The Bellevue School District in Washington just selected a new high school mathematics textbook series covering Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. After an initial review, the two top contenders were the Holt series published by Holt-McDougal and the Discovering series from Key Press.

Holt     Discovering

The Holt and Discovering Math series. Images from publishers

Bellevue is known for its nationally ranked high-achievement schools and wants to acquire the latest teaching materials available for its instructors. In addition, the state of Washington recently adopted new mathematics standards and the school district wants to select a textbook series that will help students pass the new course assessment tests. After a series of board meetings that were not open to the public, the school district picked the Discovering series. This is the same series recently selected by the Seattle School District.

The content of the Discovering series is based on principles and standards created by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) that emphasizes inquiry-based methods to help students “discover” math.  Students are encouraged to use higher-order reasoning skills to solve problems.

There were immediate complaints from parents. One of the groups joining the parents in calling for a reversal of the board decision was an advocacy group called Where’s the Math. This group prefers the more traditional mechanical learning of mathematics. It is suing the Seattle School District to overturn its decision to use the Discovering book. Normally, I would dismiss this as politics and wrong-headed thinking by people who don’t understand how important it is for students to learn how to think critically.

However, it turns out Where’s the Math is headed by Cliff Mass, a well-respected weather investigator (assuming you respect anyone who believes that global warming is actually occurring and is caused by human activity). A short article on the math war between those who think teaching reasoning skills will lead to math ability (the reformists) vs those who don’t (the traditionalists) is provided in Scien. Amer. Feb 2010. The article points out that inquiry-based math curricula leaves many students unprepared for college and especially puts minority students at a disadvantage, which violates one of the NCTM’s principles.

Where’s the Math published a table summarizing expert reviews of several high school math textbook series. Holt was rated higher than Discovering for Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 by three out of five reviewers. It was rated higher for Geometry by 4 out of 5 reviewers.

Last month, the Bellevue School District took another vote and the textbook decision was reversed. The Holt series is now the choice and will be used starting next year. Meanwhile, the lawsuit in Seattle continues.

As an aside, I was in elementary school when new math made its debut. I remember being in the first grade and having my own workbook filled with set theory problems. One example was a picture containing several squirrels and acorns that we had to draw lines between to determine whether there was a one-to-one correspondence between the elements in these two finite sets. My mother was befuddled and upset by this abstract teaching method and forced me to create and memorize flash cards of the basic multiplication and division tables. I practiced for hours after school while my schoolmates played. Thanks Mom! Now I are an engineer.