Florida down to one approved publisher for K-5 math classes

Omari Hill, center, Shealynn Mayer, left and Jason Cookshott, right, solve a problem in their fourth-grade class at Sawgrass Bay Elementary School in Clermont on Oct. 5, 2021.

ORLANDO — Florida’s school districts may be down to just a single option for buying new elementary school math textbooks — and it’s a choice that concerns some educators.

The reason? Some school systems wanted printed math books, but they say the remaining option, STEMscopes by Accelerate Learning, provides mostly online lessons. That worries teachers who want children to solve math problems by hand. It also could pose a challenge for districts that don’t have laptops for every child.

The state announced April 15 that it was rejecting 54 math textbooks, claiming many aimed to “indoctrinate” students with the inappropriate inclusion of “critical race theory” or other “prohibited topics” and “unsolicited strategies.”

The Florida Department of Education, however, provided no examples of specific problems in any of the rejected textbooks.

Narrowing the choices

The textbooks now on the department’s “not recommended” list include the offerings from four of the five publishers that submitted bids to provide a kindergarten-to-fifth-grade math series to Florida’s public schools.

The remaining option — STEM- scopes by Accelerate Learning — is “centered on a digital platform,” according to its website.

Nine of Florida’s 10 biggest school districts, which combined educate about 60% of the state’s more than 2.8 million students, selected one of the four series now rejected by the state. So did several other Florida school districts.

Seminole’s textbook committee did not consider STEMscopes because “stakeholders in Seminole continue to be interested in printed core materials with an option for students to access digital versions,” said spokesman Michael Lawrence, in an email. With STEMscopes the “major tool of instruction ... is online only,” he added.

Even some of the ancillary online options of another publisher worried some teachers.

“Many digital resources, but difficult for schools to assign if they do not have 1 to 1 devices,” wrote one teacher who reviewed the textbooks, using the education shorthand that means a classroom with enough computers for every student, according to report of the committee’s work presented to the school board last month.

Seminole is not a “1 to 1″ school district. Educators in Seminole County picked another publisher after a committee that included about 35 elementary school teachers reviewed textbook options for several days. The committee selected the books by Savvas Learning, then held a public hearing on the books last month. No one objected to them. The Broward and Lake County school districts also decided against STEM-scopes.

“A team that included teachers reviewed STEMscopes. They were concerned with the lack of print materials available and the amount of online instruction. We did not select it,” said Sherri Owens, a Lake spokesperson, in an email.

Nicole Mancini, acting chief academic officer for Broward schools, said after a review, STEMscopes wasn’t one of the district’s top three choices. “We do look for both print and digital, especially in elementary selections,” she said.

The Hillsborough County school system picked STEMscopes, but the other large districts made other choices.

Reviewing many textbooks

Across the state, educators reviewed and selected books from Florida’s initial list of 132 textbooks that were crafted to meet the state’s new math standards. Those new standards, dubbed B.E.S.T., must be taught starting in August, so districts wanted new math books aligned to those standards on campuses by then, too.

“We’re trying to buy these books and have them ready for the new school year so time is of the essence,” said Palm Beach County Superintendent Mike Burke, whose district selected its books March 23 and expected to purchase them shortly.

Orange, Palm Beach and Broward counties’ school districts also decided they wanted the Savvas books for elementary math classes and are hopeful they still can buy those texts.

“We understand there are minimal changes for Savvas; therefore, we are awaiting a decision on the revised material,” Broward spokesman John Sullivan said.

Officials do not know what bothered the education department about the books they selected. A review of the 722-page first grade math book by Savvas showed no obvious examples of any of the prohibited topics.

Two pages, however, discussed how to “learn together” and “have a growth mindset,” and some speculated those might have been viewed as examples of “social emotional learning.” One passage also told students about how to “disagree respectfully.”

A pamphlet from Big Idea Learning, the company whose textbooks the Miami-Dade County school district wants to buy, touts “social emotional learning” as part of its lessons.

Setting standards

Florida told publishers there were four “special topics” that could not be included in math textbooks. Those subjects were “critical race theory,” often called CRT, “culturally responsive teaching as it relates to CRT,” “Social justice as it relates to CRT” and “social emotional learning.”

State rules and a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday forbid the teaching of critical race theory, and state leaders called “social emotional learning” an “extraneous and unsolicited strategies outside the scope of subject-area standards.”

Twenty-seven of the textbooks the state rejected contained those “special topics,” according to a list posted last week to the education department’s website. The list did not specify what tripped up each of the textbooks.

On April 21, the state released four examples of what it called problematic math questions — word problems that discussed racism and practicing empathy with others — but did not identify the publishers or the textbooks. One, however, was for a high school text and none seemed geared to elementary schools.

The state said the four examples were sent in by the public. It said it could not release specific portions of the textbooks because they were owned by private publishing companies.

Because of the state’s action, Seminole’s elementary textbook adoption committee will reconvene and consider STEMscopes, Lawrence said.

Many school districts had approved spending money on textbook purchases but had not yet ordered the books when the state made its April 15 announcement.

The Broward School Board, for example, was scheduled to purchase $34 million in math textbooks, including K-5 books from Savvas, on Tuesday. But the item has been removed from the agenda.

School administrators waited to put in purchase orders until the education department submitted a final list of approved textbooks. But they expected that, as in the past, the final list would mirror the list already released. For that reason, one administrator said, it was “not chancy” to select books from the list of 132 textbooks released last May.

But then the department rejected 41% of the books on that list, “the most in Florida’s history.”

Looking ahead

That left district leaders surprised and unsure what to do next. Many are waiting, hoping textbook publishers can successfully appeal the state’s decision or make changes to satisfy Florida leaders.

Sue Woltanski, a member of the Monroe County School Board, said her board plans to discuss in the coming week what to do. Her district selected K-5 textbooks the state rejected. But an online-based math program for elementary schools like STEMscopes would not be her first choice.

“I think in kindergarten they need to be learning to write numbers with pencil,” Woltanski said. “I would not be in favor of our district doing an online-only math program,” she added. “Our kids spend enough time on screens as it is.”

The Miami-Dade County school district decided it wanted Accelerate Learning’s materials classes that provide help to struggling students but made another, now rejected, choice for its regular K-5 textbooks.

Miami-Dade agreed earlier this month to extend its public review period for math textbooks after board members were concerned there hadn’t been enough public notice, said spokesman Elmo Lugo said.

That will continue even though the K-5 textbooks from Big Ideas Learning that it wanted may remain on the state’s “not recommended” list. “Right now, it’s important to get feedback on the books from parents. We don’t want to say anything to give the wrong impression their input isn’t needed,” Lugo said. “What if the publishers are successful in their appeals?”

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