Is integrated math right for your child?

This school year, the Wayzata school district began a comprehensive review of its mathematics curriculum for grades K-12. This is part of a continual effort to review and improve teaching and learning in the district, and to meet the high expectations of parents, state and federal governments, post-secondary education, and employers.

How well is Wayzata preparing its students for college-level math and beyond? Do standardized test scores tell the whole story? What changes if any should the district make to the way it teaches math?

K-12 math education in Minnesota is at a crossroads. New academic standards in math have been adapted by the state of Minnesota. By state and federal law, schools and school districts are held accountable to these standards through a series of assessments that are aligned to the standards. In all grades, Wayzata uses the "integrated math" approach advocated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). One of Wayzata's curriculum review tasks is to find out how closely the district's curricula align with the new standards and make any needed adjustments.

What is integrated ("reform") math? It is a way of teaching math in which traditionally separate subject areas, such as algebra and geometry, are integrated into one course of study; and it integrates math with non-math subjects and real-world experiences.

Current Wazyata parents may recognize that integrated math also expects students to discover mathematical formulas and principles on their own, has students work in groups and direct their own work, and requires an August trip to the local office supply store for a standard-issue calculator. Textbooks are de-emphasized or not used at all.

In contrast, traditional math is offered in public school districts, private schools, homeschools, and college-preparatory charter schools such as Veritas Academy, which opens this fall. Integrated and traditional math options are offered in the Robbinsdale school district, and the Minnetonka district is replacing its integrated math with a traditional math curriculum. It offers the familiar discrete algebra, geometry, trigonometry, pre-calculus, and calculus courses, which build knowledge sequentially. It is the math instruction that most parents remember from their high school days.

Does integrated math align with the new Minnesota academic standards for math? When the Profile of Learning graduation standards were repealed, most of the integrated math went out with it. The new academic standards contain a balance of computing and context.

Is integrated math right for Wayzata? The district reports that 86% of the Class of 2004 went on to a two- or four-year college. How well have Wayzata grads fared at college-level math? The district has yet to formally study this question, but some anecdotal evidence is coming to light.

In 2005 testimony before the Minnesota House of Representatives Education Policy and Reform Committee, Wayzata mom Lynn Handberg compared the experiences of her "traditional math" daughter (Class of 2001) with her "integrated math" daughter (Class of 2003). Both were good students at WHS. "[My older daughter] went through algebra, geometry, algebra II, trigonometry, pre-calculus and calculus with As and Bs. She had a great math experience in a traditional math setting...

"During [my younger daughter's] sophomore year in college (fall of 2004), she took two weeks of algebra, did not understand it, and talked to the head of the math department to see if she could switch out of the class...he told her...she wasn't taught enough algebraic concepts during high school math to understand college algebra..."

Wayzata 2003 grad Kevin Nelson dropped out of integrated math in middle school to take traditional math classes at the University of Minnesota. "I remember talking to some of my friends who were stuck in integrated math...In their entire unit on quadratics, they did not learn the quadratic equation. I don't know what they could have possibly learned since quadratics was built on that one single equation."

Dr. Lawrence Gray, head of the University of Minnesota School of Mathematics, said in 2003 that University students who had taken integrated math were not learning enough algebra to prepare them for college math, and were one to two years below grade-level in their math skills.

The Wayzata Public Schools should survey Wayzata graduates about their college math experiences, and seriously consider adding back a traditional math option. Public input and questions may be directed to Jane Sigford, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Wayzata Public Schools, and to the Wayzata Public Schools Board of Education.

This column originally appeared in the Plymouth Sun Sailor on March 17, 2005.

UPDATE: Thanks to the MOB for your support and trackbacks! It turns out that jonzjr from The Attic is another Wayzata High School grad who had some trouble with integrated math. A mention on Fraters Libertas by Saint Paul is a real shamrock in the cap for any MOBster. And check out the comments for an appearance by Professor King (every other letter is an "a") Banaian and more. If you are a recent high school grad who had integrated (such as Core Plus), please leave a comment!

My goal here is to raise some awareness and generate some respectful yet important questions about how math is being taught in our schools.

UPDATE: Our favorite econ prof and candidate for president of Colorado University comments on integrated math's effect on college freshmen.