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Bellevue schools weigh math texts; meetings 'not public'

The Bellevue School District is wrestling with how to teach math as it prepares to adopt new textbooks for the subject later this year.

At question is whether to use a more traditional math-computations system or the emerging inquiry-based approach that uses investigation and story problems to help students learn math.

The district wants new textbooks for the start of the next school year, and it’s testing two types: the Holt Algebra-Geometry series and the Discovering Mathematics curriculum.

Many parents and college professors have expressed strong opposition to the Discovering system, which uses inquiry-based methods. They say this approach leaves students unprepared for college math and is troublesome for those who don’t have a strong command of reading and writing.

But Karen Coe, CEO and president of the company that publishes the Discovering textbooks, says not everyone in academia opposes inquiry-based math. She said her company has received hundreds of letters from math researchers and educators who support inquiry-based math and the Discovering curriculum.

"Many researchers cite studies where the findings show greater growth among all student populations as compared to similar populations using traditional materials," she said.

The state Superintendent of Public Instruction has picked the Holt series as its recommended option, and so has the State Board of Education.

DECISION MAKING NOT PUBLIC

The Bellevue School Board has assigned a math advisory committee to review the texts and come up with a recommendation for the district.

That committee will report its endorsement to the district’s instructional materials committee, which answers to the Bellevue School Board.

The district says the advisory committee meetings are not public.

No information is posted publicly about times, dates or locations for the meetings. However, the district does have a website explaining the textbook-adoption process.

The district says the adoption committee is not subject to the rules of the Open Public Meetings Act, which requires all meetings to be open except under limited circumstances.

“It’s not a public agency, it’s an advisory committee,” said Bellevue schools general counsel Ricardo Cruz. “We have committees all over the district, and not all of them are open to the public.”

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office told The Reporter it cannot give a binding legal opinion of the matter, but it did provide a precedent from 2006 in which the Puyallup School District fought the Tacoma News Tribune over whether it’s instructional materials committee meetings should be open to the public.

The state’s open public meetings ombudsman concluded that the Puyallup committee was a policy-making body of the district, and was therefore subject to the Open Public Meetings Act.

“I think the IMC is precisely the kind of important policy-making body the legislature had in mind when it broadly defined ‘public agency’ and ‘governing body,’” former ombudsman Greg Overstreet said in a letter to a Puyallup School District attorney.

Still, Cruz contends that the Bellevue School District’s adoption committee meetings “are not required to be open under the Open Public Meetings Act, although we’re not excluding people from those meetings.”

The district granted permission for The Reporter to attend a meeting of the advisory committee scheduled for Feb. 25 at a location that is yet to be announced.

A group of Bellevue parents have organized an independent meeting for the public to discuss the two textbooks on Feb. 24, 7 p.m., at the school district's Wilburton Instructional Service Center (12241 Main Street).

That meeting follows a recent move by the Bellevue PTSA to ditch plans for a Feb. 8 math night that organizers feared would end up unbalanced in favor of Holt supporters.

Bellevue PTSA Council President Janet Suppes said in an e-mail obtained by The Reporter: "When I was unable to have the meeting opened up to more than just the computational math perspective, I made the decision to withdraw Council's sponsorship of the evening."

A TOUGH DECISION

The district's 26-member advisory committee – consisting of teachers, parents, an administrator and members of the district’s curriculum-adoption staff – is scheduled to review results from the Bellevue pilot studies during its Feb. 25 meeting.

Bellevue schools curriculum-development director Kathee Terry said the district is still wading through data – taken from around 2,000 students – and does not have a clear answer yet on which curriculum works best.

“We have contradicting results,” she said. “It’s pretty even.”

Not so according to the many parents who oppose the Discovering curriculum.

Bellevue resident Jock Mackinlay is a mentor for the FIRST robotics team at Chinook MS who also holds a bachelor’s degree in math and a PhD in computer science.

Mackinlay says Discovery fails to help students learn the basics of computation. He also says the Discovering series favors teachers with weak backgrounds in math.

“They’ve been trying the inquiry-based method for a decade now,” he said. “The fact that all the parents hate it should tell them that it’s time to try something less extreme.”

District parent Sharon Peaslee agrees with Mackinlay’s assessment of the inquiry-based approach.

“It was a failed experiment,” Peaslee said. “It’s time to move on.”

Terry said she can’t explain why more parents haven’t come forward to show support for the Discovering curriculum.

“Probably because if a parent is satisfied with their child’s education, they don’t feel a need to march for it,” she said.

The Seattle School District has grappled this year with similar issues related to a choice between the Holt and Discovering texts.

Discovering won in that case, but a King County Superior Court judge ordered the school board to reconsider its decision, saying it was arbitrary and capricious, after concerned parents sued the district.

(Story originally published Feb. 18)

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