After devoting an entire school year to testing out new math materials at Palo Alto's elementary schools and selecting three curricula to recommend to the Board of Education, a school district committee swiftly voted on Monday to back a new curriculum that most committee members just saw for the first time this week and to abandon Everyday Math, the curriculum at the center of the district's bitter "math wars" in 2009.
The 62-member committee, made up largely of elementary school teachers but also some administrators and parents, put its support behind two K-5 curricula: "Investigations," one of eight curricula district teachers tested in their classrooms during the last school year, and "Bridges in Mathematics," which the district learned about only recently. On Monday, the committee spent about 10 to 15 minutes looking at the Bridges materials in small groups before backing it as one of two curricula that could be piloted by a small group of Palo Alto elementary teachers this school year.
This was a marked shift from the committee's initial recommendation this spring to pilot Investigations plus an updated version of Everyday Math and another curriculum that some district teachers currently use, Eureka/Engage New York, starting this fall.
Everyday Math has had a troubled history in the district, even after its contentious adoption. The arrival of the more rigorous Common Core State Standards, implemented in Palo Alto Unified in 2013, has led many teachers to supplement the older curriculum or replace it entirely. In a survey the district conducted this spring, 40 percent of teachers reported they don't use Everyday Math as their primary curriculum.
Chief Academic Officer for Elementary Education Barbara Harris told the elementary-math committee members Monday afternoon that she doesn't believe the school board would endorse Everyday Math given its history in the district.
"I do not believe that Everyday Math would get to the point of an approval," Harris said. "That's my elephant in the room. I believe that you have worked really hard with Everyday Math because you're good foot soldiers. ... We need tools that will engage us, that will inspire us, that will help us to get to every single student."
Harris instead recommended that the committee back the new curriculum, Bridges. District staff first learned about Bridges in April and was more recently prompted to take a closer look at it by EdReports, an independent nonprofit that vets and publishes in-depth reviews of curricula.
EdReports rates Bridges highly, with near-perfect scores in all grade levels in the nonprofit's categories of alignment; focus and coherence; rigor and mathematical practices; and usability.
A preliminary review of Bridges conducted by the district found it "captures the letter of the Common Core (State Standards) and the spirit of the Common Core" and "incorporated everything we valued from Investigations and Engage New York." District staff also point to the fact that Piedmont Unified School District, which they describe as a comparable district, adopted Bridges in 2015. Amanda Gantley, one of five math Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSAs) who reviewed the curriculum's online materials last week, said the TOSAs feel Bridges is "robust," with "engaging" lessons and a "wealth of resources for teachers to use with students and families." Gantley said Bridges "has more to offer" than Eureka/Engage New York, one of the curriculum she explored last year in her fifth-grade classroom.
The committee's teachers, in their brief review of Bridges Monday, were almost universally positive about the materials, which they described as interactive and having the depth, rigor and differentiation they're looking for.
Some math committee members and administrators said in interviews after the meeting that they were not surprised by how quickly the committee put its support behind Bridges, despite spending so little time with the materials. Parent-member Jennifer DiBrienza, who is running for school board (and is listed as a "contributing author" to Investigations on the curriculum's website), said this group of teachers was well-prepared to quickly evaluate a curriculum after having spent an entire school year doing just that.
Superintendent Max McGee said teachers were eager to dive into the new curriculum, and he was more "impressed" than surprised that "they took on this task so professionally and came to the recommendations that they did."
Gantley wrote in an email to the Weekly that "Whenever a teacher sees something that he or she thinks will meet all of their students' needs, they tend to jump on it!"
"After the CCSS (Common Core State Standards) were adopted, teachers were expected to teach those new standards while waiting for the new curriculum to become available," she wrote. "Finally, here is a quality curriculum."
Others, however, expressed concern about the pace with which the recommendations were made on Monday.
Before the vote, Claudia Peñaloza, a fourth-grade teacher at Escondido Elementary School, worried that abandoning the district's adopted curriculum of Everyday Math would send a message to those teachers who rated it highly last year that "our opinion isn't as valid." Out of the eight curricula tested last year, teachers ranked Investigations, Everyday Math and Eureka/Engage NY most highly -- and in that order.
Raquel Goya, a math lead and kindergarten teacher at Hoover Elementary School, told the Weekly that, given the amount of time teachers spent trying materials and providing thoughtful feedback last year, Monday's vote "felt really fast."
She was also surprised by how quickly Eureka/Engage New York was abandoned despite its popularity among teachers. (It's been her primary math curriculum for several years, supplemented by other materials, she said. She does not use Everyday Math at all.)
It felt like there was no opportunity on Monday, Goya said, to slow down, discuss the options and ask, "Why are we moving forward so quickly?"
Athena Foley, a committee member and kindergarten teacher at Barron Park Elementary School, said in an interview she was more surprised by the fact that the committee decided to move forward just two curricula instead of three for the pilot. The committee seemed to agree with Harris, who said that piloting three -- in a school year that has already started -- would be hard on the committee's teachers.
Despite the committee's recommendation of Investigations, the 2012 edition received low scores from EdReports -- from zero to seven out of 14 -- in all grade levels and categories. (The school district would like to pilot the 2017 version, which has not yet been rated by EdReports nor approved by the California Department of Education. The state has also not yet approved the new edition of Bridges.) EdReports also found that Investigations' 2012 materials for third through fifth grade do not meet expectations for Common Core alignment.
Everyday Math 4 (the latest edition) received slightly better scores in first through sixth grades, from seven to 10 out of 14.
EdReports gave Eureka the highest marks: 14 out of 14 for all grade levels except sixth grade.
Along with the committee's selection of Bridges and Investigations, Eureka/Engage New York has been recommended an approved supplemental curriculum.
As the district moves forward toward a pilot, Goya said she hopes teachers' feedback is taken seriously: "not just 'I hear you, and yet this is our plan.'"
"We're the professionals that are in the classroom working with the kids, working with this curriculum, seeing if it's effective or not," she said, "and we should have a voice in that final decision."
The committee's recommendation will come before the school board for a discussion at its next regular meeting on Sept. 13. If approved, the teachers on the adoption committee would pilot both curricula in their classrooms this year.