School board member putting high school math in the crosshairs

Published: Monday, June 9 2014 6:25 p.m. MDT

Eryn Aslami works on a math assignment with instructor Chelsea Kitchener Monday, June 9, 2014, at Mathnasium learning center in Cottonwood Heights.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Should all Utah high schools follow the same sequence of math classes, or should an individual school district be allowed to select how and when to teach concepts such as algebra and geometry?

One State School Board member says he believes districts should be given more latitude to implement Utah's math standards, or he at least thinks it's an idea state education officials should explore.

"Let's at least start the discussion on whether we should allow some flexibility and how we could accommodate that," Jefferson Moss said.

When Utah adopted the Common Core State Standards, the State School Board also decided to make the transition to a so-called "integrated" math model in which students are instructed in various mathematical subjects simultaneously instead of taking a year of geometry sandwiched between two years of algebra.

Under the new model, students are taught a blend of algebra, geometry and statistics each year, with subsequent courses building upon the concepts students have already mastered.

But the switch to an integrated model represents a significant disruption to math education in the state and has resulted in transition pains. Several districts have hesitated to purchase textbooks while new resources are developed, and parents unfamiliar with the integrated format have raised concerns about being unable to assist students with their homework.

On Friday, Moss requested that the State School Board schedule a discussion on allowing individual districts to abandon the integrated model and return to the practice of teaching two years of algebra and one year of geometry. The issue was tabled, but Moss said he plans to call for debate in a future meeting.

"Utah is only one of two states in the country that is going with the integrated approach," he said. "I’m not saying whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, but I would personally like to give an option."

Bonita Richins, a math and STEM education specialist with the Cache County School District, said district flexibility would require further development of the state's year-end tests to create two sets of questions based on the different math models.

Allowing both models would also impact students transferring between schools, she said, noting that they may fall behind their peers when moving from one model to another.

Richins said an integrated model is common outside the United States and can help students who otherwise struggle with mathematics. When algebra and geometry are taught separately, she said, some students have difficulty making the jump between subjects.

"I like the integrated model. I think it makes us more competitive as a state worldwide," Richins said. "There was a really big disconnection between algebra and geometry before. This way, you show them side by side how the algebra and geometry work together."

Cache County was among the districts that held off on purchasing new textbooks until this year, she said, instead opting to produce materials based on open-source content and lessons developed by local teachers.

Richins said the district recently approved the purchase of new textbooks that align with the integrated model and would be adversely affected if the state returned to the algebra, geometry, algebra format.

"If they wanted to switch back to the old model, we would have a huge problem there," she said.

Moss said that was reason to explore a flexible approach rather than a statewide shift away from the integrated model. Districts have spent the past several years making the transition, and many would likely remain integrated if given the choice.

"We don’t want districts to feel like we’re changing our minds while they’re in the process of buying textbooks," he said.

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