My view: What's wrong with Utah's math core?

By David Wright

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Aug. 1 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The new Utah Mathematics Core adopted from the national Common Core, gives us a chance to improve math education in Utah.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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Utah has a serious math problem, as shown by our performance on the NAEP (the nation's report card). When broken down by ethnicity, our students perform poorly. Eighth grade white students are in the bottom 27 percent and eighth grade Hispanic students are in the bottom 4 percent.

The new Utah Mathematics Core adopted from the national Common Core, gives us a chance to improve math education in Utah. I favor common math standards, and I think it is possible to implement the Common Core standards in a responsible way. Any new program can be improved. I am offering my suggestions.

Do away with the honors standards developed as a supplement for seventh and eighth grade math. They are not part of the national Common Core. They are vague, poorly written and unnecessary for future courses. The only purpose they serve is to keep students from being accelerated into higher-level math classes.

Do away with the integrated math program that has been rejected by over 90 percent of the states. Integrated math is uncommon. Implement algebra 1, geometry and algebra 2. There is no research evidence that integrated math is better. It keeps motivated students from taking geometry and algebra 2 concurrently. It keeps Utah from using nationally developed math materials.

Find a way to support students who are well-above grade level. The Utah State Office of Education thinks that it will be "rare" for an "especially advanced student to take calculus before the senior year." Currently it is common for almost half the students who take the AP calculus tests to be in grades 9, 10, or 11. Mathematically gifted students with sufficient motivation appear to be able to learn mathematics much faster than students proceeding through the curriculum at a normal pace, with no harm to their learning, and should be allowed to do so (National Math Panel Report).

Take pedagogy out of the Utah Math Core. The national Common Core does not dictate any particular teaching method. Utah's Mathematics Common Core implementation is an effort to supplant traditional math with discovery-based pedagogy. Recommendations that instruction should be entirely based on the discovery method are not supported by research

Stop supporting curricula that focus entirely on discovery teaching like the Mathematics Vision Project. This project is producing materials for teaching Secondary Math 1, 2 and 3 with almost no math content like definitions, theorems, proofs and examples. It will not prepare students for college level courses. The project expects the teacher to orchestrate student discussion and explorations that will eventually solidify into a body of practices that belong to the students. Too bad if the student doesn't get it some day because there is no way to make sense of the material without a teacher.

Stop making promises that cannot be kept such as, "By the end of 11th grade students will have the quantitative skills they need for post-secondary work and study." According to the 2012 ACT scores, only 40 percent of Utah students are "math college ready," a very low standard meaning that they have a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better in college algebra. Students who want to have a science, technology, engineering or mathematics career would have a better chance with an ACT score of 30-36. Only 4 percent of Utah students scored in that range

The implementation of Utah's Common Core has been so controversial that the Utah State Republican delegates passed an anti-Common Core resolution by a 65 percent vote. This is certainly a public relations disaster for the State School Board and State Office of Education. Failure to address concerns about the core will further erode support for public education.

David G. Wright is a professor of mathematics at BYU. He is writing as an educator, parent and concerned citizen and his opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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