Last week, the North Carolina Senate passed a bill that would require high schools across the state to simultaneously offer two completely different math tracks: the integrated math sequence that is currently taught in middle and high schools and the old Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II sequence that was previously taught.
The most glaring problem with the bill is the obvious impracticality of requiring administrators and educators to create two sets of classrooms, schedules, lesson plans, professional development modules, textbooks, instructional supplies, and assessments—all while hiring additional teachers to correspond with each track. The primary complaint from teachers about the transition to the integrated math standards is that these standards have been implemented without adequate resources, training, or materials. This bill would essentially double the problems educators currently face, without providing any resources to implement the additional course of study.
The bill seems to have been motivated in large part by the specter of the controversial national education standards initiative known as Common Core, although it is difficult to imagine why this is so given that the Common Core has nothing to do with the different versions of math sequencing. During the Senate debate, the bill sponsor, Sen. Jerry Tillman (R – Randolph), stated that if Senators opposed to the bill wanted to be “stuck with the June Atkinson/Bill Cobey Common Core, well that’s exactly what [they’re] going to get.” Never mind that the Common Core expresses no preference between the integrated and traditional approaches and offers explicit guidance for how to implement the Common Core standards under either approach.
Of course, there are also parents and educators who support the traditional math sequence because it is familiar and, as the bill sponsors pointed out, represents the way math has been taught for the past 100 years. But what is easy and familiar is not necessarily what is best. The nations that have begun to surpass the United States on international math assessments overwhelmingly favor an integrated approach. North Carolina must continue to move forward, or it will be left farther behind.
Senator Erica Smith-Ingram, who teaches math part-time, extolled the benefits of the integrated approach to math, which allows students to tackle problems by simultaneously applying concepts from algebra, geometry, and higher level math to real world problems that do not fit neatly into these individual categories. Regrettably, she also reluctantly supported the bill because she felt some students are not thriving under the integrated approach, saying “we need to meet students where they are.”
Unfortunately, the evidence indicates the contrary and that, rather than “meeting them where they are,” this bill would actually serve to reinforce low expectations and keep many struggling students stuck where they are. Some of our best education research shows the incredibly damaging impact that having these types of low expectations can have on students. A recent study from N.C. State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation found that students in integrated math performed as well or better than their peers on standardized assessments and scored significantly higher on the ACT. The researchers also found that participation in integrated math reduced or eliminated the achievement gap between white and minority students, meaning that integrated math is beneficial for both higher performing and lower performing subgroups of students. If low-performing students are funneled into the less-rigorous traditional sequence, achievement gaps between students will increase after decades of work has slowly but steadily caused them to decrease.
Not only does this bill create a logistical and financial nightmare for schools by creating a dual-track system that does not serve children equally well, it fails to follow the recommendations of a lengthy review conducted by the legislatively-appointed Academic Standards Review Commission which did not recommend these changes. Teachers will continue to face the needless uncertainty that has already plagued them for far too long about what direction the state’s standards are headed.
North Carolina should continue to study and revise its standards, along with corresponding curricula and assessments, to ensure all students have the opportunity to be successful in school. That is precisely what the Academic Standards Review Commission and the Department of Public Instruction are doing. But if the legislature continues to throw wrenches into these long-term plans, without even studying the issue before acting, it will be almost impossible for schools, teachers, and students to keep up with their peers in the other states that have taken a coherent and evidence-based long-term approach to establishing the math course of study.
Matt Ellinwood is the Director of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.