student performance gets worse as they proceed through school--particularly for black and low-income students.

But if you think this is bad, take a look at the trends, and particularly the difference in the 10th grade WASL pass rate for white and black students. You will notice that with all the transition to discovery learning of the past decade the difference is increasing--black children are falling behind their white peers. In addition, their absolute performance declined the last few years.

As an aside,why the jump in 2005? Better teaching in Seattle Schools? Unfortunately, there is another explanation. This occurred when the District required those taking the WASL to have acquired at least 5 credits in Freshman year. Thus students who failed more than one class as 9th graders were not tested and the pass rate went up 15% by excluding those students (info from Dan Dempsey).

Remember, there is NO reason to expect the difficulty of the WASL exam was the same each year--in fact the evidence is against it! From 2000-2005 the State WASLed all at grades 4, 7, 10 and gave the IOWA standardized test to all at grades 3, 6, 9. WASL reading scores rocketed up at grade 7 during that period, but the IOWA test reading scores at grades 6 and 9 were flat the whole 6 years. The WASL was a lot more OSPI public relations tool than an assessment of instructional efficacy.

The initial rise period could also reflect the adjustment period to the exam--particularly for the well-off kids whose parents realized they either had to tutor them or pay others to do so.

So you think that with this record of failure, particularly with regard to minority kids, that the Seattle School District would change direction? No way...they went ahead and selected a very poorly reviewed reform math series...the "Discovering" Algebra and Geometry textbooks.

Before the School Board made the final decision last spring they and their curriculum committee had voluminous testimony warning them of a debacle ahead. For example,
Dr. Jack Lee, a well-known professor of mathematics at the UW, and someone known not to be an ideologue, wrote a long letter criticizing this series....some quotes:

Regarding Discovering Geometry

"I would strongly discourage the District from choosing this book. It represents a highly risky and experimental approach to teaching geometry, and I think the experiment, while well-intentioned, is unlikely to have the desired effect."

Regarding Discovering Algebra

"these books have far too much verbiage for students to read, and too little in the way of clearly stated mathematical principles. Definitions, computational algorithms, and formulas seem to be stated vaguely when they are stated at all.

The Washington State Board of Education hired mathematicians to review the Discovering Math series and others. Here in a quote from the Seattle PI is what they found:
Can you imagine? They were told the series was unsound and still decided to pick these books. Just astounding.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Seattle Public Schools picked high school math books that are not only bad for everyone, but they are PARTICULARLY bad for the disadvantaged who don't have extra cash for tutoring or whose parents don't have the time or backgrounds to help their kids (of course there are exceptions to this). And they were warned of this, time and time again. This is why we have filed the lawsuit and hopefully we will prevail. Seattle Public Schools have poor discovery books now at all three levels, making it nearly impossible for Seattle kids to get a good math education...a necessity in this technological world. Other districts are getting the message and dropping discovery math...such as Shoreline and North Shore. Issaquah wisely put the adoption of Discovering Math on hold.

Finally, to show you how confused the Seattle School District is in the matter of science and math education, they are about to vote (Feb 3) on a new disaster--making Cleveland HS a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) school and spending millions of dollars to do so. Here they have an admittedly failing high school that is doing a poor job educating a nearly 100% disadvantaged population. Very few are doing well in math and science there. They are going to spend millions of dollars and make this a STEM magnet school in which all the kids will take advanced math and science. What will happen to the current kids? Few are ready for the calculus track. And they now going to bus kids in from all over the city (with all the added transportation costs) when the new district plan is to have neighborhood schools? So the district has basically decided to replace the kids! Other STEM high schools have failed in other cities with similar demographics (see comments by Dan Dempsey in the comments below).

The Seattle School Board is going to vote on whether to spend 800,000 dollars for some consultants to get the Cleveland STEM project going. A total waste of money. With the millions they are going to throw away on this, they could replace all of the bad math textbooks in the city with the good books recommended by the state superintendent of public instruction. They could jump to being the best! But they are determined to follow the same path of failure. Another gimmick. Just a tragedy. And an unnecessary one.

The only hope is that parents let the board know they have had enough. And the fact we have two new and very promising members of the school board (Betty Patu, Kay Smith-Blum), with a very capable chair (Michael DeBell), may make a big difference in overruling the current hapless bureaucracy. Keep your fingers crossed. But first there is Tuesday at 8:30 AM on the 8th floor of the King County Courthouse in Seattle.

Finally, how does this effect all of you? Bad math textbooks and curricula are found throughout the state and nation. This fight is going on throughout the country...and most Education Schools are on the wrong side...but that is another story.
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