Controversial math recommendation heads to school board for discussion

March 9, 2010

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Issaquah School Board members will get their first look at the superintendent’s recommendation to adopt a new high school math curriculum March 10.After nearly two years of review and analysis by district officials, Superintendent Steve Rasmussen is expected to recommend for Key Curriculum Press’ Discovering Mathematics books to be adopted for high schoolers.

The books, if adopted, would go into Algebra I and II and Geometry classrooms this fall.

“It may have been easiest in terms of politics and expediency if our teachers had just chosen Holt, a curriculum that has a lot of good components,” Rasmussen wrote in a letter to the community Feb. 24. “But our teachers did not choose what was easiest, but rather what they thought would be the very best for all students in Issaquah.”

Controversies add up

Meanwhile, 30 concerned parents from Save Math In Issaquah and the nationwide group Where’s the Math? met March 6 to consider action against the district’s recommendation — if the board approves the Discovering series. That action includes a potential lawsuit.

“We are considering all viable options to get the district to consider all the evidence,” said Mark Van Horn, an Issaquah parent and founder of Save Math In Issaquah. “It is not our preference to litigate, but if all our other options fail, we will consider litigation. It isn’t a decision we will take lightly.”

Van Horn, an engineer by trade, said that his daughter’s confidence and curiosity for math eroded under the district’s program. When he tried to tutor her, he couldn’t find materials in the books to help him. It is the same concern he has with the Discovering series.

School board members Brian Deagle and Chad Magendanz, and Patrick Murphy, the district’s executive director of secondary education, attended that meeting.

Deagle said he hopes the group will wait to pursue other legal action, until the board has rendered a decision.

The materials are at the center of a nationwide controversy that seems less to do with the books themselves than a dispute between academics, politicians and mathematics professionals about how best to teach math to students.

At issue is whether students should be taught mathematics in a mastery-based program — much like math taught until the mid-1990s — or whether math texts should include more inquiry-based ideologies.

“We believe there is overwhelming evidence against inquiry-based instruction,” like Discovering, Van Horn said.

“Just learning the methods and not knowing how to use it doesn’t solve anything and we see kids at the university like that. We give the kids real problems and they ask, “What rule do I use?” said University of Washington professor James King, who teaches mathematics. “Ideally, you want the whole package, students who understand the math and know how to apply it.”

Karen Coe, chief executive officer for Key Curriculum Press, defended the Discovering series.

“There is controversy in how to get there and that is what people are struggling with.”

“We’ve been developing mathematical materials for more than 40 years,” she wrote in an e-mail. “All of our authors and editors are current or former math educators. The Discovering Mathematics curriculum incorporates multiple teaching methods.

Basically, you get the best of both worlds by learning not just “how” to do something, but also “why” you’re doing it.”

A recent lawsuit — won by proponents of mastery-based math — denounced the selection of the Discovering series by the Seattle School Board on Feb. 4.

The debate also rages in the Bellevue School District where Discovering and Holt texts were piloted.

Issaquah’s process

In the last year, district officials have conducted community input surveys, re-examined the curriculum and others, and held community meetings to explain their selection choice.

State officials have been of little help, district officials said. One state study recommends Holt, while the other says Holt and Discovering both do a good job at increasing student achievement.

District officials went as far as to invite state officials to meetings to clarify their opinions but they didn’t hear back.

Issaquah’s process for adoption is comprised of two groups, a Teacher Adoption Committee, which reviews several materials and narrows it down to the one members believe best fits their goals in the classroom, and a state-mandated Instructional Materials Committee, which ensures the district adhered to its policies for adoption and reviews the books for bias.

Both groups approved the curriculum to move forward, Rasmussen said, because, “it aligns with the standards, transitions smoothly with our middle school and higher level high school math classes, has a robust online and technology component, and a very strong professional training program for our teachers.”

In fact, the Discovering series actually brings the district back to a more balanced approach from its last curriculum, Assistant Superintendent Ron Thiele said.

Math professionals and advocates in Save Math In Issaquah said they would have liked the district use their expertise earlier in the process so confrontations at the end could have been avoided, Van Horn said.

“It boils down to the Key Curriculum Press Algebra, Geometry and Algebra II doing a nice job at conceptual problem solving and a good job at the drill and practice,” Thiele said.

Regardless of the outcome, district officials and board members, like Deagle, hope to use the energy of professionals and community members to further student’s education.

“We have an educated, passionate and high energy community,” Deagle said. “If we could harness that energy and expertise we could improve student achievement in math right now.”

Learn more

Go to Click on “High school math curriculum adoption.”

Save Math In Issaquah:

Next steps

March 10: School board members are expected to receive recommendation from the superintendent to adopt Discovering Mathematics texts at their 7 p.m. meeting. The meeting will be held at the district administration offices, 565 N.W. Holly St. Board members will receive a report about the adoption process, but no action will be taken.

March 17: Save Math In Issaquah may submit draft copy of a lawsuit to district officials.

March 24: School board will vote whether to accept or reject the superintendent’s recommendation at a 7 p.m. meeting at the district administration offices.

April 21: Deadline for Save Math In Issaquah officials to file a lawsuit against the school district.

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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