Anacortes School District (ASD) students who take Algebra 1 in 8th grade are part of an elite group. These kids with an aptitude for math tend to be socioeconomically superior to their peers in a place that is relatively rich (24.5% free and reduced-price meals/74.0 percentile) compared to the other 293 districts in Washington state.
Karin Cooper, one of the ASD’s most experienced, effective teachers, primarily using a traditional, direct instruction, individual learning approach and an explanation, example and sample-problem-filled textbook produced by Holt McDougal provides these 8th graders the best possible foundation for future math learning. Historically, they have met Washington state’s math graduation requirements by passing the End of Course (EOC 1) test for Algebra 1 (through Class of 2018) at a rate of nearly 100%. The ASD provides these elites one of the best teachers, a proven curriculum and a straightforward approach to learning, yet to its at-grade-level 9th graders, an undeniably unproven, “free” collection of printable pages and a teaching technique that is ineffective.
A multitude of research studies, including Project Follow Through, the Kirschner Report and the C.D. Howe Institute’s Commentary 427, supports direct instruction over discovery teaching, also known as, “the minimally guided approach,” “inquiry learning,” “experiential learning,” and “constructivist learning.” “For novices, studying worked examples seems invariably superior to discovering or construction a solution to a problem.” The Kirschner Report includes the following conclusions:
- “…there is no body of research supporting the [minimal guidance teaching] technique.”
- “In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.”
- “Not only is unguided instruction normally less effective; there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge.”
In spite of significant evidence against the discovery teaching technique, during the 2014-2015 school year, Anacortes High School piloted Mathematics Vision Project (MVP), a Common Core State Standard (CCSS) aligned open educational resource, for the first year, subjecting all 9th graders to this discovery-style Algebra 1 curriculum because, among other inaccuracies, they claimed that “Common Core” requires “group work.” The CCSS Myths vs. Facts page includes this utterly disingenuous idea under its myths section and responds with a fact, that the “standards establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach.” Two years later, the ASD added a second discovery-style Algebra 1 curriculum for its freshmen “target[ing] students 2-3 years behind in many math concepts” called Agile Mind. In addition, AHS students earning a grade of 40%-59% in Algebra 1 use ALEKS, an online curriculum, for “credit retrieval.” Those who transfer to Cap Sante High School (CSHS), nearly all of whom have failed Algebra 1 at AHS as freshmen, have three options: take or re-take it in a discovery-style curriculum classroom at AHS; use CSHS’s very rigorous on-line self-paced Edmentum software; or, for students not seeking a four-year degree, complete the self-taught, bare bones Number Power workbook. The Anacortes School District, with about 200 students per grade, uses six different curricula for one math subject. And no matter which one a student uses, his or her transcript will list it as Algebra 1.
In the past five years, the ASD piloted, re-piloted, re-re-piloted and (in June of 2017) eventually, and against significant opposition, adopted MVP for its at-grade-level AHS freshmen and plans to continue to use it and Agile Mind for its below-grade level Algebra 1 freshmen at least through the upcoming (2019-2020) school year, in spite of a lack of evidence of its effectiveness over readily available common core-aligned direct-instruction style curricula.
One wonders…if the MVP Algebra 1 curriculum is so great, then why isn’t it good enough for AMS’s elite 8th graders (which includes the children of ASD math teachers and leaders)? And why, in spite of the ASD’s Director of Teaching and Learning, Cindy Simonsen’s, assurance that after the School Board’s adoption of it, “The algebra class at AMS will use the same materials [MVP] as the high school algebra course,” has Karin Cooper’s class continued to use Holt McDougal (accessing all but the text through Skyward)? Mrs. Cooper’s decision to stay the course, and her resourcefulness in doing so, saved 200-250 students over the past five years from MVP Algebra 1, and I admire her for it.
There’s no excuse for this unwieldy, unfair practice of using six different curricula of varying teaching-styles, platforms and rigor for a student’s most important foundational math course, especially in a district that includes “equity” as one of its pillars. And it needs to stop. Fortunately, help has arrived in the form of House Bill 1599, which became law last spring. It may be the final nail in the coffin that is the ASD’s five-year long math caste system experiment failure.
Eight years ago, Washington State Adopted Rigorous Common Core Standards…(Then Quietly Backpedaled). As a result, the ASD disingenuously argued that in order for students to meet the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) math requirement for graduation (Class of 2019 students and beyond) they needed to be taught in a discovery-style way and imposed discovery-style learning on AHS students for the required high school math series. Five years of top-down “learning” with real-world “problems” and group and partner work for freshmen taking Algebra 1 followed, while the straightforward approach used in the past with direct instruction continued for those 8th graders enrolled in Mrs. Cooper’s class. But when, on May 7, 2019, Governor Jay Inslee signed the Multiple Pathways to Graduation Bill (HB 1599) into law, which expands the use of waivers and allows students to meet an alternate to passing the requirement without having to first fail the SBAC, the ASD’s disingenuous discovery-teaching is needed for CCSS learning argument evaporated. Now that Washington state high school students can meet the graduation requirement without taking the CCSS-aligned SBAC math test, its argument in favor of its two discovery-style math curriculas: MVP and Agile Mind…also disappears. A student’s best bet in meeting the state testing requirement for math would be to sit for the SAT, and attempt to achieve the required cut score of 430 on the math section which equates to the 23rd Nationally Representative Sample Percentile (NRS), meaning that 77% of U.S. students in grades 11 and 12 would be expected to achieve that statistically-easier-to-meet than the required math SBAC score.
As we approach year five of this experiment in Algebra 1 instruction in the ASD, the District has failed to provide a single piece of irrefutable evidence that its use has led to improved student outcomes. This year, the District finally plans to look into the large variation in curricula for its high school math subjects, which is too little, too late for the hundreds of students who were forced to endure faulty high school math instruction that will diminish their future success in learning and in life. But it’s not too late for current 9th grade Algebra 1 students. The District’s equity pillar states, “We commit to deliver a responsive learning environment and high quality curriculum designed to ensure that each child can reach their full potential regardless of visible or invisible defining characteristics,” which to me means that students caught up in this failed scheme and their parents should be allowed the option of using any of the six available Algebra 1 curricula. Parents should not just ask, but instead demand that their child be given equal chance to learn in a way that makes the most sense for each individual student. Just say no to discovery learning with MVP, and help put an end to the ASD’s math caste system.