Controversy continues over Issaquah Schools’ support for ‘Discovering’ Math textbooks

After delaying a recommendation for about a year, the Issaquah School District (ISD) administration formally backed replacing math curriculum textbooks at their March 10 School Board meeting.

After delaying a recommendation for about a year, the Issaquah School District (ISD) administration formally backed replacing math curriculum textbooks at their March 10 School Board meeting.

Superintendent Dr. Steve Rasmussen and ISD Executive Director of Secondary Education Patrick Murphy presented their case for adopting the “Discovering Mathematics” series by textbook publisher Key Curriculum Press as the best match for revised state standards.

“As your superintendent, I concur with the work that’s been done and the recommendation that was sent your way,” Rasmussen said.

The recommendation was based on the advice of 13 math teachers from across the district, which formed a High School Math Adoption Committee. But controversy has followed the textbook series because of its non-traditional approach of allowing students to learn mathematic concepts and theorems using an “inquiry-based” approach, and with additional support learning via the Internet.

In May 2009, the Seattle School District School Board voted to go with the “Discovering Mathematics” textbooks, but was forced to reconsider the decision after being sued by a group of Seattle parents and residents who claimed that the Seattle School District acted capriciously in selecting the Discovering Mathematics series. The parents won. In that case, 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.” The decision is being appealed.

Meanwhile, a Bellevue School District panel conducting the same review of math textbooks recommended using the Holt Mathematics textbook series, instead of the Discovering Mathematics textbooks.

Vail Crain Baxter, an AP Calculus teacher at Issaquah High School and member of the panel who made the recommendations, urged the board to adopt the Discovering Mathematics textbooks.

“This decision was made because the adoption of this curriculum would result in consistent teacher presentations,” she said. “One of our goals is that our lessons are taught the same way with the same expectations across the district for all students.”

ISD spokesperson Sara Niegowski said the math textbook adoption had become a controversial issue because of an increasingly competitive job market and a demand by parents and schools to give children a basic understanding of mathematics, science and technology skills.

“We don’t get so bogged down in fundamentals that (the students) don’t understand why they’re learning it,” she said.

The entire process of replacing the ISD’s math texts has effectively been on hold since 2008 when Rasmussen decided to wait until new state high school math learning standards were adopted. The new materials are expected to replace the older, more traditional Contemporary Mathematics in Context series, once published by Encyclopedia Britannica and now owned by Holt McDougal.

In 2008, the ISD’s relationship with Holt McDougal was soured when the company refused to replace existing textbooks which contained a number of typographic and editorial errors. Niegowski said that this did not influence the administration’s decision to recommend the Discovering series.

While several educators involved in the process spoke in support of the recommendations, ISD boardmember Chad Magendanz expressed some concerns.

“I want to have that discussion with the data in front of us,” he said. I’ve been getting information in the mail that’s misrepresenting the Discovery Math series, and I want to know why.”

“I love that we’re doing well (in math). I want to keep doing well.”

According to the school district, 73 percent of its students met the state’s 10th grade math standards last year in the WASL exam.

A small number of parents also voiced concerns.

Parent John Pennock was disappointed by the outreach conducted by the ISD and said more community input was needed. A self-described “math geek,” Pennock said he saw value in “inquiry-based” learning but thought the textbooks might have taken that approach too far by omitting basic mathematical formulas and thereby hobbling parents who were trying to help their children.

“The textbook should have the basic theorems in there,” he said. “I found that pretty shocking in my perspective.”

Alex Sacerra, the parent of a Cougar Ridge Elementary fourth grader, worried that the ISD might have omitted opposing views of the Discovering text from a report reviewed by the Instructional Materials Committee.

“I have doubts that our system of checks and balances held up in this case,” he said.

The ISD School Board could take action on the textbook recommendations at their next regularly scheduled meeting on March 24.