Friday, February 26, 2010

Defending the Indefensible

ISD Superintendent Dr. Steve Rasmussen explains why the district should choose a math textbook which relies on the fallacy of inquiry based instruction and has been found in nearly every study to be "unsound".

"Arbitrary and capricious"? We'll see.
Arrogant and condescending? Absolutely...

Concerned parents and students invited to meeting Saturday March 6 from 3:15 to 4:45 at KCLS library in downtown Issaquah to learn more.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Issaquah Math Adoption Receives International Attention

One of the world's foremost researchers in the field of learning and cognition, Dr. Paul Kirschner, writes to Issaquah Superintendent Dr. Steve Rasmussen about the failures of inquiry based instruction.

Dr. Steve Rasmussen
Superintendent, Issaquah School District
565 NW Holly Street
Issaquah Washington 98027-2899

23 February 2010

Re: Save Math In Issaquah

Dear Dr. Rasmussen,

My colleague, Professor Richard Clark alerted me and my colleague Professor John Sweller to Mark XXXX's open letter to the Issaquah School District about the district’s choice of a mathematics method “Discovering Math”. I read his open letter with a combined feeling of increasing astonishment and anger. Let me begin by saying that I myself am not acquainted with the method that the district has chosen, though I have taken the time to peruse the website of the publisher and read what the publisher says about the method. In my opinion, which is based upon years of research on learning materials, learning material development, and learning & cognition the choice that your school district is about to make will impact your students in a very negative way.

The method is an inquiry-based learning method. There are two main assumptions which underlie such instructional programs using minimal guidance. First, is that they challenge students to solve ‘authentic’ problems or acquire complex knowledge in information-rich settings based on the assumption that having learners construct their own solutions leads to the most effective learning experience. Second, they appear to assume that knowledge can best be acquired through experience based on the procedures of the discipline (i.e., seeing the pedagogic content of the learning experience as identical to the methods and processes or epistemology of the discipline being studied; Kirschner, 1992). Minimal guidance is offered in the form of process- or task-relevant information that is available if learners choose to use it. Advocates of this approach imply that instructional guidance that provides or embeds learning strategies in instruction interferes with the natural processes by which learners draw on their unique, prior experience and learning styles to construct new, situated knowledge that will achieve their goals. There are a number of problems with these assumptions which I will go into very briefly. If you would like to read more on this, I am attaching an article that I wrote with the two aforementioned colleagues – and which I use in this letter - which was published in one of the top journals in the field along with an article from my colleague Professor Richard Mayer, the top ranked psychologist in the world.

First, such discovery or inquiry-based methods ignore the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and are thus not likely to be effective. Minimally guided instruction proceeds with no reference to the characteristics of working memory, long-term memory or the intricate relations between them. As John Sweller wrote in 1982:

"Inquiry-based instruction requires the learner to search a problem space forproblem-relevant information. All problem-based searching makes heavy demands on working-memory. Furthermore, that working memory load does not contribute to the accumulation of knowledge in long-term memory because while working memory is being used to search for problem solutions, it is not available and cannot be used to learn…The goal of instruction is rarely simply to search for or discover information. The goal is to give learners specific guidance about how to cognitively manipulate information in ways that are consistent with a learning goal, and store the result in long-term memory.”

The result is a series of procedures and recommendations that most educators find almost impossible to implement because they require learners to engage in cognitive activities that are highly unlikely to result in effective learning. Further, these methods imply that the teachers have the domain knowledge and pedagogical content skills to carry out the instruction and can give the support and guidance that the method does not possess. Unfortunately, there is documented evidence (from your own Department of Education, that this is not the case as can be seen in the statement by Patricia O’Connell Ross,(, team leader for the Mathematics and Science Partnership Program, U.S. Department of Education:

"While primary education in math and sciences is highly variable, depending on eachteacher’s comfort zone, by middle school it gets worse, with less than 50 percent of math and science teachers holding a major or minor degree in those subject areas.In some districts, up to 25 percent of high school math and science teachers do not have major or minor degrees in these subjects; however, this varies widely (n.p.)."

Second, inquiry-based learning is based upon the assumption that the epistemology of the domain (scientific inquiry) is also the best pedagogy for those who have to learn the domain. Scientists “do” science and math, are experts in their domains and are cognitively developed enough to abstract meaning from phenomena (both with respect to their expertise and age). Learners “learn” science and math, are novices in the domain and have neither the cognitive development nor maturation (see Piaget with respect to cognitive development and abstract thinking) to abstract the necessary meaning. In other words, children are not “little adults” (see Luria for example) and novices are not just less knowledgeable experts (see De Groot for example).

"The incorrect belief that children and adults differ only in quantitative terms hasbecome firmly entrenched in the general consciousness. Its proponents argue that ifyou take an adult, make him smaller, somewhat weaker and less intelligent, andtake away his knowledge and skills, you will be left with a child. This notion of the child as a small adult is very widespread…essentially the child is…in many respects radically different from the adult, and [that he] is a very special creature with his own identity… qualitatively different from the adult (Vygotsky & Luria, 1930 (translation1992), Chapter 2, np)."

"In other words, the differences between experts and novices manifest themselves not only at the conceptual level, but also at the level of epistemology and ontology. Hurd wrote in 1969 that this makes the mistake of ignoring the difference between the methods and behaviours of an expert in a domain and a student that has to learn that domain. A novice sees, experiences, and learns differently than an expert. Thus, while it might be important to teach students about the scientific method, this does not justify the use of the scientific method as an instructional method.

I hope you will reconsider your decision. Remember, the mathematical literacy of thousands of students for an entire generation hangs in the balance.

With kind regards,
Prof. dr. Paul A. Kirschner
Director of the Learning and Cognition Program

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Math Wars 101

For those of you who are new to the controversy surrounding math curricula, here's an excellent video on the topic:

The only thing I would correct on the video is that around the 11:00 minute mark, there's a reference to OSPI being an advocate of inquiry based methods. That was true when the video was made but is no longer the case now that Randy Dorn runs OSPI.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Help Wanted: No Math Needed

Apparently one of the few jobs out there where no knowledge of math is required is being the Assistant Superintendent of the Issaquah School District.

According to ISD's Assistant Superintendent Ron Thiele "Within the public there will be a percentage of students that go on to be engineers but there are a large percentage of them that will go on to be successful in fields unrelated to math.” So all you future Assistant Superintendents can rest easy and just go along with the inquiry-based math curriculum which leads to mathematical illiteracy.

Students and parents in the Issaquah School District may also be fascinated to learn that ISD isn't even attempting to teach students who may seek technical careers. Quoting Assistant Superintendent Thiele If our job were to produce engineers then having [engineers] on the committee would make perfect sense,” Thiele said. “But that’s not what we’re doing.

Ron: Remember, there are only 10 kinds of people: Those who understand binary and those who don't. Maybe Ms. Nielson can explain it...

Open Letter to Issaquah School District

February 17, 2010

Board of Education

Issaquah School District

565 NW Holly Street

Issaquah, WA 98027-2899

Save Math In Issaquah

Math Textbook Adoption

Instructional Materials Committee Meeting of February 11, 2010

At the February 11, 2010 meeting of the Issaquah School District Instructional Materials Committee (IMC) the IMC voted unanimously to recommend Discovering Math. This vote was based on a number of false and misleading statements presented to the public and committee by Issaquah School District’s K-12 Math Curriculum Specialist, along with reckless disregard of the overwhelming body of evidence in favor of mastery based curricula.

1) Issaquah School District’s K-12 Math Curriculum Specialist Ms. Leslie Nielson testified to the public and the IMC that the State Board of Education math textbook study conducted by Linda Plattner in March 2009 found no curricula to be sound, and that the study is therefore not relevant.

Ms. Nielson made false testimony to the public and to the IMC.

As shown on the figure below, the Plattner study found the Holt series to be at least “minimally sound” in EVERY category, and the Discovering series to be “unsound” in EVERY category.

2) Issaquah School District’s K-12 Math Curriculum Specialist Ms. Leslie Nielson testified to the public and the IMC that research indicates that inquiry based instruction reduces the “achievement gap” citing a single eight year old study by a biased advocate of inquiry based instruction.
Ms. Nielson’s testimony to the public and to the IMC was grossly misleading.

a) The author of the study cited by Ms. Nielson is also on record saying “…the new approaches are unverified, but plausible.”

b) In a 2008 study conducted by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel sponsored by the United States Department of Education which included comprehensive study of all available research on math curriculum concluded in part: “Explicit instruction with students who have mathematical difficulties has shown consistently positive effects on performance with word problems and computation. Results are consistent for students with learning disabilities, as well as other students who perform in the lowest third of a typical class. By the term explicit instruction, the Panel means that teachers provide clear models for solving a problem type using an array of examples, that students receive extensive practice in use of newly learned strategies and skills, that students are provided with opportunities to think aloud (i.e., talk through the decisions they make and the steps they take), and that students are provided with extensive feedback.”

c) A 2004 study of math curricula effectiveness sponsored by the Mathematical Sciences Education Board and the Center for Education found that “On the basis of the committee's analysis of these 147 studies, we concluded that the corpus of evaluation studies as a whole across the 19 programs studied does not permit one to determine the effectiveness of individual programs with a high degree of certainty, due to the restricted number of studies for any particular curriculum, limitations in the array of methods used, and the uneven quality of the studies.”

d) A comprehensive study of inquiry based versus mastery based instruction method authored by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark published in Educational Psychologist in 2006 concluded:
“After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. Even for students with considerable prior knowledge, strong guidance while learning is most often found to be equally effective as unguided approaches. Not only is unguided instruction normally less effective; there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge.”

3) School District’s K-12 Math Curriculum Specialist Ms. Leslie Nielson testified to the public and the IMC that the Discovering series is a “balanced” approach.
Ms. Nielson made false testimony to the public and to the IMC.

Also, in an article dated February 16 2010 in the Issaquah Press newspaper, Issaquah School District Assistant Superintendent Ron Thiele repeated the false assertion that the Discovery Series represents a balanced approach.
Mr. Thiele made false testimony to the public.

a) Key Press goes to great lengths to market the Discovering series as an inquiry-based approach.
b) The introductory sections of the textbooks say that it is inquiry based.
c) The books are full of information presented as inquiries.
d) The judge in the Seattle School District case made a Finding of Fact that the Discovering series is an inquiry-based approach.

4) Issaquah School District’s K-12 Math Curriculum Specialist Ms. Leslie Nielson testified to the public and IMC that Key Press provides the district with significant assistance in implementing the Discovering curriculum, while Holt offered only to “help unpack the boxes”.
Ms. Nielson made false testimony to the public and to the IMC.

In a discussion of February 16, 2010 with Lindsey Cross of Holt Mathematics Customer Service, I was told that Holt offers significant curriculum implementation assistance to adopting districts including teacher training seminars and technical support throughout the school year from sales representatives. I was also told that there are substantial online resources for teachers using the Holt curriculum in the form of exercises, worksheets, tests, and other supporting material.

I am quite concerned that Ms. Nielson’s conflict of interest arising from her position as Issaquah School District’s K-12 Math Curriculum Specialist while at the same time being employed by Discovering Math publisher Key Press as the author of “Is Democracy Fair?” creates the appearance of impropriety. Given this irresolvable ethical conflict, Ms. Nielson should have been disqualified at the outset from having any influence at all in the textbook selection process for the Issaquah School District. The fact that she was not casts a shadow over the entire process which could suggest that the textbook selection process should begin anew with an entirely new team of people unaffected by Ms. Nielson’s bias.

The table here (scroll to bottom of linked page) summarizes five different studies of the Holt and Discovering series of textbooks. In every analysis, the Holt series was found to be excellent or at least meeting minimum standards, whereas the Discovery series was found to be unsound in every analysis but one.

As you are well aware, the judge in the case concerning the math textbook adoption in the Seattle School District found their selection to be “arbitrary and capricious” because they ignored or discounted much of the overwhelming body of evidence against the inquiry based math instruction embodied in the Discovering Math series of textbooks. I see many similarities between the approach being taken by the Issaquah School District, and the approach taken by the Seattle School District which was struck down in King County Superior Court in the following ways:

1) Issaquah School District has chosen to ignore Randy Dorn’s recommendation for Holt Mathematics while also ignoring the fact that Mr. Dorn does not recommend the Discovering series.

2) Issaquah School District has chosen to ignore five independent studies shown above, all of which indicate that the Holt series is superior to the Discovery Series.

3) Issaquah School District is relying on one isolated study relative to the “achievement gap” while ignoring three comprehensive studies all of which find absolutely no sound statistical support for the notion that inquiry-based instruction is effective for struggling students.

4) Issaquah School District has chosen to ignore the “Plattner Study” commissioned by the State Board of Education which found the Holt series to be clearly superior to the Discovery series.

5) Issaquah School District has chosen to rely on testimony from an ethically compromised District employee who is a biased advocate of inquiry-based education.

I urge the Superintendent and Board of Education of the Issaquah School District to give very careful consideration to all the evidence, and to perform sound analysis before making any decisions regarding math textbook selection.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Issaquah heading down same failed path as Seattle

The Issaquah School District Instructional Materials Committee voted 11-0 on Thursday February 11 2010 to recommend the Discovering math series for approval by the Board of Education.

As shown on the chart, the Discovering series was found by every reviewer to be inferior in every category to the Holt series of books.

(Thanks to James at "No Fuzzy Math" for the chart.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Community Meeting Announcement

Students, parents, and concerned citizens are invited to attend a meeting which will be held Saturday March 6, 2010 at the King County Library in Issaquah from 3:15PM to 4:45PM to organize ourselves to fight against the pending decision by the Issaquah School District Board of Education to adopt the failed "Discovering Math" series of textbooks.

With the recent decision by King County Superior Court concerning the Seattle School District that "...there is insuffient evidence for any reasonable Board member to approve selection of the Discovering Series" (see post below) along with the fact that Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction has issued math textbook recommendations which do NOT include the Discovering Series, the Issaquah School District's preliminary decision to adopt the Discovering Series can no longer be defended.

I recently learned the following schedule information:

On Thursday February 11, the Instructional Materials Committee will meet to take a final vote on their math textbook recommendation to the Board of Education. The recommended textbooks will then be on public display for two weeks at District Offices.

On Wednesday March 10, the Instructional Materials Committee will make their formal math textbook proposal to the Board of Education.

On Wednesday March 24, the Board of Education will vote on the Instructional Material Committee's recommendation.

We have a real chance now to change the way that math is taught in the Issaquah School District by forcing the district to adopt the "Mastery Based' method of instruction provided by the Holt Series of textbooks. Issaquah's textbook selection committee found Holt to be satisfactory, and all we need to do now is to make our voices heard with the Board of Education to encourage them to make the right choice.

A Victory for Common Sense

In a lawsuit against the Seattle School District, King County Superior court judge Julie Spector concluded that "...there is insufficient evidence for any board member to approve the selection of the Discovering Series", and directed the Seattle School District to reconsider their decision.

Read the entire decision here:

The Seattle Times is encouraging the Seattle School District to comply with the court and not file an appeal.

This lawsuit is great news to students, parents, and concerned citizens of Issaquah. In our fight to stop the Board of Education from going down the same failed path as Seattle, this is a powerful tool in our favor.