An outdated update on the Seattle School Board science curriculum debacle

(An original sketch by  Amanda Gunderson )

(An original sketch by Amanda Gunderson)

By Matt Halvorson

Seattle Public Schools are in the process of choosing a new K-5 science curriculum. It has become a complete mess.

Here’s the shortest version I can give you: a special committee recommended a curriculum called Amplify. A trio of interests — Rick Burke (Seattle School Board VP), Melissa Westbrook (Seattle’s anti-equity education blogger) and Sue Peters (former Seattle board president) have together raised a number of questions about the Amplify pilot program in the district, primarily related to budget and funding.

On the basis of these question marks, they have rallied support for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt instead, but their questions about the pilot program and its funding seem like a smoke screen. These three have made it clear they believed Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was the better choice in the first place. But why exactly? That is hazier.

The board will vote to adopt a new science curriculum at the end of May. Burke and fellow board director Scott Pinkham proposed an amendment at today’s meeting that would have the board voting to approve the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt curriculum when the time comes instead of Amplify.

I have huge concerns about all of this, but here’s the thing: I don’t know much about Amplify’s science curriculum. I don’t know much about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s science curriculum. This process has gotten so stupid that the curricula themselves are now sort of beside the point.

(Side note: I wasn’t able to attend the board meeting tonight because I am home with a sick baby and my two tornado-of-energy sons while my partner traveled for work. So I don’t actually know, as I write this with everyone else finally sleeping, what transpired at that meeting. We’ll find out quite soon, I imagine.)

Anyway, I look at this, and I see a carbon copy of 2014, when Burke (then part of a community organization) led an effort — along with Peters and Westbrook — to overturn a district committee’s recommendation and adopt a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt K-5 math curriculum instead.

That’s weird, isn’t it? The same people using the same loophole to override a committee’s recommendation and choose the same curriculum company? And on top of that, Westbrook and Peters and Burke have been known to peddle opinions that work against the best interests of our Black and brown students and our low-income families. So if they all team up to try to hijack a process and strong-arm their agenda, that’s an immediate red flag in and of itself.

If they do it in exactly the same way they did in 2014, that’s more than a red flag. It’s somebody holding lots of red flags jumping up and down and trying to get your attention. You know?

(Second side note: Doesn’t Westbrook-to-Peters-to-Burke sound like a passable double-play combo? No Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, obviously, or in the same universe as Vizquel-to-Baerga-to-Thome. But you could convince a person that Westbrook/Peters/Burke was, like, three-fourths of the Pirates infield in the ‘40s or something. If for some reason you wanted to.)

In all of this, what seems to really be at issue is the decision-making process. I don’t think Westbrook-to-Peters-to-Burke ever once considered the equity implications in their decision-making process about the K-5 science curriculum. I don’t think they know the equity implications, nor does history give us any indication that they’ll be willing to ask for help here.

Let’s not forget that Seattle Public Schools recently announced that its new guiding principle is to focus on Black male achievement, based on the concept of targeted universalism. Do you think Westbrook-to-Peters-to-Burke reached their conclusions about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt based on a nuanced understanding of what curriculum would best serve Black male students in the district? Because that, supposedly, is the lens through which we make all decisions in the district now.


Do we even have reason to believe Burke or Pinkham has run all this through the district’s old racial equity analysis tool, which is admittedly insufficient but also better than nothing — and supposedly (I think?) a mandatory part of this sort of process?

Above all, if we don't know what impact this will have on marginalized communities in the district, then we need to find out. If we're serious about wanting to close the opportunity gap, then the first and most important question we need to ask about every single decision concerning our students and our schools is what impact it will have on Black students. What impact will this have on low-income families in Seattle? What impact will this have on Seattle Public Schools’ indigenous students? What impact will this have on the kids we talk about wanting to uplift?

If our outcomes are ever going to change, then our decision-making processes have to change. Otherwise, we will continue to end up in the same places again and again and again.

So often, the loudest advocates in the room at a meeting like this have not considered the equity implications of their opinions. We rely on our elected board members to demand equity in every decision. That might require some outside coaching or consulting. This is a skill that needs to be built, a muscle that needs to be awakened.

Rick Burke was elected to the school board because he’s really passionate about math and science textbooks. I’m not, and I appreciate that people out there care about that. Melissa Westbrook is a pretty damn ferocious watchdog, and I admire that. She presses down on questionable budget issues and won’t relent until she gets answers, and that’s important work, too. She’s incredibly dedicated to what she does.

This is not personal. As soon as Rick Burke has built the skill that would allow him to independently understand the impact his decisions have on my children, and then starts using that skill to deeply consider his decisions through an equity lens, then he’s my guy. He has my full, unbridled support. In fact, he only needs to want to be that champion for equity, and I’m all in.

And I’m not personally against the shortstop in this metaphor either. As soon as Melissa Westbrook starts unrelentingly demanding equity for our Black and brown students — and truly being willing to understand what that means — then I am her biggest supporter.

In the case of this science curriculum, maybe we find out in the end that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt really is the best choice for our district based on a deeply equitable decision-making process. Wonderful! I have no love for any particular company making math curricula, or even for any particular method of teaching math.

I have nothing but love for our students, however, and I try to express that love the most fiercely for the kids being trampled by the system. So, I’m out here trying to convince the other people influencing these conversations about education to do the same. Let’s start now. We’re all champions for equity, effective immediately. Deal?