Nation’s 16th Biggest District Spends More Than a Million to Implement “Free” Discovery High School Mathematics Curriculum

On the surface, it appears that Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) did everything right in their high school mathematics curriculum adoption process. So how did they end up with Mathematics Vision Project (MVP), and why does this “free” curriculum cost so much?

Wake County Public School System District Facts

Hire consultants with a discovery-style teaching philosophy and you’ll end up with a discovery-style curriculum

At the March 15, 2016, Wake County Board of Education Meeting (BoEM), the Board contracted with TNTP to “…conduct a curriculum and student work quality review of 20+ schools that represents the diversity of the system, conducting classroom observations, analysis of student tasks, principal interviews, and teacher focus groups,” and report their findings. This line from the non-profit’s proposal all but guaranteed that the District would end up with a curriculum that requires discovery-style teaching and learning, “We gather data on whether students have the opportunity to discuss mathematical thinking with their peers and teacher…[and] assess the extent to which students, rather than the teacher, are responsible for questioning and for explaining mathematical thinking.” Seven months later, at the October 18, 2016, BoEM, the District contracted with Gartner, Inc., “to work with the school system on a more strategic approach to managing and optimizing curriculum resources.” Nothing in the WCPSS’s Board documents indicates how the list of prospective products was narrowed down, but a slide from TNTP’s November 14, 2016, Student Achievement Committee Meeting (SACM) presentation Our Next Steps With Gartner reads, ‘Strategically position WCPSS to manage and optimize curriculum resources that cultivate a “marketplace” of content and resources.’ Sounds like a collection of Open Educational Resources (OERs) to me.

Big bad publishing company’s product competes against a handful of idealistic educators’ “free” open educational resources.

A Power Point Presentation from the April 17, 2017, SACM comparing the two shows the bias against Publisher Content, “It is estimated the top five textbook publishers control 80% of the market, and all 5 have revenues over $1B” while describing OERs as “…teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others,” and, “Cost reductions in the purchase of [OER] instructional materials so that dollars can be dedicated to implementation.” In a May 3, 2017, News&Observer article (and several since), T. Keung Hui writes that MVP is a “nonprofit,” adding an ethical edge where none exists: MVP is an LLC. And Travis Lemon, one of its co-creators, inflated data a during his product pitch to a select group of District staff and community members.

Exclude the negatives and overstate the positives to win

Near the end of February of 2017, Wake County gave stakeholders the opportunity to check out the two short-listed Mathematics 1, 2 & 3 curriculums, Core-Plus Mathematics and Mathematics Vision Project. Ultimately, 496 teachers, 71 principals, and 58 community members provided feedback.

Mr. Lemon’s presentation included several graphs from a 2013 Washington State review of OER Mathematics 1 curriculum review that rated MVP high in several categories, including Alignment, Rigor & Balance, and I Would Use This in My Classroom. Of course, he left out those categories in which MVP performed poorly, including Assessment–teachers must create their own, Quality of Explanation of Subject Matter–rated between Very Weak and Limited and ranked last, and it didn’t even garner a rating in Quality of Technological Interactivity–because the student version of the curriculum consists simply of a collection of PDF-files.

Travis Lemon also shared a graphic that showed significant College and Career Ready proficiency gains on the Mathematics 1 End of Course exam in the Chapel Hill/Carborro City School District after their first year of MVP implementation; however, scores used for the pre-implementation year were incorrect, which inflated the improvement. Similarly, multi-year data for CHCC shows that the relative improvement in proficiency was no better than for (pre-MVP) WCPSS over the same span and less than relative improvement in NC statewide. The same slide states, “Take the opportunity to visit with two Chapel Hill Math Teachers while you are exploring the MVP materials. They are here tonight!” Let’s hope they weren’t paid.

Lost in this Dishonest David versus Greedy Goliath contest: Which one would better suit WCPSS students and staff?

The student pages for the introduction to linear equations for MVP and Core-Plus Mathematics provide an example of the difference in approaches. The OER approach is very different, “In the MVP classroom the teacher launches a rich task and then through “teacher moves” encourages students to explore, question, ponder, discuss their ideas and listen to the ideas of their classmates., “an independent nonprofit designed to improve education by providing reviews of K-12 instructional materials,” includes ratings for WCPSS’s two finalists. They scored dead even in both the Focus & Coherence and Rigor & Mathematical Practices categories, but in Usability, Core-Plus scored 30/36 (equivalent to 83%), while MVP scored 23/36 (64%). In spite of all this, WCPSS chose MVP over Core-Plus.

You get what you pay for. Then you pay for what you get (for “free”).

In preparation for the 2017-2018 rollout of the MVP Mathematics 1 curriculum, the WCPSS Board authorized $255,550 for staff training, $40,050 for Teacher Access to digital material, and $51,350 for Student Video access. At the June 5, 2018, BoEM following the first year of implementation, the Board authorized additional funding for the next three years that, when combined, totals over a million dollars in MVP-related costs. That’s in addition to $448,881 paid to consultants TNTP and Gartner. And it doesn’t include a dime to print the large PDF files that make up the Student (and Teacher) Editions. Mathematics 1 is 512 pages long, 2 is 399, and 3 is 465. The cost (at 4 cents per copy) to print one set of each for all 14,305 students per grade (512+399+465)*0.04*14,305=$787,347, include teacher copies and replacement costs, so say at least a million. Ignoring inflation, the projected cost per year for ongoing access to content for teachers and videos for students is $200,000, that’s $1,200,000 for years 6-10. Then add at least $200,000 in additional training. So, the rough cost for this “free” curriculum over 10 years is at least $3,500,000.

Once rolled out, it didn’t take long for Wake County students and their parents to notice big differences in MVP’s teaching and learning techniques versus what they were used to. In New Common Core materials are changing the way kids learn math in Wake County teacher Stephanie Herndon, “tells students their answer is OK even if it’s wrong as long as they can explain and justify their response to show they have deep understanding of the concept.” And explains how MVP requires a different approach, “Instead of me saying, ‘Here is a linear equation: It’s y=mx+b,’ it’s much more, ‘Let’s get to this equation,’ ” Math instruction has moved towards “real world” situations, which is good, but being okay with wrong math answers in the real world is bad.

You can fool all the parents some of the time, and some of the parents all the time, but you cannot fool all the parents all the time…especially Wake County Public School System parents.

In Wake parents concerned about new math curriculum in schools, “Drew Cook, assistant superintendent for Academics for the Wake County Public School System, says the system has only received a few complaints about MVP math since last year and there doesn’t seem to be a system-wide problem.” If so, then how did Parents of MVP Math Students in WCPSS’s Facebook page attract nearly 600 followers in two month’s time? And how did the same group’s Fight MVP in Wake County, NC, School System GoFundMe campaign page exceed its $1,500 fundraising goal within one day?

The author of Wake changed how it teaches high school math. Some parents say it’s hurting students quotes Michelle Tucker, Wake’s director of K-12 math, as she discusses student proficiency, ‘Typically…scores drop when a new curriculum is used…Wake’s passing rate on the state’s end-of-course Math 1 test went up last school year.’ Initial Data – Math EOC Results reported during the November 19, 2018, SACM indicated Grade Level Proficiency (GLP) (Levels 3, 4, 5) increased by 1.5% and Career & College Ready (CCR) (Levels 4, 5) proficiency increased by 1.9% after the first year of MVP implementation, but scores rose statewide. WCPSS parent Blain Dillard requested and obtained the data behind these claims, which include only high school students (9th-12th) who sat for the Math EOC 1 during the specified year.

A better comparison is of WCPSS versus North Carolina (NC), which shows that the comparison gap between the two has tightened over time. The CCR proficiency in 2015-2016 for All Students in WCPSS was 26.9% better than NC. That gap closed to 21.1% in 2016-2017, and even more, to 18.9%, in 2017-2018-the first year of MVP implementation. The trend for GLP proficiency was similar. The comparison gap between WCPSS and NC students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) tightened even more than that of All Students. The CCR proficiency from 2015-2016 for WCPSS was 27.8% better than NC. After one year of MVP, the gap (WCPSS was 0.4% better than NC) all but disappeared. The trend for GLP proficiency was similar. And the Economically Disadvantaged Student (EDS) performance gap between WCPSS and NC was worse. The CCR proficiency in 2015-2016 for EDS in WCPSS was 4.5% better than NC. In 2016-2017, NC EDS outperformed WCPSS by 2.3%, and in 2017-2018, by 11.8%. The trend for GLP proficiency was similar over the same period.

Due to an Every Student Exceeds Act exception implemented in May of 2017, “For proficiency in the 2017–18 school year only, the NC Math 1 EOC scores of grade 9 students who took the NC Math 1 EOC in middle school in 2016–17 or earlier are banked to the students’ current high school.” That is, during the first year of MVP implementation, high school (9-12) Math 1 EOC proficiency scores include data from students who previously passed the Math 1 EOC in middle school before MVP was implemented. The 2018-2019 high school (9-12) NC Math 1 EOC proficiency scores will not include students who previously passed. For WCPSS, that means that the data from 2018-2019 NC Math EOC 1 will be a better indicator of MVP’s effectiveness (or not) than 2017-2018.

And so it goes

Wake County’s MVP-adoption experience is similar to what’s happened before and will likely happen again. Someone decides that Common Core State Standard learning requires discovery-style teaching (it doesn’t), which sends the District down a path towards OERs, which leads them to MVP. And it’s not free. Parents, initially inspired that their anti-MVP efforts will succeed, are beaten down by new knowledge of MVP curriculum selection, implementation and ineffectiveness-related indignities and District leaders’ apparent insouciance. Time flies and another academic year goes by. Meanwhile, the curriculum becomes further entrenched and more difficult to dislodge as the District continues to allocate resources to support it while being unable to show significant gains in student math proficiency due to its use. Through a process of attrition, parents beat down by repeated assurances that the District leaders “appreciate their willingness to share their concerns” (while forging full speed ahead) give up.

But maybe not this time. Parents of MVP Math Students in WCPSS is a well-organized, highly motivated group. And I wish them the best of luck.

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