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Seattle School Board Rejects District's Choice For New Math Textbooks, Makes Its Own Pick

Judy Baxter

Seattle School Board members bucked the advice of a district-led group charged with picking a new math textbook for the district's 27,000 elementary students, choosing instead, by a 4-3 vote Wednesday night, to formally pick a different set of materials.

But Seattle Public Schools staff estimates the move will come at a cost, nearly doubling the purchase price for the textbooks and the additional teacher training that comes with them.

In April, the district-led selection committee had recommended the board purchase a set of books called "enVision." The committee found the curriculum to be a better fit with the Common Core standards, a set of nationally-crafted expectations for students Washington state schools now follow.

Instead, board members decided to purchase another curriculum called "Math in Focus." It was a finalist and parent favorite the committee ultimately rejected for being too incompatible with the Common Core, among other concerns.

But four board members disagreed, citing higher levels of public feedback supporting Math in Focus and success other districts, specifically the Highline School District, have had with the curriculum. Supportive board members said Math in Focus would do a better job at helping Seattle schools close achievement gaps between socio-economic groups.

"The Common Core has not yet gotten us there. Maybe it will," said board president Sharon Peaslee. "But I think we can count on these textbooks," referring to Math in Focus.

What's Different About The Two Choices?

The primary difference between the two boils down to one word: text.

Textbooks in the enVision curriculum include "more words per page" than Math in Focus materials, and call upon students to use language to describe the math problems they're doing.

Math in Focus materials, by contrast, tend to rely less on text and more on visuals. Supporters for Math in Focus cited this as a prime reason for their support, saying the curriculum makes math more accessible for students who struggle with English. State figures count more than 3,000 students in the district as "transitional bilingual."

But members of the district selection committee also noted Math in Focus was the first of three finalists to miss the cut because it simply didn't align with the Common Core as well as enVision.

Concerns: Cost & The Impact Of A Vocal Minority

On top of that, district estimates say Math in Focus will be more expensive. Its $6.9 million price tag is twice that of enVision's $3 million cost.

Board member Sherry Carr, part of the three-member minority on the board that opposed the Math in Focus choice, pointed to the cost as a factor in her vote. She said the district's selection committee had undergone a "robust" selection process. Other board members feared the board majority was being swayed by a vocal minority of parents.

"The over-reliance on a small subset of parents and community members as justification for a decision that will impact every corner of the city is both short-sighted and dangerous," said board member Stephan Blanford, who also voted against the Math in Focus pick.

Peaslee supported a proposal from board members Sue Peters and Marty McLaren to adopt both sets of textbooks and ask principals to decide which materials their school would use. District lawyers urged them to back away from that plan Wednesday night, citing concerns it could open the district to a lawsuit.

'Emotional' Issue

Textbook adoption has a fraught history in Seattle Public Schools. In 2007, the district adopted the "Everyday Math" curriculum, which subsequently drew criticism in several states and districts using it. Many Seattle schools have already replaced the math books with others they buy themselves, often with funds their PTA provides.

In 2010, several Seattle residents sued the district, asking it to stop using its high school math textbook. McLaren, who had not yet won her spot on the school board, was one of the plaintiffs. A state appeals court ultimately blocked the suit.

During the May 21 meeting of the school board, superintendent José Banda acknowledged "the emotional nature of this particular issue and the history involved in previous adoptions."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.