Skydiving without Parachutes

2.16.10 – Barry Garelick – “What’s a court doing making a decision on math textbooks and curriculum?” This question and its associated harrumphs on various education blogs and online newspapers came in reaction to the February 4, 2010 ruling from the Superior court of King County

Skydiving without Parachutes

by Barry Garelick

            “What’s a court doing making a decision on math textbooks and curriculum?”  This question and its associated harrumphs on various education blogs and online newspapers came in reaction to the February 4, 2010 ruling from the Superior court of King County that the Seattle school board’s adoption of a discovery type math curriculum for high school was “arbitrary and capricious”. 

In fact, the court did not rule on the textbook or curriculum.  Rather, it ruled on the school board’s process of decision making—more accurately, the lack thereof.  The court ordered the school board to revisit the decision.  Judge Julie Spector found that the school board ignored key evidence—like the declaration from the state’s Board of Education that the discovery math series under consideration was “mathematically unsound”, the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction not recommending the curriculum and last but not least, information given to the board by citizens in public testimony. 

            The decision is an important one because it highlights what parents have known for a long time: School boards generally do what they want to do, evidence be damned.  Discovery    type math programs are adopted despite parent protests, despite evidence of experts and—judging by the case in Seattle—despite findings from the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

            It is obvious to parents that the discovery programs are largely ineffective.  They have suffered through Investigations in Number, Data and Space with its homework assignments asking students to show three ways to add 343 + 267 and draw pictures to illustrate what is going on.  They have suffered through the ill-sequenced spiraling of Everyday Math, with fractions one day, geometry the next and the alternative (and inefficient) algorithms for multiplication and division.  They have seen the ill-posed and open-ended problems for which their children have not been given prior instruction and who are asked to develop “strategies” for their solution.  They have asked their kids to see the textbook to be told there is no textbook; only worksheets, and no worked examples.

            Many of these parents are scientists, mathematicians, engineers and teachers, who understand the necessity of a solid foundation that is in a logical sequence which then builds upon itself.  Many of these parents are forced to teach their children what they are not being taught in school, hire tutors, or enroll their children in learning centers like Sylvan, Huntington, or Kumon.

            It is obvious to the parents that children do not learn what they haven’t been taught. But parents are put in a position of having to “prove” to school boards that this is true. To these parents, this is tantamount to having to prove that jumping out of an airplane without a parachute is life threatening. Yet, school boards repeatedly tell parents the equivalent of “Yes you can jump out of an airplane without a parachute if it’s done the right way.”  And of course, to be done the right way, instructors must be trained properly.  It is obvious to the parents that for the various discovery math programs they are fighting against, no amount of training will make a difference because the programs are inherently bad.  But school boards have had their minds made up.

These parents are viewed by the education establishment as the great unwashed—people who “just don’t understand” what education is about.  In meeting after meeting across the country, for a period now spanning more than two decades, school boards have told parents that they are misinformed, that they think that how they learned math is the only way, and that the reason they don’t like the particular math program being considered is because they didn’t learn math that way.  They are told that traditional math is rote memorization; there is no real thinking, no deep understanding of concepts, and no real problem solving.  There is only mind-numbing exercises—procedural fluency and conceptual understanding are mutually exclusive. 


 In meeting after meeting, parents have been told that traditional math may have worked for some people, but it also failed large numbers of students.  The school boards don’t bother defining what they mean by fail, or how many students in fact “failed” or what specific era they’re talking about.  They just say that traditional math doesn’t teach all students, but this new program does.  The school boards trot out test scores from other schools that use the program but parents are not told to what degree students are tutored.  To the school boards, the test scores represent the effectiveness of the program under discussion.  There is never any consideration that the test scores reflect the effectiveness of outside help students have received.  


Parents have heard it before.  They know that this new discovery, inquiry-based, standards-based and vendor-based program lowers expectations to the extent that everyone gets a high grade.  Process trumps content: if students can show the thought process, it doesn’t matter if they get the right answer or not.  Parents in affluent communities know this.  In poorer communities, there isn’t as much protest.


I am hopeful that the Seattle court decision will at least force evidence to be considered.  Of course, this means that school boards may now carefully craft answers to dismiss evidence that is presented and come to a decision that won’t be ruled arbitrary and capricious.  But at least they will have to work a bit harder in refuting the evidence that jumping out of airplanes without parachutes leads to death.



Barry Garelick is an analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington DC.  He is a cofounder of the U.S. Coalition for World Class Math ( ), a group of state coalitions comprised of mathematically literate parents, many of whom are scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and educators who want nothing but excellence in Mathematics Education for U.S.


  1. Martha McLaren


    Thank you so much for bringing attention to our lawsuit and for explaining its causes and results so clearly. Your parachute analogy is, sadly, right on! The same goes for the characterization of how we critics are viewed: "the great unwashed — people who 'just don't understand…'" Your eloquent prose is casting a bright light on the reasons for parents' concerns and desperation about their children's math eduction.

  2. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr.


    It should be noted that the appeal was filed June 5, 2009. Within Twenty days the board was required to submit to the court all the evidence on which the decision was based. 1100 pages were submitted which included ZERO from the public.

    The plaintiffs then submitted NMAP at 82 pages and around 200 pages of public letters, data, and testimony.

    The public submissions showed a recent "inquiry program" IMP, (used from fall 2006- spring 2009 for three years at two high schools) which was supported using UW guidance and NSF funding, raised far below standard scoring for Black Students to above 70% for that population. English Language Learners saw their pass rate drop to 0% on the 10th grade WASL math test at one school.

    Evidence was also submitted showing continually growing achievement gaps for a decade. From 4th grade Math WASL TERC/Investigations follow by Everyday Math clearly failed educationally disadvantaged learners. The two years of EDM expanded the achievement gaps for all 6 sub-groups from earlier huge gaps. Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, Low Income, and English Language Learners each saw an increased achievement gap.

    The district wanted a k-12 vertical alignment of instructional materials. They needed "Discovering" at high school to complete their "trifecta" of disaster. With this adoption they could fail to provide appropriate effective instruction for all children k-12.

    When the judge sent this back for the board to consider more fully she stressed using "All" the evidence.

    It was certainly refreshing for me after three years of testifying and writing to the school board to know that it was not just me they were ignoring. "They ignore everyone."

    "What a Country" of by and for "the Oligarchs".

    Next legal appeal will be filed on or before March 5, in regard to a board action on Feb. 3, 2010. This was the day before Judge Spector's Board "Business as Usual" shattering decision.

    All legal documents filed that produced this "Victory for Accountability" are available at the Seattle Math Group including the Court Transcript. (Note the 1400 pages of evidence are not available for down load) some of the legal arguments reference a few of these pages.

    There is also a request for funds on the Seattle Math Group website, complete with fund raising report.

    Go to:

    Thanks for writing this article.
    The Central Administrations said: They will appeal the Judge's decision. Appeal on what grounds?

    I guess they will appeal on their right to continue to "Arbitrarily and Capriciously" violate article IX of the state constitution:
    "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex. "

    Who does this Judge think she is, questioning the rights of the "SPS Oligarchy"?

    Quite a forceful argument right?

  3. Mandy Lowell

    Clear and well-presented explanation of the unfortunate truth of many math debates.
    It is so frustrating to hear administrators intone that "memorizing addition facts and multiplication tables" will hinder conceptual understanding of math as well as creativity and critical thinking, when our high tech innovators, ground breaking medical researchers, and many others trained with traditional math show no such harm from having memorized math facts before doing abstract math. There is little recognition that doing elementary math facts with automaticity makes it easier for most students to proceed to more interesting algebraic and abstract concepts. Instead, students are mired in multiple ways to draw and reason about single digit addition and multiplication. Moreover, the administrators propound the amazingly implausible notion that the doctors, math professors, and engineers do not care about multiple ways to approach problems or creating a love of mathematics. Some administrators just dismiss information from high school teachers or people whose occupations use math every day.
    Thank you for explaining these issues.

  4. Laurie Rogers

    Nice job on this article, Mr. Garelick. Your analogy is apt. I agree completely with the sentiments and the tone expressed here.

    I would like to think if we stuck central office administrators in a reform math classroom and forced them to endure the torture they call K-12 math instruction, they would come to see the light, but I fear they would just get out their color-coded sticky notes, their pens and highlighters and happily spend the rest of the day muddling in herds, getting nowhere, certain that their talking, scribbling and checking for group consensus means "real learning" is going on.

    The lawsuit in Seattle is instructive – not just for the legal decision – but also for the fact that a lawsuit became necessary.

    Board members everywhere should pay close attention. There is a great deal of frustration out there. It didn't take long for news of the Seattle legal decision to travel across the country and even around the world. Some school boards will continue to get away with blindly rubberstamping poor administrator process, but some won't.

    Look alive, folks. Buy the students some parachutes.

    Laurie Rogers

  5. College Degrees

    Online College Degrees where Education is heading. Find Information in <a href="">college degrees</a> at College Matching Service.

  6. EM

    Let's see. 80% of classrooms in America use traditional approaches to mathematics and approximately 20% use reform inquiry approaches. But we should believe that ALL of the troubles of America's students should be blamed on reform approaches. Seems like Dempsey needs a math lesson herself.

  7. Barry Garelick

    EM, where do you get your information about the 80-20% split? Everyday Math alone has about a 20% market share. If you add Investigations and Math Trailblazers on top of that, the penetration is at least 50% but probably more like 60%. In addition, some of the non-NSF funded textbooks themselves contain fuzzy methods and a de-emphasis on learning math facts in favor for the so-called "deeper understanding" of math. Thus, you cannot ignore the influence that such textbooks have had on other publishers, not to mention teaching practices.

    Also, I saw you post this comment elsewhere, and Mr. Dempsey addressed it with facts and figures pertinent to the State of Washington. The penetration of programs like EM and Investigations is quite high there.

  8. best presents for mother

    I agree with you, but everything must be prepared.. and everyone must be ready. On only the students but teachers too..

Leave a comment


February 15th, 2010

Jimmy Kilpatrick

Career Index

Plan your career as an educator using our free online datacase of useful information.

View All

On Twitter

Troubled student loan provider Sallie Mae re-brands with Navient offshoot #education #highered #edchat

1 day ago

What are the real HS graduation rates in Texas? @TXbiz would like to know #edchat #education #edreform

1 day ago

At many schools and colleges, disabled students lack the #edtech needed to excel #edreform #education

1 day ago

On Facebook


Enter your email to subscribe to daily Education News!

Hot Topics