Breaking with a recommendation from a large committee of teachers and parents, the Palo Alto school board on Tuesday unanimously approved two new elementary mathematics curricula for formal pilot this school year and potentially a third, with the caveat that it must first be vetted by an external, third-party organization.
The board eventually voted 5-0 to pilot Bridges in Mathematics and Eureka/Engage New York and to hold off on Investigations, which was rated highly by teachers, until an independent organization confirms that it is aligned with the Common Core State Standards.
The vote came after an extended and at times tense debate, with three out of the five board members -- President Heidi Emberling and trustees Melissa Baten Caswell and Camille Townsend -- arguing they could not pilot a curriculum without this third-party validation.
While Bridges and Eureka/Engage New York were rated highly by EdReports, an independent nonprofit that vets and publishes in-depth reviews of curricula, the organization has not yet evaluated the 2017 edition of Investigations, which is what the district's Elementary Math Adoption Committee recommended for pilot. Investigations’ most recent edition, published in 2012, received low scores from EdReports in all grade levels and categories.
"I don't know that I can go out to the community and say I OK'd a book that hadn’t been evaluated fully, that hadn't been used fully ... but there were two others that were and I thought it was equal," Baten Caswell said. "I feel like I can't stand behind that."
Yet out of eight curricula elementary teachers spent months testing out in their classrooms last year, teachers ranked Investigations, Everyday Math and Eureka/Engage NY most highly -- and in that order. Teachers explored the 2012 version of Investigations until 2017 materials were available in the spring, staff said.
None of the three curricula are on the California Department of Education's approved list, but that has not been updated for several years in the wake of a new law that allows school districts to vet and choose their own textbooks.
Vice President Terry Godfrey and Trustee Ken Dauber supported Superintendent Max McGee’s recommendation to pilot all three curricula and rely on the teachers' best judgment on standards alignment.
The Elementary Math Adoption Committee had recommended that the district pilot Investigations and Bridges, with Engage/Eureka New York -- a free, online resource -- as a supplementary, optional curricula available for teachers.
Dauber said he thought it would be a "radical act" for the school board to go against the committee's recommendation. Earlier on Tuesday, during a special morning session the board held on elementary math so it could take a vote in the evening, he said teachers' judgment is his "gold standard" for what the right curriculum is for the district.
"Third-party resources are useful but once we have a thorough analysis by our professionals, that to me has more weight than external sources," Dauber said. "They're the ones who are working with the particular conditions in our district and have the day-to-day experience with what works."
When asked by Dauber, McGee said he had no serious concerns that Investigations is not Common Core-aligned.
On Tuesday evening, Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educator's Association, read to the board its own materials-selection policy, which requires teachers with subject-matter expertise to be involved in a "substantial manner," particularly if the district is choosing a textbook that has not been adopted by the state Board of Education.
"Teachers are increasingly feeling that their voices in such important educational decisions and in this case, the best education for their students in mathematics, just aren't being heard," Baldwin said.
Chief Academic Officer for Elementary Education Barbara Harris, who is leading the elementary-math committee, told the board that getting third-party validation was "never a prerequisite" for the pilot and is actually something the district has never sought before in its textbook-adoption process.
She said she is worried that placing so much emphasis on it was getting away from the spirit and purpose of the state legislation that places evaluation and selection of materials in the hands of teachers.
Harris also questioned whether the district will be able to find a suitable third-party agency in a timely manner.
Later in the meeting, Dauber made a failed motion, seconded by Godfrey, to move all three curricula forward. Baten Caswell, Emberling and Townsend voted against it.
Dauber then offered an amendment, which the entire board eventually supported: to contract with a board-approved outside agency that would be able to validate whether or not the materials are Common Core-aligned. If it gets that stamp of approval, teachers on the adoption committee would pilot Investigations in the spring, after piloting Bridges and Eureka/Engage New York in phases this fall and winter.
For several board members, the discord and fallout of the district’s last math-adoption process in 2009 remained fresh in their minds.
"I just cannot go there again having lived through it and having the teachers invest in a pilot of a curriculum that one, the teachers have not looked at because it’s the 2017 version, and two, that hasn’t been rated, and three, that three of the board members of the five have concerns about," Emberling said.
"I just don’t think as a community we want to introduce that tension into this process," she added. "You can feel this is a tense discussion. I don’t want math to be a tense discussion."
According to a proposed timeline, teachers on the adoption committee will pilot the textbooks in two phases, starting with one in October through December and the second in January to March. If the 2017 edition of Investigations is found to be Common Core-aligned, it would also piloted during the second round in the spring.
Teachers will be required to fill out evaluation rubrics after each round of piloting and meet with other teachers throughout the process. They are set to return to the board with a final recommendation for adoption at the end of the pilot.
How would the candidates vote?
As part of the Palo Alto Weekly's election coverage, we will be asking the candidates who are running for Palo Alto Board of Education how they would vote -- and why -- on significant issues that the board takes action on before November.
This week, the Weekly asked the three non-incumbent candidates how they would vote on the proposals for elementary math the board considered Tuesday, including the three presented recommendations and the board's final amended action to pilot two elementary mathematics curricula with a third contingent on third-party validation.
Cabrera responded on Sept. 19: I would consult the community on any vote, and vote based on a direct, representative, and participatory democracy approach.
With community support, my own foresight on this issue would be to support the recommendations and hard work of the committee, and help move implementation forward, unless there was a specific glaring issue that seemed problematic.
On which of the three recommendations he would vote for: If I was only choosing from those three, I would choose the third (to pilot Bridges and Investigations with Eureka/Engage New York as a supplement). The reason is that as the committee said ... it's a big deal to do a good pilot and piloting three is harder. While they were willing to take it on under certain circumstances, one of my themes (is) to try to do fewer things and do them well rather than just try to take on more because it seems like a good idea. I think focusing on two was the right choice.
On the board's final amended action: I would have voted against that. ... Rather than making a decision and moving on, we are doing this thing that we often do where we try to compromise a little bit to please everybody and we prolong the agony and make this so it's an issue that we will still be dealing with three months from now, six months from now, a year from now and just kick the can down the road. We kick the can down the road in this case by saying we’re going to come up with some magical third party that doesn’t exist, that's subject to board approval, whose finding will either be acceptable or not acceptable. We already just went through a big process to figure this out and got to where we were yesterday.
It just seemed inappropriate, as several board members said, (to pilot Investigations). It's hard to go to the community and say, 'Yes, we’ll pilot something,' and let them build enthusiasm for it when we might find out later that it is a book we might not be allowed to adopt, especially when there are two acceptable options on the table. I think that was a compromise position that I would not have supported.
On which of the three recommendations she would vote for: I would have voted to approve option No. 2 -- piloting all three recommended curricula. The committee, after many months of exploration, felt that Bridges and Investigations were their top choices for pilot and I trust the work they have done. Because the board has some reservations about Investigations and because our teachers have yet to explore Bridges within our classrooms, I believe it is reasonable to include Eureka in the official pilot since the committee also rated it highly and it comes highly recommended by a respected third party. I believe this vote would have given us the greatest possibility of successful adoption.
On the board's final amended action: Once the final proposal was in front of the board -- to pilot Bridges and Eureka and, in tandem, to do a third-party validation on the Investigations curriculum, I would have voted for that. I do have some hesitation that we are spending resources on an outside validation when there are other quality curricula as options, but the teachers were strong supporters of Investigations, so I do think it is worth meeting the board's request of third-party validation.