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Originally published June 10, 2014 at 8:25 PM | Page modified June 10, 2014 at 10:38 PM

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Seattle School Board must find extra cash after it picks pricier textbook

The Seattle School Board chose a math textbook that is twice as expensive as one favored by an advisory committee, sparking a new round of math wars.


Seattle Times education reporter

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A skirmish over which math textbook elementary schools in Seattle should use next year has been quelled, but a new question now looms: how to pay for it.

The School Board voted 4 to 3 last week to buy a math textbook for the district’s 28,000 elementary- school students that’s nearly twice as expensive as the one favored by an advisory committee that spent several months weighing the alternatives.

The last-minute change of direction caught district staff and elementary-school principals off guard, leading to confusion and frenzied attempts by some principals to get the textbook the advisory committee recommended.

Principals who favored enVision, such as Claudia Allan at Montlake Elementary, began emailing each other to see if they couldn’t find a way to stick with enVision.

On Monday, Superintendent José Banda asked principals to support the board’s decision so the district could make this week’s deadline for ordering textbooks, strongly implying that last-minute attempts to get a waiver to the board-approved text would be met with strict scrutiny.

But the debate isn’t over because the board must now figure out how it will pay for the more expensive math books — which dug an instant $3 million hole in next year’s budget, according to the district. It’s got just a few weeks to do that.

The money could come from other things the board wants, such as boosting the P.E., arts and music offerings in elementary schools where those programs are sparse or nonexistent, said board member Sherry Carr, who voted against the more expensive textbook.

So-called math wars have been waged for decades, typically pitting supporters of textbooks that emphasize basic skills and time-tested problem-solving procedures against texts that emphasize the concepts that enable students to tackle new problems.

Research shows it’s a false choice — students need both — although educators have struggled to find the right balance.

The district’s current textbook, called Everyday Math, has long been derided as too fuzzy by advocates of teaching traditional skills and procedures. The district and the board agreed that it was not serving students well enough.

During the seven years the district has had Everyday Math, several schools have tried alternative approaches — 11 chose enVision and four chose books based on Singapore’s national curriculum, often credited for the island city-state’s consistently high math scores on international standardized tests.

Both enVision and a textbook called Math in Focus, an American version of Singapore math, are used by neighboring school districts — Highline uses Math In Focus and Shoreline uses enVision.

Both texts generally were considered superior to the current textbooks and both were among the finalists chosen by the 27-member advisory committee of teachers, parents and community members, who spent at least 40 hours over several months comparing textbooks.

The committee ultimately picked enVision, arguing that it more closely tracked the new Common Core learning standards for math that will be tested in new state exams beginning next year.

But board member Sue Peters — who co-founded the Seattle Math Coalition in 2012 to push for new textbooks and made it one of her campaign issues last fall — and Marty McLaren weren’t ready to give up on Math in Focus, the overwhelming favorite of parents who answered a community survey during the selection process.

First, they tried to float the idea of choosing both textbooks.

But when the district offered a host of reasons why that wouldn’t work, they proposed that the board select Math in Focus outright. At last week’s School Board meeting, board president Sharon Peaslee and Betty Patu joined them, and Math in Focus carried the day.

The exact cost won’t be known until the district places its order, but staff members told the board it expects Math in Focus to cost almost $8 million over seven years — about twice the cost of enVision.

About $1 million of that difference is because Math in Focus will require four days of teacher training instead of one for enVision, according to the district.

“They’re both excellent choices,” said Carr, who voted against choosing Math in Focus along with Harium Martin-Morris and Stephan Blanford. “I did not see the compelling evidence that told me [it] was so much more exceptional that it warranted two times the cost.”

The majority argued that Math in Focus was worth the extra money.

“Our students deserve a world-class math curriculum and we would be doing them an enormous disservice to give them something less just because it costs a little bit less,” Peaslee said at a committee meeting on Monday.

The principal of Schmitz Park elementary school, Gerrit Kischner, said Singapore math has served his school well for the past six years.

But he also is president of the principals union, which opposed adopting both textbooks and backed the advisory committee’s recommendation before the board voted. He said his teachers would have made enVision work, too.

“Probably the biggest benefit of Singapore math is that it builds strong teacher content knowledge in mathematics,” Kischner said. “Schmitz Park was going to be in good shape either way.”

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or jhiggins@seattletimes.com



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