Further advice for incoming superintendent of Denver Public Schools

by Bas Braams
July 4/5, 2005

This is a follow-up to an earlier email of mine with advice for the incoming DPS superintendent Michael Bennet, written at the request of columnist Linda Seebach. For related letters and articles, see the NYC HOLD page Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.

[July 5, 2005]

Dear Mr. Bennet,

Yesterday I tried to send the appended email to you via Linda Seebach, but I believe it hasn't gotten through yet. I have observed Chancellor Klein's early tenure in New York City very closely and for that reason I am desperately trying to get you to recognize some things before you appoint your CAO:

1. Curriculum and academic content issues are very real and differences among curricula and academic philosophies are vast.

2. An outsider cannot tell the differences between philosophies of academic content and curriculum based on second-hand exposure only.

3. If you appoint as CAO a careerist in education then you are at the same time committing yourself for the remainder of your tenure to his or her philosophy on curriculum and academic content.

It is enormously important, I believe, for you to become yourself directly knowledgeable of curriculum and academic content issues before appointing your CAO. I believe I can recognize in your op-ed and in your statement to the Board the influence of such sources as the Broad, Carnegie, and Gates Foundations; of the LRDC and the Coalition of Essential Schools; and of Messrs. Klein, Bersin, and Alvarado. These represent one side of the curriculum wars, and it is the side that neglects academic content.

Yours Sincerely,
Bas Braams

[July 4, 2005]

(Via Linda Seebach)

Dear Mr. Bennet,

A few days ago I responded to a request by columnist Linda Seebach to give advice to a new Denver superintendent who comes from outside education and whose first task will be to select a chief academic officer. Although I am quoted in Linda's column from an immediate response that I sent her, my more detailed response came too late for use in her column. However, I believe that she forwarded it to you. In any case, that and several other responses to Ms. Seebach are now on the Web [1] together with assorted annotated news items.

In my email for you via Linda I said that I would write more about curriculum separately. This message makes good on that promise, but it is really a plea to you to become informed about the "curriculum wars" and to do so before choosing your CAO. You may have heard about controversies over the teaching of mathematics and reading, and you may think that some people are apparently a bit over the top and that you will stand above this fray; that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle and that you will appoint a CAO who is trusted to find that middle ground. My challenge for this email is to put you on a track towards recognizing that there are vast, almost unbelievably large, differences in quality among curricular philosophies, and in particular among curricula all intended for the mathematics classroom. (I will leave it to others to address reading and language arts.) That is a big challenge, and time is very short. I should try to make my examples immediately applicable to the Denver situation.

The most critical period of school, I think, is grades 3-8, and so I should focus on grade school and middle school. Now, one path by which you could see for yourself the vast range of academic content that might be found in the lower grades is for you to obtain copies of a set of books by E. D. Hirsch: "What your [Kindergartner, First Grader, ... Sixth Grader] Should Know", and then compare the curriculum described there with what goes on under the LRDC "Principles of Learning" in the Denver classrooms. (I have a sense of what that is because the LRDC was also prominent in Manhattan's District 2, which was long my home.) However, I'm afraid that this path is not going to work out in the one or two weeks that are available. It is too much effort, and I see that you've already commented on Hirsch's Core Knowledge to the effect that it is not too important for you to be familiar with it [2].

We have a better chance by focussing on specific components of curriculum, and if it should be mathematics, relevant to Denver, and focussed on grades 3-8 then we arrive at the Everyday Mathematics curriculum (districtwide in grades K-5 if I understand the DPS web pages correctly) and Connected Mathematics Project (likewise districtwide grades 6-8). Now I am on home ground, so to speak, because I've written several Web articles about Everyday Mathematics (cf. [3]) and also know Connected Mathematics well [4]; EM is the systemwide mandate in NYC and CMP used to be mandated in District 2 there. It is not good enough to look at EM or CMP in isolation, and for comparison I would suggest the Singapore or Saxon or Sadlier-Oxford series for primary school, and at least the Dolciani pre-algebra and algebra for grades 7-8. And this path, too, I'm afraid, is asking for too much study and is not going to be effective within the little time available. The problem, for the present purpose, is that EM is a bad program but not truly awful, and CMP is truly awful but not completely degenerate; i.e., a newcomer to the curriculum wars can't just look at the program in isolation and recognize quickly how bad it is. (In the case of EM I elaborated on this point elsewhere [5].)

So with some regret I leave the realm of Denver K-8 mathematics and turn to high school, and there we find indeed a program that should serve my objective to persuade you in only very little of your time that the curriculum issue is of overwhelming importance. Denver has at present two districtwide high school curricula: Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP) was brought in first, and was later joined by Carnegie Cognitive Tutor. I know the second only by a (negative) reputation, but the first one I know very well. IMP is a completely degenerate high school mathematics curriculum, and it illustrates the defects of modern reform trends in mathematics education without any need for comparison with any other program; its faults are glaring enough to impress at once even a casual observer. So I urge you to requisition your own copy of IMP Volume 1, which is meant for 9th grade. Then just leaf through the pages. Try to find a mathematical expression. Try to find as much as an equals sign. There may be 20 or 25 equals signs in the whole book, and they are not necessarily attached to even beginning algebra. The topics are haphazard and I have the sense that after a year of IMP-1 a student might as well cycle through the same text again the next year, because nothing systematic is built up. If you have a look at this text, and I very much hope that you will, then it should be completely apparent that this kind of mathematics curriculum is not going to help a student towards a college education in any field in which mathematics plays a role. And to offer a traditional text if you do want to have something to compare with: take Dolciani's pre-calculus "Modern Introductory Analysis" and ask yourself how a student could possibly get from IMP Volume 1 in 9th grade to this classic text in 11th or 12th grade. It can't be done.

After that you just work backwards. Now have that serious look at CMP for the middle grades and observe how it "prepares" a student for something like IMP, but also how much inferior it is to a traditional pre-algebra and algebra text. And then, let's skip EM, let's go straight to the Core Knowledge sequence in Hirsch's books, and be very, very impressed. This is the kind of education that you want for the Denver public schools, and you can give it to them. But you know what: if you start by appointing a CAO based on what the Broad or the Carnegie or the Gates Foundation, or any of Messrs. Klein or Bersin or Alvarado think is important in the classroom then the prospects of true academic content in DPS are dead in the water. You can have your literacy and mathematics "coaches" in the schools to force ideological conformity with the CAO's fuzzy notions of student-centered discovery based learning; you can have a wonderful "real time" data management system collecting the results of whatever authentic or otherwise low-content assessments your CAO will inflict; you will struggle along with other similar districts following a similar path; but you won't be giving your pupils the education that they need and deserve.

In addition to the Core Knowledge sequence I should mention one other set of documents that can serve a similar purpose, to indicate a curriculum with true academic content. These documents are the California Standards and (especially) the Curriculum Frameworks [6].

I have not the illusion that you will find this email immediately convincing, but the one thing that I hope is that you will take it upon yourself to investigate, and to do so before you appoint your CAO. Just look at the curricula and at such meta-curricula as those of Core Knowledge and the state of California. And finally, the issue of reading and language is as large as that of mathematics, but I hope that someone else will address it for you.

Yours Cordially,
Bas Braams
(New York City HOLD and)
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
Emory University, Atlanta, GA

[1] Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.

[2] Candidate fights view that he hasn't paid dues.

[3] Reviews of UCSMP Everyday Mathematics.

[4] Reviews of CMP: Connected Mathematics Project (Connected Math).

[5] Testimony for Hearing on Mathematics Education of NYC Council Education Committee (Eva Moskowitz, Chair), November 5, 2003.

[6] California Department of Education Curriculum Frameworks.

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