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Originally published February 4, 2010 at 9:38 PM | Page modified February 4, 2010 at 9:59 PM

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Seattle School Board told to review use of math textbooks

A King County Superior Court judge has ordered the Seattle School Board to take another look at its decision to use the Discovering Series of texts for teaching mathematics. In an terse ruling, on Thursday, Judge Julie A. Spector called the decision to teach from the Discovering curriculum "arbitrary and "capricious."

Seattle Times staff reporter

A King County Superior Court judge has ordered the Seattle School Board to take another look at its decision to use the Discovering Series of texts for teaching mathematics.

In a terse ruling Thursday, Judge Julie A. Spector called the decision to teach from the Discovering curriculum "arbitrary and "capricious."

A group of parents had sued the school district, the School Board and district Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson to stop the books from being used in high schools.

"We're very pleased," said Cliff Mass, one of the plaintiffs.

"What we would hope is they would find the books they selected were a mistake and then replace the books with high-quality textbooks."

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, the school district called the judge's ruling "a very surprising decision." The district is evaluating its next steps, the statement said. "In addition to any action the School Board may take, the district expects to appeal this decision."

The ruling isn't really a timeout for the Discovering books. The district has been using them since the start of the 2009-2010 school year and will continue for the time being. The ruling doesn't order the district to stop; in fact, there's nothing in it that bars the district from hanging onto the curriculum after its review.

"I hope they don't do that. I hope they get a large amount of feedback from parents," Mass said.

Spector called Discovering an "inquiry-based" program, as opposed to the more traditional approach of the Holt Company — which, she noted in the decision, is first in rankings by State Office of Public Instruction. The Discovering Series ranks second.

Listing other factors including a 2009 report from the Washington State Board of Education that termed the Discovering Series "mathematically unsound," Spector concluded: "there is insufficient evidence for any reasonable Board member to approve the selection of the Discovering Series."

Mass, a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences, said, "Since this is a very flawed approach. Parents who were able to get their children tutoring or move to different school districts — those parents were able to salvage their kids. I did both."

Apart from finding the Discovering material generally inferior, its detractors also claim that its more verbal approach to math discriminates against students who aren't fluent in English.

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"In more traditional math approaches, students who don't know English well can do very well at math," Mass said Thursday.

For its part, Seattle Public Schools said in its statement that it "followed an extensive process in adopting these materials, which were thoroughly vetted by a diverse group including mathematicians and teaching professionals."

Not every district has had issues with Discovering. The Highline, Everett and Lake Washington districts all have elected to use it. And Lake Washington's chief academic officer, Dan Phelan, has said test scores there rose modestly in five years of use.

Issaquah schools spokesman Sara Niegowski said Thursday that a group of teachers from her district has evaluated both the Holt and Discovering books and determined "they were both good textbooks."

In looking for a "balance between fundamentals and that deep learning as well," Niegowski said, the teachers have recommended adopting the Discovering series in the next school year. In the meantime, she said they'll look closely at Thursday's ruling and continue getting community input.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259

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