kitchen table math, the sequel: Seattle School District Loses Lawsuit over Discovery Math Program

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Seattle School District Loses Lawsuit over Discovery Math Program

News report from Seattle Post Intelligencer is here.

From the article:

Those suing to stop Discovering Math in court were Martha McLaren, a retired Seattle high-school math teacher; Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington; and Da-Zanne Porter, mother of a Cleveland High School student.

Mass, a well-known local meteorologist, has said college students' math abilities have been decreasing over the past 10 years.

"I've been giving a math diagnostic exam in my 101 class, and the results are stunning; stunningly bad," Mass said in a story that appeared last month before the lawsuit was argued.

This is stunning news. Every school board should be made aware of this decision. That the ruling was based--in part--on the widening achievement gap attributable to the "discovery" series, raises the spectre of civil rights.

Congratulations to Cliff Mass, Martha McLaren, and Da-Zanne Porter.

The court decision goes a long way in giving parents the credibility they need to stand up to school boards across the country.


Independent George said...

While I'm obviously happy at the result, I'm a little less sanguine about the process. How - and why - does a judge have the power to determine what kind of curricula should be used? What is to stop another district from being denied Singapore Math based on whatever arbitrary rationale the next judge believes in?

Barry Garelick said...

It wasn't an arbitrary rationale. The State BOE had found the Discovering Math series "mathematically unsound" and had issued such a statement in March 2009. The school district ignored the BOE. Also, in addition to ignoring the state BOE, the District ignored declining test scores in schools that had used the materials, and adopted the textbooks. The judge found that their decision was arbitrary and capricious and that they had violated their own procedures for adoption of textbooks. If you go to the news story for which there is a link, there is also a link to the judge's ruling.

Robin said...

The "arbitrary and capricious" limitation on actions and decisions of public decisionmakers comes from the Washington State constitution.

If a local school board makes a decision to adopt textbooks that have been expressly held to be mathematically unsound and shown to have actually led to poor learning outcomes already, that decision was held to be "arbitrary and capricious".

Public officials who choose to ignore the evidence of what works and the actual effects of those instructional practices may now be at risk if other states have similar language.

Think of it as the "school boards are not free to disregard evidence of what works and actual proven impacts on students and implement whatever they wish" decision.

That's a good thing. It's the judge who is insisting that the school board's actions failed to meet even a minimal level of accountability to the public they represent.

Independent George said...

I'm still not comfortable with this being a judicial decision as opposed to a legislative one. Given the pervasiveness of constructivism, I think it's far more likely for something like Singapore Math to be ruled 'unsound' because it doesn't match the criteria established by the ed schools. I think that next time, an individual school is going to try and implement a more rigorous curriculum against the wishes of the state government, and will be trampled.

This is a clear victory in the short-term, but absent true choice for parents, it could potentially be a disaster in the long-term.

SteveH said...

I guess my first reaction was the same as IG, but I quickly changed my mind. This is the "Math Wars". Schools use their power and position to implement whatever they want. This is a turf battle and what they are doing is wrong. It's educational child abuse. If they are not willing to allow parents to go off and choose whatever school they want (and I know that this isn't always a good solution), then we can and should use whatever means available to push our position. If they start to use the courts to push their position, I'm not worried. I'll be glad for some process that's more than just schools deciding with little recourse for parents.

For example, it took years (!) for our schools to get rid of CMP and offer a curriculum that actually taught the material that was clearly needed for kids to move into geometry in high school. This was not about opinion or pedagogy. This was about the simple fact that the school just did not teach required material. They didn't even teach it badly. It would have been nice to go to court to make that case.

Another example is our 6th grade math placement test. I don't think it would be very difficult to show that the lower schools publically don't value those skills and knowledge. It's a form of bait and switch. That's what education is; bait and switch; pump, then filter. If you wait long enough, you can blame it on the kids.

Schools are notorious for selecting whatever curriculum they want, but then expecting others to show research proof to get them to change. I don't like that it's gotten to this point, but there are some minimum and tangible criteria that can be used to judge whether a math curriculum is "mathematically unsound". If a legal definition of what that means defines the next battleground, I'm more than ready for something other than "Whack-A-Mole". They argue with generalities and then run and hide when the details come. I still keep hearing the same old arguments that I heard 10 years ago.

SteveH said...

Actually, I prefer choice. I think that in the long run, it's the only solution. We might make some progress with a legal process, but it would be minimal and only affect the low end of the spectrum. It could, however, force the arguments to get down to the important details. It could clarify how much of their position is based solely on opinion. That might provide help to those who support school choice.

I think the underlying problem is that you can't force educators to do something they really don't believe in. I think that the only option is to give parents the means to "judge" with their feet.

dan dempsey said...


Not to worry. We won on evidence not anecdotes. I testified twice a month for years. I send the board statistics showing them exactly what was causing their increasing achievement gap.

If Singapore produced as crappy a statistical result as this stuff it should be pulled but it won't be.

Read all about it here

Anonymous said...

Just be aware that "Singapore math" is starting to stand for so many things now. There is the original Primary Mathematics which does and did produce results and is the basis of the interest that developed in the US for this math. But now Singapore (the country) is going the direction of reform math and some new material I got from there, now have calculators early, are big on "problem-solving" in the form of things that often require guess and check at that age and completing patterns and so on. Even on writing explanations of how they solved a problem. Some schools in the US are using books based on the newer trends in Singapore, like their My Pals are Here series, where they are borrowing reform math ideas. There are also some books being published in the US that supposedly teach "Singapore Math" model drawing, but use a step-by-step approach that was developed by US teachers to presumably make things easier, that is not used in the Primary Mathematics. So you have to watch out for any new statistical results which "Singapore math" was used. Maybe the combination of reform math with some and old-style "Singapore math" will be a good thing, and maybe not, as it gets more and more "Americanized" but still called "Singapore math".

Niki Hayes said...

To Independent George: Read again what Barry Garelick wrote. That is, when data is offered which can show a pattern of poor performance on and for children--even harmful effects--then any product should face being pulled by legal means, if necessary. I also disdain having lawyers get involved, but when those in charge will NOT listen to truths, that can be shown from a period of time of programs/products that are hurting children, then citizens have no choice.

Niki Hayes said...

I meant to write when data "are" offered...dang.

Anonymous said...

I watched the situation in Seattle develop. I often watched the videos of testimony before the board. Critical information was available, pointed out, yet ignored. The board clearly made an arbitrary and capricious decision when they voted to select Discovery math.

The judge made a decision based on the evidence. This judge's decision was not based on any arbitrary rationale. The judge was not deciding what kind of curricula could be used. The decision of the court sends the issue back to the school district to revisit the textbook adoption--with the adoption process possibly needing to be conducted again. The court is not in the business of making curriculum decisions for the district and clearly did not do so in this case.

I have read a few legal briefs of cases filed against school districts/education systems. I was not impressed with what I read until I read the brief for this case. It made me sit up and take notice. It is good and presents a solid case. It is not easy when you have to make the case that the district's decision was arbitrary and capricious. It was a strong case backed with a lot of evidence.

I was also there in court. The plaintiffs' lawyer did an excellent job of presenting the case. The lawyer for the school district had a weak defense and while she responded to the judge' questions, she didn't answer the questions that were asked.

Read the legal documents for yourselves. It may be enlightening. The brief is a good clean read that lays the case out well The legal documents can be downloaded from the links on the left hand side of the seattle math group website.

Look for Legal Documents in Textbook Appeal

HiDefMathFan said...

It's easy to misinterpret most of the news stories and conclude that the judge ruled on decisions made by the administration. She didn't. The ruling applied to the board and their vote to approve the administration's lame recommendation. The administration's action was hardly arbitrary or capricious. It was the result of a process that was biased from the get-go, and supported by select and misleading information.

It was the board's careless disregard for salient facts that the judge found arbitrary and capricious. Much of the information contrary to the administration's recommendation was given to the board by citizens in public testimony. Four of the seven ignored that information. The four took the easy way, left their brains in neutral and acted as rubber stamps. One of the four based her decision on how her daughter viewed the curriculum, which is now in the law books as an example of "capricious".

Since the decision was against the actions of the board, and not Goodloe-Johnson's administration, her staff is shrugging it off. They're taking the position that nothing has changed, and from their perspective, nothing has; they see the board as a meaningless formality anyway. The books are already in the classrooms. They're treating this as another minor irritation - another instance of heckling from the great unwashed and unenlightened horde.

This ruling should give any school board member pause:
"4. The court finds, based on a review of the entire administrative record, that there is insufficient evidence for any reasonable Board member to approve the selection of the Discovering Series."
I'm no lawyer, but to me, this means: "Thou shall not be a rubber stamp. The director's chair does not contain a brain. You must use your own. Furthermore, ignore public testimony at your peril."

And another high point from the rulings:
"3. The court finds that the Discovering Series is an inquiry-based math program."
While obvious to anyone who has examined the texts at the core of this issue, or to anyone not trying to pass it off as something else, a key part of the SPS strategy was the claim that DA is a "balanced" program. Now it can be said that it was found otherwise in a court of law.

Robin said...

So the school board's inability to give an adequate explanation of its decision to the judge really bolstered this decision?

They certainly had enough time and notice to have put their best foot forward. Sounds like they still couldn't really explain why a majority simply disregarded all the damning data.

I'm fascinated though by the judge expressly ruling that it was an inquiry textbook.

Did John Hattie's work and some of the extensive research and metaanalyses into what type of math instruction is most effective become an issue in the case?

How much impact did the demonstrable increase in the achievement gaps of different racial, lower income, and ELL students have on the judge's decision? Was that an issue in the courtroom?

This is such an interesting decision amid what appear to be egregious facts and behavior from elected and appointed public officials.

concerned said...

If you would like to help (even in a small way) to defray the costs of this effort please consider donating to:
Seattle Math Group,
c/o Martha Mclaren
7020 18th Ave. SW, J22
Seattle, WA 98106

Fight the Good Fight!!

Barry Garelick said...


No, the court's finding that Discovering Math is "inquiry based" was cited because the Board was saying that it was a balanced program. Thus, they were misrepresenting it. The citing of it being inquiry based was not any kind of judgment as to ineffectiveness or anything like that. The judge was not ruling on the merits of the series or lack thereof--just on the procedure and that the Board was acting arbitrarily and capriciously.

Catherine Johnson said...

This decision blows me away.

I posted it to the Irvington Parents Forum as soon as I heard about it --

Catherine Johnson said...

It was the board's careless disregard for salient facts that the judge found arbitrary and capricious. Much of the information contrary to the administration's recommendation was given to the board by citizens in public testimony. Four of the seven ignored that information.


Our board routinely ignores all expert information from citizens. Routinely.

No curricula decisions are based in data or field-testing.

SteveH said...

Our board makes no curriculum decisions. I have either attended or read the minutes of the meetings. They might make some comments on state test scores, but they don't try to tell the schools how to fix things. I was supposed to be a member of a citizen's curriculum committee long ago, but nobody followed through. There was not a single meeting. It was clear that the school really did not want it and nobody forced the issue. The underlying problem is how do you get schools to do something they really don't want to do? Our schools would screw up Singapore Math because they would never ensure mastery.

Anonymous said...

Did you see the follow-up editorial
where the Seattle Times Said:

"If the Seattle School Board thinks constructivism is a superior way to teach math, it had better be willing to explain why".

We can all relate to the statement that parents LOATHE this reform math.

It was important that they were hearing from so many Boeing engineers. Also apparently one of the plaintiffs is a star science prof at the state flagship university.

Cliff Mass is an example of the reason that states like Georgia have expressly told their higher ed professors and other instructors that tenure and promotion are tied into cooperating with and not criticizing reform math in K-12.

Does anyone know if New Jersey does something similar in its public higher ed system?

NJ also has a statewide NSF funded math science partnership. Also Rutgers has MetroMath.

It seeems like the states and districts with NSF funding are generally unwilling to consider actual evidence of efficacy and the poor impact on certain groups.

Does anyone know if citizens ever point out this conflict in math disputes?

ChrisA said...

I have a stoopid question, in trying to bring myself up to speed on this thread it appears that the Key Curriculum Press Discovery series is the curriculum under fire. I would assume this would include this book from my daughters backpack that I have in front of me titled "Discovering Geometry: An Investigative Approach" by Michael Serra?

Can anyone fill in the Key Books that follow this in the series? A link would be fine.



Anonymous said...

Link to Key Curriculum: Mathematics Series

ChrisA said...

Anonymous... Thanks. I do note that officially the Discovery series only goes through Advanced Algebra. That said, I doubt the stripes are changing on this program.

I also see the lovely IMP program. At the HS my daughter will attend next year there are two math curriculum choices, IMP and the Discovery series. It's like dumb and dumber.