High school math needs major overhaul, teachers group says

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By Carolyn Jones
EdSource

High school math should be more practical, more engaging, and without tracking systems that place some students — often low-income, African-American or Latino — in less challenging classes that leave them unprepared for college, according to a report released earlier last month by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. 

The 126-page report, “Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics,” was compiled over 18 months by high school math teachers, mathematicians, college professors and school district leaders. It also includes feedback from 200 public comments. 

“If you look at the last three decades of national K-8 scores, the trend has been positive. But the trend in high school math has been flat,” said Matt Larson, president of the council. “This is about ensuring that each high school graduate is prepared to use math to understand the world around them and has an appreciation for the important role math plays in society.” 

According to the Nation’s Report Card, high school math scores have remained stagnant since the 1970s, with only about 25 percent of 12th-graders scoring at or above proficient. 

The council recommended that schools eliminate tracking, in which students — usually beginning in middle school — are placed in math classes that are either honors, general or basic-level math. Those placed in less challenging classes tend to stay on that track through high school and graduate less prepared for college math, the report states. 

The council also suggests eliminating “teacher tracking,” in which the most experienced and effective teachers are assigned to higher-level math classes and less experienced teachers are sent to lower-level classes. 

“Teacher tracking increases isolation and burnout for early career teachers, reduces collaboration and does not take into account expertise and need when assigning courses,” according to the report. 

The report suggests that all high school students take four years of math, including algebra, geometry and either advanced math such as calculus or practical math such as statistics, financial literacy or data science. Schools would have flexibility as to how those courses would be structured. 

The goal, Larson said, is for students to enjoy math and learn real-life concepts they’ll use throughout their lives. 

“We hope students will come to understand the beauty of mathematics and see that it’s no different than history or literature or art,” Larson said. “It’s embedded in nearly every aspect of our lives. That’s why it’s essential that people understand it.” 

Kyndall Brown, executive director of the California Mathematics Project at UCLA, said the council’s report “is right on time and expresses the challenges that students and high schools are facing. We really do need to rethink how to get more students through the mathematics pipeline at high school.” 

Too many low-income, African-American and Latino students are shortchanged by math tracking, he said. They’re not only poorly prepared for college math, but they’re not learning the practical math skills they need in the workplace and life, he said. 

African-American 12th-graders scored on average 30 points lower than their white peers on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam, while Hispanic students scored 22 points lower. 

“Math tracking is a huge problem,” he said. “It’s the reason we have the current outcomes we have, with fewer low-income and students of color scoring proficient.” 

Mark Ellis, a math education professor at Cal State Fullerton, said the council’s report should spur schools to change the way they structure math courses. Some districts, including San Francisco Unified, have already ended math tracking, and hopefully more will follow suit, he said. 

But eliminating tracking isn’t the sole solution, he said. Improved curriculum and more engaging teaching will also help improve high school math education, he said. 

“While many are focusing on the idea of de-tracking, for me that is one change that is part of a larger systemic effort to improve outcomes,” he said. “It also means working with curriculum, instructional practice, course placement and sequencing and policy to help to move the needle with respect to student engagement in and success with high school mathematics.” 

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