SWUN Math: friend or foe?

Burlingame Elementary School District (BSD) has been annually renewing its contract with SWUN Math since 2013, but not all teachers and students are on board with the program’s structure and effectiveness.

The SWUN Math model involves both conceptual and procedural lessons on topics in each unit. In theory, this structure aligns with the Common Core standards, which emphasize critical thinking rather than rote memorization of concepts. But some teachers offer a different perspective on its design.

   District officials tout higher test scores, but there was a slight decrease in performance in 2017 as compared to the previous year.

District officials tout higher test scores, but there was a slight decrease in performance in 2017 as compared to the previous year.

“Rather than going deeply into standards, the units move quickly without much review,” said Becky Glover, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary School. “If students miss school, they miss instruction and have to be caught up.”

The Burlingame B reached out to other teachers in BSD for comment; however, according to an unnamed source, none were willing to speak on the record for fear of retribution.

Another issue some have with SWUN is the presence of typos and editing errors in the curriculum, which have ranged from simple spelling mistakes to incorrect answers altogether. While Glover says there are fewer than when BSD started with the program, “[they] trip up the kids, or me.”

“[SWUN] is fraught with errors that just lead to more confusion,” said Brennan McDonald, a junior at BHS who started with the program in 6th grade. When asked about the typos, a representative from SWUN Math said that they had heard no such complaints from Burlingame, but said there was a process in place to fix them.

In light of these perceived issues, teachers have felt the need to supplement SWUN with their own materials. Glover, for instance, said that she provides her students with “logic problem solving lessons, math manipulatives and games.” 

In fact, SWUN itself is designed as a supplementary curriculum. It does not appear on the 2014 California Department of Education list of adopted mathematics curriculums (an updated list has not yet been released), although BSD worked with the company directly to develop it into its core curriculum. A California policy change in 2009 loosened restrictions on categorical funds and permitted BSD to use state funds to pay for the program.

District officials who brought SWUN Math to  Burlingame in 2013, however, remain strong proponents of the program. Dr. Maggie MacIsaac, BSD’s superintendent, said that SWUN Math’s early alignment with Common Core along with its rigorous professional development programs for teachers were major motivators in the district’s decision to adopt it. 

“Typically what publishers do is regurgitate what they’ve had for years,” MacIsaac said. “They don’t change, they’re not flexible.” The superintendent mentioned other available options at the time, such as Engage New York, but said that they did not provide as much teacher training as SWUN did.

BSD Board Trustee Davina Drabkin, who was president in 2013, highlighted what she called “an upward trend in assessment metrics” since SWUN’s implementation. 

“It’s validated our hypothesis that understanding the core concepts would help students with unfamiliar math problems and situations,” Drabkin said. While there have been increases in scores, the percentage of students who exceeded standards dipped slightly in 2017 on the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAC) exam as compared to the previous year.

But it was Susan Anderson, BSD’s District Math Specialist, who formally presented SWUN to the Board of Trustees with MacIsaac back in 2013. Anderson was the new Specialist at the time, and had had very positive experiences with the program at both San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). 

“SWUN Math focuses on academic language and understanding why the mathematics works,” Anderson said. Interestingly, both SFUSD and OUSD had terminated their contracts with SWUN by 2013 (Anderson’s tenure at each district also closely correlated with their respective relationships with the company).

Testimonials from OUSD, which piloted the program starting in the 2006 academic year, are prominently featured on SWUN Math’s website. However, an OUSD math leader (who had worked with SWUN for several years) offered a critique of the program.

When Oakland used SWUN, students took the California Standards Test (CST) rather than the SBAC. The OUSD official, who asked to remain anonymous for this story, said that while SWUN was relatively effective in increasing scores, it relied on tricks to find the answer rather than an understanding of concepts.

“SWUN Math taught [a] trick for comparing fractions, and it would give the right answer every time,” the source said.  “But [students] wouldn’t understand fractions, and that would make math way harder in middle school and beyond.”

The OUSD district employee’s compilation of CST scores that tracked proficiency as students progressed through elementary and middle school showed a significant decrease in performance as students faced more challenging problems. 

“I noticed that the scores from students who were SWUN trained fell even more than those who used the other programs,” the source said. According to the compilation, there was an average 23.8% drop in math proficiency in schools use SWUN Math compared to a roughly 12.4% drop in proficiency for those who did not.

In 2011, OUSD terminated its contract with SWUN in favor of a curriculum combining Math Expressions with content developed by Oakland teachers. 

A representative from SFUSD, meanwhile, confirmed that no school had contact with SWUN after 2013, but would not provide any insight as to why the contract was terminated.

Either way, Burlingame intends to continue with SWUN Math. There are former students who liked using it, including junior Sophia Young, who “appreciated its structure in comparison to the curriculum [she] uses now.” 

Separately, SWUN was a sponsor at last academic year’s Burlingame Community for Education (BCE) Foundation’s annual dinner dance. BCE, however, did not respond to a request for the specific amount.

When asked what the district had heard from parents and students about SWUN Math, MacIsaac joked, “You know, I’m never going to make everybody happy.” 

Posted on September 28, 2018 .