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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Rethinking high school math

Image result for understanding math cartoon

Math literacy — using numbers to understand real-world problems — should be the goal of high school math classes, concludes a report from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

NCTM critiques the “algebra-geometry-algebra 2 trifecta,” writes Ed Week‘s Stephen Sawchuk. In addition to preparing students for college and careers, math coursework should help students “identify, interpret, and critique math in social, scientific, and political systems; to understand math in polls, the media, and other communications; and to make good financial decisions and interpret research.”

“There is a lot of what we might refer to as legacy content, particularly in second-year algebra where students spend a great deal of time on symbolic manipulations—factoring equations, solving equations,” said Matt Larson, the outgoing president of the NCTM. “Today the emphasis has to move to students understanding, here’s a problem situation that can be modeled by using a quandratic equation and then solved. And when you think you have the solution, understanding the math enough to say, ‘Yeah, my solution seems reasonable,’ or ‘No, that doesn’t seem to make sense in this particular situation.'”

NCTM opposes tracking students into honors or remedial lanes.

The report envisions teachers and students “discussing and critiquing one another’s reasoning, rather than focusing on ‘getting the right answer’.”

Common Core math was supposed to focus on understanding concepts, not just grinding out right answers. NCTM believes Common Core’s high school standards need to be more focused, writes Sawchuk.

As one who spent my trying to find the height of flagpoles by measuring their shadows (and why were so many people rowing upstream?), I think it would be nice if students understood math and were able to use it.

I’m also open to the idea that not everyone needs to trod the algebra-geometry-algebra 2/trig path to calculus. Statistics is useful.

Talking about math ideas? Sure. But it won’t magically help those who have no math ideas. (The cartoon is by Ben Orlin of Math with Bad Drawings.)

But what will happen to math achievers who do want to take calculus and pursue STEM majors in college? Will they get what they need in untracked classes?

Black students are more likely to wait until 11th or 12th grade to take Algebra 1, according to the U.S. Education Department, he reports in an earlier story. Native Americans have similar patterns.

“Research indicates that forcing students to take Algebra I before they’re ready can be harmful,” writes Sawchuk. “Is it because they’ve correctly assessed students’ ability and put them in the appropriate course?” said Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “Or is it because there’s some amount of discrimination going on?”

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