Math Curriculum and the Courts

by Robert Pondiscio
February 16th, 2010

When a judge in Washington State recently rejected Seattle’s high school math curriculum and ordered schools to consider alternatives, I opined that I was “deeply sympathetic with the plaintiffs concerns about the curriculum.  And equally concerned about the potential for seeing every decision made by a school system brought before a judge.”

Math education gadfly Barry Garelick points out that the court “did not rule on the textbook or curriculum.  Rather, it ruled on the school board’s process of decision making—more accurately, the lack thereof.”  In an essay at, he writes that the decision is an important one “because it highlights what parents have known for a long time: School boards generally do what they want to do, evidence be damned.” 

It is obvious to the parents that children do not learn what they haven’t been taught. But parents are put in a position of having to “prove” to school boards that this is true. To these parents, this is tantamount to having to prove that jumping out of an airplane without a parachute is life threatening. Yet, school boards repeatedly tell parents the equivalent of “Yes you can jump out of an airplane without a parachute if it’s done the right way.”  And of course, to be done the right way, instructors must be trained properly.  It is obvious to the parents that for the various discovery math programs they are fighting against, no amount of training will make a difference because the programs are inherently bad.  But school boards have had their minds made up.

For over two decades, Garelick notes, “school boards have told parents that they are misinformed, that they think that how they learned math is the only way, and that the reason they don’t like the particular math program being considered is because they didn’t learn math that way.  They are told that traditional math is rote memorization; there is no real thinking, no deep understanding of concepts, and no real problem solving.  There is only mind-numbing exercises—procedural fluency and conceptual understanding are mutually exclusive.”

Parents have heard it before, Garelick writes.  Crucially, he points outs that parents in affluent communities, many of whom might be scientists, mathematicians, engineers and teachers, ”understand the necessity of a solid foundation that is in a logical sequence which then builds upon itself.”  Such parents have the wherewithal to resist valuing process over content and push back against school boards.  “In poorer communities,” Garlick concludes, “there isn’t as much protest.”