Wednesday, April 30, 2014

An Open Letter to the Littleton Public Schools Board of Education

This post is kind of an addendum to my last post. On Tuesday of last week the district asked our Math Department for a list of our concerns over the materials that were being recommended. Since the Board meeting was on Thursday, the department met after school on Wednesday and generated the letter below. The letter was shared with the district and, to their credit, they shared some of the bullet points with the Board when they made their presentation. To the best of my knowledge* (see update at bottom), the entire letter was not shared, so I thought I would share it here.

There are two other high schools in our district, plus a small, alternative setting. At the Board meeting the Math Department Chair of the next largest high school (we are the largest, 15 teachers in the department) spoke against the materials adoption, stating that 10 out of the 11 math teachers in her building opposed it (you might recall from my previous post that we had been told something different). The third high school is apparently in support of the materials although, again, we're hearing second hand from at least some of those teachers that, and I paraphrase, "we felt like we didn't have a choice so why fight it."

The School Board will decide on the materials adoption at their next meeting on Thursday, May 8th.

To: Littleton Public Schools School Board
From: Arapahoe High School Mathematics Department
Re: Concerns over materials adoption

As you know, LPS is in the process of adopting new materials in order to implement the newly revised Colorado Content Standards in Mathematics (which, in turn, align with the Common Core State Standards - Mathematics, or CCSS-M). As is the usual process, a committee was formed to preview what materials were available, then review selected materials, then make a recommendation to the Board on what materials to adopt. While this process has worked reasonably well in the past, we have concerns that the materials that are being recommended this time are not in the best interests of our students.

First, a bit of context. While there has been a lot of discussion both locally and nationally around the Common Core State Standards (not just the Mathematics ones, but the Language Arts ones as well), it’s important to keep in mind that these standards are still relatively new, especially in the context of textbook development cycles. Consequently, many of the choices that are currently available from textbook publishers are not (yet) of the quality we would like.

In addition, we are very much in a transition period between print resources and digital resources. While we clearly are headed toward digital resources, textbook publishers have not yet figured out the best way to utilize this new medium. (There are also questions of how the publishers will maintain revenues and profits, but we will not go there as part of this discussion.) Many publishers initially just tried to port their existing print resources to an online format, usually as some combination of non-editable PDF’s and non-editable web pages behind a login. While that was a natural first step, it really didn’t provide any advantages for the end user over a print textbook (in fact, it was probably more difficult to use). (It did, however, provide a cost-savings to the publishers as digital is much cheaper than physical; a cost savings that sometimes was passed along to the customer, but often was not.) This is an example of “Substitution” phase in the SAMR model that LPS uses for 21st Century Literacy.

Over time publishers began receiving feedback that customers did not like this and began to investigate better ways to take advantage of the affordances of digital platforms. The Agile Mind materials that the committee is recommending we adopt is an attempt to both address the new CCSS-M Standards and take advantage of those digital affordances. In our opinion, however, they have not successfully addressed either one.

Here’s a brief - although not comprehensive - list of some of the concerns we developed in a department meeting.

  • Much of it is not editable (exams, lessons, activities in PDF form or online) - can’t be easily customized. A physical text would not be editable either, but we feel like other digital resources are much more customizable (our own fledgling efforts on ck12 (still very much in alpha form), test generator-type software from previous publishers, Google Sites/Drive, etc - all have the ability for us to modify).

  • Not adaptable across our level of instruction such as remedial, on track, and advanced. This ranges from concerns from our Learning Support Services folks about reading level of the text (not adaptable to lower reading levels) to concerns about the ability to extend for our more advanced students. This also includes concerns about how we implement the various intervention models we have developed in our PLCs over the last few years using these materials, including how our Study Center personnel will utilize it.

  • There are not enough examples and daily practice provided without considerable supplementation.

  • There are concerns about being able to utilize the Smart Board environment like we currently do while simultaneously accessing the Agile Mind materials on screen. Many of us have developed many digital resources that we use with students in class. We understand that you don’t have to follow the Agile Mind script exactly, but that calls into question what the advantages are of buying this resource.

  • These materials are built to be delivered in a fairly particular way. While the publisher argues that the teacher has great flexibility, the materials themselves only work for a while if you follow the “script”. While teachers are under no obligation to follow that script, if they do not, then these materials are not of much use to them. In addition, the Agile Mind script requires more days of instruction to complete the curriculum than we currently have.

  • There is a concern with all students having access to the Internet at home in order to fully utilize this program. While that is certainly a goal of ours and we are heading that direction (both at AHS and in LPS), the district currently cannot guarantee this. If we are going to adopt materials that are only available with an online connection, then we would have to guarantee (and provide for those who cannot afford it) both equipment and high-speed Internet access for all of our students. (In comparison, the ck12 book we are creating is online, but can also be downloaded in PDF, ePub, or mobi formats for use offline without an Internet connection if necessary).

  • While we haven’t had time to explore the materials fully, we have already discovered some technical issues (for example, there are issues on pages with scroll bars and the “interactive” dragging and dropping). In addition, the user interface is not particularly well designed. There are issues with the size of the print (if you’re projecting and kids are very far back in the classroom). While there are zoom options available on browsers, the interface itself doesn’t adjust well making it not very usable with a class.

  • Cost (including additional cost of printing the student activity sheets). While we have not been told an exact cost, we’ve heard numbers like $500,000 thrown around. Whatever the final number is, we think that would be a reasonable investment in materials that would help our students become better learners, but we don’t feel it is a reasonable investment given the quality of these materials. Especially when you consider the following budgetary concerns (these are just three recent examples that come to mind):

    • Our Deaf and Hard of Hearing Teacher is being let go due to budgetary reasons, despite the fact that we still have students in need of those services, and the fact that we have two sections of students who are taking ASL as their World Language and will now not be able to continue with that.

    • Apparently spending $15,000 on blinds to cover the windows next to our classroom doors is too much, even though we need them in a lockdown situation in order to prevent intruders from seeing into our classrooms and targeting our students.

    • Apparently we can no longer as a district support individual student logins to the network. Instead, all students at Arapahoe will use a single login. This affects all students and teachers, but particularly affects instruction in Technology Education, Business and Journalism.

While not a comprehensive list, we feel these concerns are more than enough already to question the adoption of these materials. We want to be clear that we are not resistant to change, nor are we unwilling to look at new approaches, we just don’t feel like the materials we have seen so far (and, specifically, the Agile Mind materials), meets the needs of our students. Instead of adopting - and spending the money on - materials that are not up to our quality standards, we would propose the following.

  • Don’t adopt anything at this point. Perhaps some outstanding materials will come along in the future that will be worth adopting but, at the moment, these are not outstanding materials.

  • Instead, let's use a small part of the money that would’ve gone to this adoption and invest in professional development. Since we’re beginning this transition with Algebra, why don’t we get a group of Algebra teachers together and develop materials and come up with the types of activities we want to do with our students? We feel that we could come up with materials that were at least as good as those proposed for adoption, and probably better for our students, for substantially less money.

  • In addition, that professional development is much more likely to impact our students in a positive fashion than simply purchasing these materials. Learning theory tells us that humans actively construct their own knowledge and are active meaning-makers. This is not only true for our students, but for our teachers as well. Adopting canned, pre-scripted materials is unlikely to actually impact classroom practice or student learning. If we want to actually impact classroom practice, then professional development - with teachers co-creating materials and activities - is the way to do that.

We feel that there has never been a better time to be a teacher or a learner. We fully agree that the affordances of digital technologies and resources can improve our instruction and our students’ learning. We simply disagree that the Agile Mind materials - or any of the materials that were previewed - will actually do that. We feel that investing in professional development - investing in us - would not only be less expensive, but much, much more helpful for our students.

You trust us with your children, please trust us with this.


Arapahoe High School Mathematics Department

Update 5-1-14: We've been told that the entire letter was shared with the Board of Education.


  1. I fully agree with your letter! I've many times felt the same way in my district when I was working in PS, but to no avail. I kept hearing that they HAD to adopt a new book or program. Why?? The book is not going to change test scores, teachers do!! Good luck and keep us posted on the result.

  2. Thank you for not staying silent.