Saturday, March 20, 2010

March 18, 2010

To: Issaquah School District

Subject: Why Discovering Math is Wrong for the Issaquah School District

1) Student achievement data shows clear support for Holt Mathematics over Discovering.

  1. As shown in the graphic below, test scores in the Bellevue School District where Holt and Discovering curricula were piloted against each other with similar cohort groups show the clear superiority of Holt Mathematics. Given the demographic, geographic, and economic congruence between Issaquah and Bellevue, there exists clear and compelling numerical evidence that adoption of Discovering Math will lead to a lower math achievement in Issaquah than would otherwise be obtained by adoption of Holt Mathematics.

2) Data obtained from OSPI and posted on the Issaquah School District math website shows that most districts adopting Discovering math show either declining or flat math WASL scores. Curiously, the data showing WASL scores for ELL and low income students was left off the Issaquah website. Had all the relevant data been posted, it would show that Discovering Math led to a decline in WASL test scores for ELL and low income students.

2) The textbook selection process used by the Issaquah School District to arrive at the Discovering recommendation was deeply flawed:

1) In the March 10, 2010 Board meeting, there was some discussion of whether the math textbook selection committee was potentially subject to a “groupthink” mentality which could have lead to an ill-considered and biased recommendation. While District academic officials appeared confused at the question, the description of “groupthink” here is highly illuminating: A groupthink mentality is created under the following conditions: 1) Directive leadership, 2) Homogeneity of members' social background and ideology, 3) Isolation of the group from outside sources of information and analysis.

  1. Directive leadership is evidenced by Superintendent Dr. Rasmussen’s previous experience in the Franklin-Pierce District where he allowed the adoption of Discovering Math. Dr. Rasmussen’s February 24 letter to the community where he attempts to defend the recommendation to adopt Discovering Math despite the dismal results as shown in the graphic below is also clear evidence that he is an advocate of inquiry-based instruction.

b.The homogeneity of the math textbook selection committee is described in Superintendent Dr. Rasmussen’s letter to the community dated February 24, 2010 which notes that 10 of the 13 teachers on the committee have math degrees, and that 10 of the 13 teachers have degrees in education. Not present in the group are community members who do math for a living, those who have degrees in other areas, those who work outside academia, those who represent ethnic groups in proportion to District composition, English language learners, and low income people.

c. The District’s contract with the Issaquah Education Association in Section 13.4 vests all textbook selection decision exclusively with District teachers. From these contract provisions, the math textbook committee was completely insulated from outside views.

It is difficult to imagine that the Issaquah School District could appoint a more homogeneous group of people to make such a recommendation and setup the group in a way that would be more susceptible to groupthink. In considering whether a groupthink mentality was prevalent in the math adoption committee, one might ask whether a unanimous 13-0 vote in favor of Discovering Math is reasonable. Is it plausible to believe that a truly objective group would have no dissenting opinions, and that there would be no minority report? Obviously such a situation stretches credulity, and leads to other serious and legitimate questions. Further, the parade of a principals, curriculum specialists, and teachers attending the March 10, 2010 Board meeting all of whom claimed to be speaking on behalf of the professional teaching staff of the District and supporting the recommendation of Discovering Math offered no dissent and no opposing views. From my private conversations with teachers in the District, I know for an absolute certain fact that such unanimity does not exist. In addition no member of the District’s professional staff testifying at the March 10 meeting offered any hard evidence in favor of the Discovering Math recommendation; rather they all said (paraphrasing) “Teachers know best and if the Teachers on the committee say this is the right thing to do then it must be so.” Such baseless assertions are arrogant and condescending, and not worthy of serious consideration.

2) Parents, students, and other community stakeholders were intentionally disenfranchised from participation on the math textbook selection committee as specified in Section 13.4 of the District’s contract with the Issaquah Education Association. This contract provision conflicts with the District’s published policies of inclusiveness, openness, and transparency, and must be remedied when the current contract expires in 2010.

3) The curriculum evaluation rubrics published by the math textbook selection committee mislead some board members and most members of the community into believing that the math textbook selection committee engaged in an open, honest, and fair evaluation of each curriculum. Under questioning by Board members during the meeting of March 10 2010, academic officials for the Issaquah School District admitted that those rubrics were never completed with side by side numerical scoring of each text even though the textbook committee had ample time to do so.

4) The evaluation rubrics supposedly used to “facilitate discussion” were highly biased in favor of inquiry-based instruction. In the example below, note the references to “exploration”, “discussion”, “group worthy”, and “talking together about math”. Each of these is clearly biased toward an inquiry-based approach. The published rubrics are rife with this type of bias.

  1. Adoption of Discovering Math makes it difficult for parents and professional tutors to help their students.

The lack of conceptual explanations, procedural descriptions, and computational examples in Discovering Math makes it nearly impossible for parents and tutors to assist their children. Further, a student who misses class due to illness or other reasons would have no useful textbook to make up the missed work if Discovering Math is adopted. In contrast, the Holt Mathematics textbook provides the necessary information in a coherent manner, thereby facilitating parent help and student learning. This issue was a major factor in the Bellevue School District in their decision to move forward with the Holt Mathematics series.

4) Expert evaluations of each textbook in the State of Washington show the clear superiority of Holt Mathematics

1) The Plattner study showed Discovering Math to be “unsound” in every category while the same study found Holt to meet standards in every category. It is important to understand that the concept of “mathematical soundness” has a specific meaning, and should not be confused with the existence of minor errors or mistakes in the textbooks.

2) The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction recommends only Holt Mathematics.

3) Studies shown in the matrix below show clear superiority of Holt Mathematics.

5) High quality independent studies of inquiry-based and mastery-based instructional methods find clear preference for mastery and none for inquiry.

1) The National Math Advisory Panel completed a detailed analysis of teacher directed and student centered instruction summarized here:

The task group reported no rigorous evidence for student-centered instruction. In fact, the task group found evidence for explicit instruction, which supported the following key NMAP recommendation about low-achieving students and students with learning disabilities.

27) 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.

This finding does not mean that all of a student’s mathematics instruction should be delivered in an explicit fashion. However, the Panel recommends that struggling students receive some explicit mathematics instruction regularly. Some of this time should be dedicated to ensuring that these students possess the foundational skills and conceptual knowledge necessary for understanding the mathematics they are learning at their grade level.” (NMAP page xxiii)

  1. On February 23, one of the world’s foremost researchers in the areas of learning and cognition, Dr. Paul Kirschner wrote a personal letter to Dr. Rasmussen concerning the proposed adoption of Discovering Math. Dr. Kirschner said in part “In my opinion, which is based upon years of research on learning materials, learning materials development, and learning & cognition the choice that your school district is about to make will impact your students in a very negative way.” Also, In a comment on a post in the SaveIssaquahMath blog, Dr. Kirschner characterized the District’s proposed actions as “irresponsible and reprehensible.”

Further citing Dr. Kirschner’s work: “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.”

6) Response to Dr. Rasmussen’s letter of February 24 2010.

  1. On page one of Dr. Rasmussen there is a recitation of the qualifications of the math textbook selection committee, but as explained earlier in this letter the homogeneous composition of the committee was a clear factor in their vulnerability to groupthink. Further, their average experience of just 8.8 years (115 years for 13 members) is inadequate for such an important recommendation.
  2. On page three of Dr. Rasmussen’s letter, there is citation to an analysis done by the textbook selection committee, but when pressed for hard numerical data during the March 10 board meeting, District academic officials admitted that the scoring rubrics were never completed.
  3. On page three of Dr. Rasmussen’s letter he indicates that there is no perfect textbook. There is no dispute on this matter, but the quality of textbooks vary greatly as do their impact on student learning. For the case of the inexperienced teacher or one who is not an expert in math, a high quality textbook based on explicit instruction makes a large difference in the quality of instruction.
  4. On page five of Dr. Rasmussen’s letter, there is some discussion of “professional tutoring”. While it may be that few parents in the District use paid tutors, the survey data I obtained in the community meeting of March 6 indicates that 81% of the respondents help their children with their math studies. From this survey, 100% of the parents prefer a textbook based on explicit instruction such as Holt.
  5. On page six of Dr. Rasmussen’s letter, there is a claim that Discovering Math represents a “balanced” approach, but here he is incorrect. This issue is no longer a matter of opinion; it is a matter of law. In the Seattle lawsuit, Judge Spector’s Finding Number 3 finds that Discovering Math is an inquiry-based approach. Judge Spector’s conclusion was based on the evidence presented during trial that Key Press markets Discovering Math as an inquiry based curriculum, that Key Press presents it as an inquiry-based approach on their website, that the introductory material in the books describes the inquiry based nature of the books, and that the books contains hundreds of “investigations” and “conjectures” consistent with an inquiry based approach.
  6. On page seven of Dr. Rasmussen’s letter, there is an assertion that Discovering math aligns well with the inquiry-based instruction currently used in the middle schools. The fact that middle schools use a demonstrably inferior inquiry-based teaching method is no reason to continue such a method in the high schools. The time is now to change course is now in order to give these students a decent chance at obtaining a solid math education. The math literacy of thousands of students hangs in the balance.

7) Conclusions and Recommendations

In this letter, I have presented factual evidence why the proposal before the board to adopt Discovering Math should be rejected.

  1. There is clear numerical student achievement data in favor of Holt Mathematics, and there is no data showing the effectiveness of Discovering Math.
  2. The process used by the Issaquah School District to arrive at the recommendation for Discovering Math was deeply flawed.
  3. Adoption of Discovering Math seriously impairs the ability of parents to assist their children in the process of learning math.
  4. Expert analysis supported by the Washington State Board of Education of both textbooks has found that the Holt series is superior and that Discovering is unsound.
  5. Every high quality piece of educational research in the area of inquiry based versus mastery based instruction finds no support for inquiry based instruction such as Discovering, and very clear support for mastery based instruction such as Holt.
  6. The justification for Discovering Math in Dr. Rasmussen’s letter of February 24 contains a number of factual errors and fails to make a rational case for adoption of Discovering Math.

The evidence contained herein should be sufficient to convince every reasonable member of the Issaquah School District Board of Education to vote to reject the recommendation to adopt Discovering Math.

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