In her first meeting as a newly sworn member of the Denton ISD school board, Amy Bundgus cast a vote against a math curriculum expenditure.
Bundgus didn’t explain her vote or objections during the June 7 board meeting but asked during the discussion if the curriculum was a digital product.
Bundgus hadn’t returned several messages for comment by Tuesday evening.
The district had prepared for its typical unanimous approval of the school board’s consent agenda, which included a recommendation to spend $422,150 on a digital math curriculum for Denton ISD’s kindergarten through fifth- grade students.
Consent agendas streamline decisions that public servants often make in the course of business operations. Consent agenda items are usually routine, not controversial and often come with lower price tags.
The board appeared set to give its usual unanimous approval of the consent agenda when Bundgus, who was serving her first hours as the Place 3 board member, asked for more discussion of the license renewal of the STEMScopes elementary school math curriculum the district had purchased a year ago.
Bundgus’ vote was a rare “no” for the school board, which has long spoken with one voice in its voting patterns. Trustees are hardly potted plants — often asking questions during district workshops, and asking the board’s longest-serving members to explain or elaborate on issues before them.
But most often, Denton ISD trustees have been in agreement with what district leadership recommends on consent agendas.
During the last board meeting, Bundgus listened intently to the proceedings and didn’t hesitate to ask the board to talk about the math program. The board removed the item from the consent agenda, approved the remaining items and then returned to the curriculum renewal recommendation.
What is STEMScopes?
STEMScopes bills itself as a suite of science, technology, math and engineering curricula that teachers and parents can customize for their students. Developed in Texas by the for-profit vendor Accelerate Learning Inc. in partnership with Rice University, STEMScopes is chiefly delivered to classrooms digitally. Denton ISD is a 1-to-1 district, meaning each student is provided a device to access digital material and the internet.
Mike Mattingly, the district’s associate superintendent of curriculum, instruction and staff development, said STEMScopes gave the district a way to bridge a gap left when the Texas Education Agency deferred scheduled math curriculum adoptions and then cut a state funding allotment by 70% when districts received money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The district will renew licenses for math curriculum it purchased for the 2021-22 school year. Licenses allow access to the program and all updates.
“We’ve been using STEMScopes science curriculum for several years,” Mattingly said. “We wanted to try the math curriculum for a year to see if it had the same high quality as the science program. We found that it does have that high quality.”
STEMScopes has elicited criticism from some out-of-state educators. Earlier this year, some Florida teachers said they were worried when STEMScopes was one of a few remaining math curricula available to them after state leaders announced they were rejecting 54 math textbooks claiming that the texts indoctrinated students by including critical race theory or other prohibited topics.
Some Florida math teachers worried that STEMScopes math curriculum, a virtual curriculum, might be insufficient for schoolchildren. Elementary school students benefit from reading, working through and solving math problems on paper.
The limits of paper and digital
Mattingly said school district curricula have evolved with technology.
“Back when we were kids, the state would buy the textbooks adopted. We had the book depository that we all know about here in North Texas,” Mattingly said. “The districts would just order the number of books they needed. It was a pretty straightforward process.”
About 14 years ago, the Texas Education Agency decided it would stop buying instructional materials. Instead, it would give districts money — an allotment — to buy curricula. That allowed local districts to meet with curriculum vendors, negotiate for the best prices and buy the curriculum their adoption committees prefer. During the next school year, the funding will be defined as the Technology and Instructional Materials Allotment.
The last time Denton ISD adopted a new math curriculum was in 2012. The state education agency determines the adoption schedule in addition to controlling the purse strings. The next math curriculum adoption is expected to happen in 2025.
Mattingly said the district has been using the Pearson math curriculum it adopted a decade ago, which included a workbook for students.
“Instead of purchasing the very expensive workbooks, we could get these STEMScopes curriculum,” Mattingly said. “We purchased it for one year this last year. Now that our one year is up, we don’t have it in place to meet the next adoption. It wasn’t an adoption year when we got it, and so we didn’t look at other things because the publishers didn’t have anything new for us to look at. This purchase fills that gap.”
Mattingly said elementary school students benefit from working through math problems on paper, and that between STEMScopes and the older materials, the district has a sort of hybrid program for elementary school students. Digital curricula offer worksheets and lessons teachers can print. With those expensive workbooks, once a student completes them, another student can’t use them. Digital tools also offer flexibility.
“Let’s say you had a first grader who’s going like gangbusters in mathematics,” he said. “We have this all over the district. This is a town of educators, with parents on the university faculty. But you take this first grader who is just flying through their grade-level math — with this curriculum, this little kid can access that material for second grade or third grade.”
Mattingly pointed out that the digital math program can help teachers customize lessons for students struggling in math.
“With this program, you can lower the curriculum to the kindergarten curriculum and have that child slow down and work up to their grade level,” he said.