Curriculum

Texas’ Decision to Reject Math Textbook Reflects Debate Over Teaching Methods

By Sean Cavanagh — December 18, 2007 6 min read

In a decision that underscores long-standing rifts over how to teach mathematics, Texas officials have rejected one of the most widely used elementary textbooks in the country in that subject after complaining that it does not encourage students to memorize multiplication tables and solve problems without calculators.

The state board of education’s move last month to turn down the 3rd grade version of Everyday Mathematics echoes disputes that have inflamed educators, parents, mathematicians, and interest groups across the nation for years.

As a result of the narrow vote Nov. 16, districts won’t be able to use state money to buy the text, published by the Wright Group/McGraw-Hill.

The board’s decision disappointed supporters of Everyday Mathematics, who point to its popularity in states and districts around the country—as well as to studies showing its effectiveness, including a rare favorable review from the What Works Clearinghouse, a federal office that judges education programs based on a rigorous evaluation.

Developed by faculty members at the University of Chicago, Everyday Mathematics is used by an estimated 3 million students in 185,000 classrooms nationwide, according to its publisher. Several large districts in Texas use the program, including those in Dallas and El Paso, as do other major school systems elsewhere, including New York City.

Texas’ 15-member school board reviews textbooks for adoption. If a textbook is labeled “conforming,” districts can use state money to buy it. The board can also deem a text “nonconforming,” which still allows districts to use some state funds to cover its costs.

But the board last month rejected Everyday Mathematics outright, despite an earlier recommendation by a three-member committee of textbook reviewers that it be approved. As it now stands, that rejection means no state money can be used to pay for the texts. State officials say records of the meeting show the relevant board vote, taken after a long discussion, was 7-6 to reject, with one abstention.

Late last week, the Wright Group/McGraw-Hill petitioned Texas education commissioner Robert Scott to overrule the board’s decision and put the 3rd grade text on the conforming or nonconforming list.

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said the agency’s lawyers were consulting with Texas’ state attorney general about the legality of the publisher’s request.

“We’ve never had an appeal like this before,” she said.

The 3rd grade Everyday Mathematics was the only one of 164 elementary texts under consideration that the board rebuffed. All the other versions of the Everyday Mathematics series for grades K-2 and 4-6 were approved. Supporters of the math program have questioned the legality of the board’s decision about the 3rd grade text. Board member Geraldine Miller called the action “as unprecedented as it is shameful” in a Dec. 12 opinion piece in TexasInsider.org, an online journal.

Doesn’t Multiply?

Texas is one of many states that compose lists of approved textbooks for districts. Decisions made in Texas and California traditionally have had a strong influence on publishers, who tend to write texts to meet the demands of those big markets.

The Texas action came the same month that California’s state school board approved Everyday Mathematics for grades K-6, after rejecting the program in 2001. State officials in California were pleased with revisions made to the books over that time, said Tom Adams, the director of curriculum frameworks and instructional materials for the state education department there.

STANDING ALONE: State school board members in Texas cast aside only the 3rd grade edition of the popular series, the sole elementary text of 164 reviewed that not quite half the board gave a thumbs down.

Texas board members who opposed Everyday Mathematics said they did not believe the series’ 3rd grade textbook grounded students sufficiently in multiplication, as called for in the state’s academic standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS. One standard calls for students to be able to “learn and apply multiplication facts” through 12 times 12.

“I feel some very foundational elements that 3rd graders need are not in the textbook,” Gail Lowe, a board member who opposed the book, said during the panel’s discussion. “A text that doesn’t include sufficient coverage of the multiplication tables, and [the] ability to do that through the twelves, should not be on the conforming list.”

Board member Terri Leo said the book called for students to spend too much time “inventing algorithms”—procedures or steps for solving problems—“instead of actually doing them.”

A third member, David Bradley, questioned whether the textbook placed too much emphasis on the use of electronic calculators.

Officials from the Wright Group/McGraw Hill and the University of Chicago say the 3rd grade book does, in fact, require students to learn multiplication facts through 12 times 12, through tables, models, and visual displays—and meets every compulsory TEKS standard. The text, they say, helps students understand multiplication through concrete models, pictures, and other means. The lessons in Everyday Mathematics prepare students to develop a deeper understanding of multiplication, rather than simply memorize answers, they say.

“We’ve been studied, we’re rigorous, and we’re proven,” said Amy Dillard, a University of Chicago official who worked on the Texas Everyday Mathematics text. The text encourages students to understand the logic behind the math answers they come up with, she said. Ms. Dillard also disputes the idea that the 3rd grade text promotes an over reliance on calculators. While the 3rd grade textbook includes games for students, such as Beat the Calculator, the goal and end result of those lessons is that students realize they come up with answers more quickly if they commit certain number facts to memory, rather than relying on the hand-held devices, she said.

In some ways, the Texas decision reflects long-running debates over math instruction. On one side are those who argue that schools are not grounding students in basic math skills, such as being able to recall answers and perform simple tasks instantly and memorize basic procedures.

Others have emphasized that students will not understand math, and how to apply it, unless they learn to solve problems in many different ways, using different tools and common sense.

In recent years, numerous individuals and organizations have said those disagreements have been counterproductive. For instance, a recent draft of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a White House-commissioned group studying ways of improving instruction in the subject, says that “debates regarding the relative importance of these aspects of mathematical knowledge are misguided” and that a mix of skills is essential.

Clearninghouse Seal

Supporters note that the Everyday Mathematics curriculum, on which the textbooks are based, is the only one of five elementary math curricula that was found to have “potentially positive effects” on student achievement by the federal What Works Clearinghouse.

Four other curricula studied under the clearinghouse’s demanding criteria were found to have “no discernible effect” on student learning. The clearinghouse is a division of the U.S. Department of Education that evaluates in-depth research on education programs, using rigorous criteria.

In a Nov. 29 letter to the Texas state board, lawyers for Wright-Group/McGraw-Hill argued that the board had a legal obligation to approve the book because its members had not shown that the text failed to meet state academic standards.

William F. Oldsey, the executive vice president for McGraw-Hill’s education division, said he was disappointed with the board’s decision, given that the state has a history of approving texts that adhere to its academic standards—as he believes the 3rd grade book does. He said there was no reason to believe the Texas decision would affect the appeal of the book elsewhere. “It’s doing better than it’s ever done,” he said.

The board’s decision also disappointed officials in the El Paso Independent School District, who for now intend to continue to use the 3rd grade text, even if they have to use district money to buy it, said district spokesman Luis C. Villalobos. The 63,000-student district has seen progress on state math tests scores at early grades, and the textbooks have been a factor, he said.

“We’ll continue to keep it,” Mr. Villalobos said. “It meets our needs very well.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 19, 2007 edition of Education Week as Texas’ Decision to Reject Math Textbook Reflects Debate Over Teaching Methods

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