Re-Imagining High School Math

First, I need to start with how much I love the school where I teach. We have amazing autonomy, a truly learner-centered program, where the needs of our students are our highest priority. That said, there are certain things I would change if I could – and to a certain degree, I have earned the trust of my administration to research and explore different ways we can work with our kids to vastly improve their experience and success in mathematics. The school has not had any significant overhaul in the math program, probably since its inception. It is a very traditional curriculum for the most part, with a sequence of Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – Pre-Calculus – Calculus. We also offer an Intro to Algebra class and a Consumer Math (now Financial Literacy) class, for students who wanted or were perceived to need an alternative to the traditional sequencing in order to fulfill their requirement of 3 years of math. As a result, we have students who enter our school at a large variety of math background, and leave with almost as much variety in the math they have seen over their four years in high school. There is no real change in equity – most Black and Latinx students do not take calculus, most students with learning disabilities do not take calculus, and the calculus class is usually mostly white or Asian students. Furthermore, students who do well only have the option of calculus, even if they do not plan to pursue studies in fields that will actively use calculus techniques and would benefit from other class options.

I’ve been thinking about how to better serve our students for a while now, and this past April at NCTM Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., I picked up a copy of the highly promoted book Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics, which gave me a lot of the framework and research that I was looking for, all compiled in one place. Between that and the “Re-Imagining High School Mathematics” morning session at this summer’s Twitter Math Camp, led by Carl Oliver and Sadie Estrella, I was able to work through a long term plan outline. There are a lot of details to work out, but here is the general framework of what I want our students to have for their classes:

  • Move from a traditional Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 -Pre-Calculus sequence to an integrated Math 1 – Math 2 – Math 3 sequence that incorporates the most essential mathematical skills that students will need.
  • Work with the other math teacher(s) and administrators to determine what those essential mathematical skills are. These are the skills that we expect all high school graduates to have in order to be well prepared for any further math class, as well as to participate fully and successfully in society.
    • Algebraic reasoning skills
    • Financial literacy
    • Understanding of plane and solid geometry, measurement, etc.
    • Ability to read, interpret, and evaluate data, graphs, and basic statistics
    • Preparation for calculus, statistics,  discrete math, or computer science classes
  • Develop a support class, preferably a zero period class that can be required for some students and a drop-in class for others.
    • Give students a just-in-time support for reviewing essential skills before they come up in the core Math 1/2/3 classes
    • Extra help, support, and practice for the content of the core classes
    • Opportunity for peer tutors to receive credit as well as review and build leadership skills
  • Create multiple options for a fourth year class, including Calculus and Statistics.

There are going to be (very valid) concerns about moving to this model. Firstly, many of our students with various learning disabilities may feel overwhelmed by facing math that may be familiar to their peers. Secondly, many students who took Algebra 1 in 8th grade may feel that they will not get much out of a class with so much review (in their eyes). Thirdly, many students who need that support class may have a hard time arriving on time if it’s a zero period class that starts 45 or 50 minutes before their first class. (This is especially true of students with anxiety who may avoid attending school when overwhelmed).  Fourthly, will we be able to handle such significant changes in terms of staffing and scheduling, and will we be able to hire a third teacher? It is going to be up to us to see what we can do to address or alleviate these concerns, and will take some good research and planning to do so.

Despite the challenges we have ahead, and the many questions we have to put forth and then answer, I’m looking forward to bringing this proposal formally to my department and administration this fall. A change like this won’t happen immediately, and I don’t foresee any change at all this year. I’d like to put the plans into place over the coming year to start rolling out a new set of classes, starting with an integrated Math 1 and Support Class in the 2019-2020 to replace our Intro to Algebra and Algebra 1 classes. By the 2022-2023 school year, my hope is to have a math program where (except in extraordinary circumstances) all students are taking Math 1-3 in 9th-11th grades, and taking a fourth year math elective in 12th grade. My goal is to see Calculus and Statistics classes that are full and reflect the ethnic, racial, LD, gender, and other diversities that make our school so great.

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