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In Surprise Move, Seattle Schools Approve 'Singapore Math'

Flickr Photo/Wanda Dechant

Last week, the Seattle School Board voted 4-3 to adopt a new elementary curriculum, Math in Focus.

Parents and teachers had lobbied the district for years to use Math in Focus, described as “Singapore math.” Singapore has been consistently ranked as the highest-achieving country in the world.

Gone is Everyday Mathematics, a curriculum that focused on math through stories.

Adopting Math in Focus was a surprise move, given that the district’s advisory committee had recommended adopting a different math curriculum, enVisionMATH.

Critics said Everyday Mathematics was especially difficult for struggling readers and English language learners. Parents and teachers said it was tough for kids to understand and skipped quickly between topics, without ensuring mastery. 

But some board members made that same complaint at enVisionMATH at Wednesday’s board meeting.

"It’s really hard to understand if you don’t have all your English language together," said board member Betty Patu. "As a visual learner, for many years [as a child], it was so hard for me to understand what the teacher was saying that I actually had to see the picture in order to understand what the teacher was talking about.”

Patu said she favored Math in Focus for its clear pictures and minimal text.

A handful of schools around the district like Singapore math so much that they’ve long been using it with their students.

Still, some at the board meeting urged the board to approve the curriculum the advisory committee recommended.

Committee member Deborah Bermet said Math in Focus was quickly ruled out because it is not aligned with the new Common Core State Standards. The district had directed the committee to make standards alignment the top priority in the selection process.

"Math in Focus does not teach the skills and the practices, the habits of mind that Common Core demands of our children," Bermet told the board.

Some board members took issue with the price tag of Math in Focus: $6.4 million dollars compared to $4 million for enVisionMATH.

Board Member Sue Peters questioned whether the comparison was fair, given the different components in each curriculum and the possibility of negotiating a lower price.

Peters was elected last fall after running on a platform that included overhauling the math curriculum, and, along with board member Marty McLaren, put forth two amendments to consider Math in Focus instead of just enVisionMATH.

McLaren was one of the plaintiffs in a 2009 lawsuit against the district for its adoption of a high school math curriculum that takes a similar approach to Everyday Mathematics.  

Peters said that while she respects the work of the advisory committee, the board’s decision comes down to three considerations.

"We have to follow policy, we do have to listen to the community, that is part of what the policy says, and we have to address the issues of equity,” she said. “Making sure that we provide materials that are accessible to as many students as possible."

A jubilant crowd gathered outside the auditorium after the vote, taking group pictures to celebrate their math victory.

Parents and teachers said they hadn’t expected the board to vote against the district’s recommendation – and for the celebrants' favorite curriculum.

K-5 STEM at Boren fifth-grade teacher Craig Parsley grinned from ear to ear. "This is the greatest day I've had since I started teaching," he said.

Parsley said he’s eager for kids across the district to experience what he sees as the key to his students’ success: Singapore math.

The curriculum is coming to Seattle elementary school classrooms this fall.

Year started with KUOW: 2008