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Where do we go from here? The future of math education for our state

Two days ago, I explained the development of our state’s standards. What I neglected to mention, was during the decade of standards development in the 1990s there was a bit of a feud in the math education community, aptly dubbed “the math wars.” This debate could be summarized as two trains of thought: WHAT are our math teachers going to teach and HOW are they going to teach it. Sound familiar?

David Klein, a math professor at California State University Northridge, hit the nail on the head in a paper published in 2003, stating that the math wars “are best understood as a protracted struggle between content and pedagogy.”

This so-called war has been waging on since the 1990s, and has been renewed thanks to the 2010 adoption of the Common Core State standards, emphasizing students’ conceptual understanding in conjunction with their procedural fluency. In North Carolina, the struggle has been amplified based on the ongoing debate over our state’s standards, which many wrongly lump together with an integrated math curriculum.

While the future of our states’ math standards remain unclear, here are a few predictions (and some recommendations) of what teachers and students can expect to see in their future math classes.

The integrated versus traditional debate

This debate over the styles of teaching math will not go away—nor should it. Constructive dialogue among teachers over professional differences is how we grow in our practice and ultimately further the profession. The problem is when policymakers begin to use anecdotal data to draw conclusions and make decisions not necessarily tied to classroom practice and not in the interest of all of our states’ students.

Students in Mr. Ferguson's Math 1B class at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh develop exponential models through a series of exploratory labs.
Students in Mr. Ferguson’s Math 1B class at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh develop exponential models through a series of exploratory labs.

We can expect this long session to hold yet another debate over integrated versus traditional high school math course sequence and possibly a conversation on the elementary math standards. However, remember, the Common Core State Standards were repealed and replaced by the N.C. Standard Course of Study, so the debate is not over our states’ standards, but rather how they should be implemented.

This seems eerily familiar to the 1990s math wars—pinning content against pedagogy.

So, where do we go from here?

Our current standards outline and progress the math content beautifully and they lend themselves perfectly to an integrated approach. However…

Legislators should maintain consistency in the standards so teachers may work on pedagogy and practice, while the Department of Public Instruction may maintain a baseline for our state’s students’ performance.

Teachers and district administrators need increased training and resources to understand a true integrated approach.

Colleges and universities should continue to align their teacher-prep programs with the best teaching practices available, aligned to research-proven strategies (which supports an integrated math curriculum).

District and school leaders should provide increased opportunities for professional collaboration among teachers to discuss these practices and create integrated learning opportunities.

Additionally, the attitude around our approach should be de-politicized and the myths should be put to rest. For example, the myth that our standards value general understanding over procedural fluency, is not true. Procedural fluency as well as conceptual understanding are valued as equal parts of instruction contributing to classroom rigor.

In fact, during the 2016 fall semester DPI offered math-specific professional development to educate teachers around the state on this instructional shift to better our state’s integrated approach to mathematics instruction. We can (and should) expect to see more of these professional development offerings. Which brings us to the next prediction…

Expanding resources

With a law from 2013 possibly taking effect this year, intending for the legislature to fund “digital learning in the public schools,” in addition to many districts pushing personal and digital learning initiatives, we can expect to see an increased amount of funding for textbooks (albeit digital) and other instructional resources hitting classrooms across North Carolina. This would be another major reason for preserving our current state’s math standards.

Additionally, districts will see an influx of professional development funds from the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and with our state’s newly elected superintendent supporting district-based control, we can expect PD addressing district-specific needs.

So, where do we go from here?

Teachers from the central region explore various approaches to a single problem at the department of public instruction's math professional development session.
Teachers from the central region explore various approaches to a single problem at the department of public instruction’s math professional development session.

Opportunities are budding for the resources and professional development needed for supporting an integrated approach, if they are emphasized.

DPI should continue to provide it’s math-specific professional learning opportunities, while also making room for and supporting district-based initiatives

School leaders and districts should earmark some of ESSA’s Title II funds for professional learning around an integrated math practices, partnering all grade levels in truly understanding the intent of our state’s standards.

Instructional leaders and teachers should have the time to explore and create aligned resources.

College & Career Ready curriculum

With a robust public university system and robust community college-early college partnerships, our state’s math standards and curriculum will continue to seek alignment toward “college and career” readiness.

So, where do we go from here?

Our state is leaps and bounds ahead of most in terms of the advanced educational opportunities for our students, we just need to better tap into them.

Legislators should protect a system of college and career readiness in our public schools, which is supported by the integrated course sequence and our current standards.

Instructional leaders and teachers should have the time to better align their instruction and courses with the needs of students both college and career bound, as outlined in the list of widely accepted prerequisites, practically laid out in an integrated approach.

Take a look at the video at the end of this article. As you can see in the video and the photos in this series, math class is not how many of us remember it — nor should it be. In a changing, global society students need standards and curriculum emphasizing problem-solving techniques and critical thinking, not just a rudimentary understanding of procedural mathematics.

In this series, I have tried to connect the dots between the past, present, and future of math classes in North Carolina. I have also tried to connect the dots between our new state math standards and how they are being implemented in our classrooms. A future-forward approach to math instruction is needed in North Carolina to best serve all of our state’s students.

In the video above, students in Ms. Redd’s eighth grade math class at Roland-Grise Middle School in Wilmington play Sphero Golf, using coding skills to learn about angle relationships.  

Trey Ferguson

Trey Ferguson is a math teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh and co-founder of the Beginning Teacher Network.