Value of math curricula not black and white, says Gray

Dr. Lawrence Gray came not to bury integrated math, nor to praise it.

Lawrence Gray (Photo: MNEdReform News)This took many of the thirty-five parents, friends, citizens, and countrymen, assembled last evening to hear him speak, by surprise. Dr. Gray, head of the School of Mathematics at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Campus, is well-known at the U's College of Education as a fly in the ointment of integrated math. He has publicly expressed his concerns about integrated math as early as 2001. He is currently keeping the state Department of Education honest as it writes the test specifications that will align the new statewide math assessments to the new Minnesota Academic Standards for math, which he helped to write.

But instead of telling parents which is better, integrated or traditional math, he told them: it depends.

Dr. Gray's "class" sat attentively for nearly two-and-a-half hours in an overheated second-floor classroom at The Hill School in Wayzata as he dispassionately defined terms such as integrated math, traditional math, constructivism, discovery learning, "sage on the stage," and "guide on the side." He described the "new math" of the 1970s as "mathematicians gone wild," and "new new math" (integrated or reformed math) as "math educators gone wild." He traced integrated math's roots to a 1989 recommendation from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), which rejected the concerns of mathematicians in favor of math teachers.

According to Dr. Gray, meaningful studies to determine the effectiveness of integrated math for college students would be virtually impossible to conduct due to the number of variables in how high school math is taught, study habits, transfers between schools, and more. Further, he said "all data is suspect," especially data used to sell something. But he provided the following evidence and invited the group to draw its own conclusions:

  • Most freshmen accepted into the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology come from traditional math programs.

  • In the University's General College remedial math classes, students who took integrated math in high school struggle more than those who took traditional math in high school.

  • To replace retiring engineering workers, more students are needed to take college-level math. Very few of these need to be math majors (future mathematicians). As the home economies of foreign-born engineers improve, fewer of them will move to the United States to fill jobs in high tech.

  • According to Dr. Gray, middle school math in Minnesota is "a mess." Sixth, seventh, and eighth graders are "marking time" until high school, where many arrive less prepared than they could be for high school math. Students should be grouped by ability to allow mathematically talented youth to flourish.

  • Teacher preparation makes more difference than curriculum in math education. Many teachers are insufficiently prepared to teach math.
Dr. Gray concluded by advising parents to become as well-informed as possible about integrated and traditional math programs, to consider their own child's priorities and talents, and to select or fight for the math program that is best for their individual circumstances. A parent observed that it is difficult to evaluate integrated math because no extensive "field tests" exist, since it is still relatively experimental.

Wayzata Schools Board of Education directors Greg Baufield, Carter Peterson, and Gary Landis sat front and center in the audience. Baufield remarked that he "would love" to offer both integrated and traditional math at Wayzata High School, but the costs of materials and teachers to support a dual track are beyond the district's means. Wayazata is already using parent booster clubs and an education foundation to supplement state funding and fees. Baufield praised Dr. Gray for his detailed and unbiased overview.

Sherokee Ilse, of The Hill School, remarked that Veritas Academy will provide parents with a tuition-free charter school option. The charter high school will offer Saxon Math, a traditional math curriculum. Eagle Ridge Academy, an Eden Prairie charter school, also offers Saxon Math.