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Update: Senate passes bill that would require two high school math tracks

— Senate passed bill forcing schools to offer both integrated math and previous sequence of Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II to students — Bill passed second reading Wednesday and third reading Thursday — Would give state Department of Public Instruction two years to come up with assessments aligned with previous sequence

Update: The bill passed its third reading Thursday — 33-13. The only big change is an amendment from Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram that directs a study on recommendations to local boards of education in regards to the student-teacher ratios that will be needed to implement the dual-track system. 

A bill that would require schools to allow students and their families to choose between two different math tracks passed the Senate on second reading Wednesday.

After a lengthy and often-contentious debate, the bill passed its second reading 34-15. The bill initially passed its third reading on a simple voice vote, but was then withdrawn and put on the calendar for today to allow for a technical correction to one of the bill’s amendments.

The bill would create a choice for students in high school between the integrated math currently taught in high schools, and the old Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II sequence taught prior to the implementation of Common Core.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, received a lot of push back on the bill, as well as several amendments.

Amendments that passed included one that would give the state Department of Public Instruction two years to create assessments that align with the old sequence of math, another that would exempt cooperative innovative high schools from the bill’s requirement, and another — from Tillman himself — that restored a provision that allows a Career and Technical Education course to be considered as a fourth-year math course option for students.

Sen. Jane Smith, D-Columbus, questioned the ability of legislators to make decisions about high school math.

“I’m certainly not a math expert,” she said. “And as I look around the chamber I don’t see a whole lot of others of us who are math experts.”

She suggested it would make more sense for there to be a study to find out if having two separate tracks made sense.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Buncombe, first said he wouldn’t vote for the bill because it didn’t extend to the way math is taught at the elementary school level, where he said damage was being done with the teaching methods currently being used.

“I’m not voting for this bill, because this bill doesn’t do enough,” he said.

Tillman fired back that if Apodaca wanted to be stuck with Common Core, not supporting his bill would make that happen.

“If you don’t like choice, and you want to be stuck with the June Atkinson/Bill Cobey Common Core, well that’s exactly what you’re going to get,” Tillman said.

June Atkinson is the state Superintendent, and Bill Cobey is the chair of the state Board of Education.

Apodaca clarified his position, saying he didn’t want people to think he liked Common Core. Rather, he questioned the feasibility of Tillman’s proposal. For instance, he asked if schools with one math teacher were going to have that teacher teaching 10 math courses after the changes went into effect.

“It’s just ill conceived,” he said.

The question of how the two-track system would work practically was a frequent one during the Senate session.

Tillman said that large and medium level schools and districts should be able to handle the change without additional financial resources, but that smaller schools with fewer math teachers might struggle. He said he was committed to making sure they were allowed the funds they needed to compensate.

Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said that Tillman’s bill amounted to an unfunded mandate, one that could be detrimental to students.

“What we hear from schools, not the ivory tower, not the bureaucrats…is that they’re going to struggle,” he said.

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, herself a high school math teacher, explained with the example of a complex math problem the advantage of integrated math. Under the old sequence, there are certain problems that would be impossible for students to solve until they had taken Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II — problems that require different kinds of math to solve. Under integrated math — which incorporates aspects of different math courses within a single course — such a problem could be tackled. Having said that, she acknowledged that not all students are thriving under the integrated math approach.

“I will reluctantly support it, because we need to meet our students where they are,” she said.

She said it was a risk and that some students might miss out on acquiring the math skills possible under integrated math. However, she said that having the old sequence available for students who have trouble with integrated math would allow more students to be competitive.

She also said that the Senate may have to make further changes, going all the way back to elementary school math, if they really want to help students.

She also said that if, in two years when the bill’s provisions start, the Senate had not ensured that small schools had the resources they needed to effectively implement the transition, and if the change was not prevented from becoming an unfunded mandate, something would have to be done.

“If those thing are not done…we all need to come back…and stand together and repeal this bill,” she said.

Later, Apodaca stood up and said he had changed his mind on the bill.

“I didn’t know if I would ever utter these words in my life,” he said. “But Sen. Smith-Ingram changed my mind,” he said.

Senator Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, questioned how many parents were actually going to be involved in the decision over what track their children should take. He said the decision would likely fall on the student, and that could be a bad thing.

“He’ll do what I would have done on my first day: choose the one that’s easy,” Jackson said.

Tillman said he was unconcerned and that students had counselors who could help guide students’ decisions.

Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, also sent forth an amendment which would require local boards of education to give information about the different available choices to students, parents and guardians so they could make an informed decision. That amendment is the focus of the technical correction that held up the third reading of the bill.

The bill goes on to the House next.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.