Integrated math revisited

In December, the Wayzata School District will be surveying by telephone as many of its Class of 2003 and 2004 as possible to find out how the district's integrated math programs have prepared them for college-level math. Scholar urges all Wayzata Class of 2003 and 2004 alumni and parents to respond to the district's upcoming request for current phone numbers, and to participate in the December phone survey.

The survey was announced at a math curriculum parent meeting Monday night by Jane Sigford, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and Judy Stucki, math coordinator and Wayzata High School math teacher. Scholar attended the meeting along with 28 other parents, including Wayzata Board of Education member Carter Peterson.

Regular readers of Scholar's Notebook will recall the extensive discussion of integrated math that appeared here back in March 2005. It included some very critical comments from recent Wayzata alumni, both those who took traditional/sequential math courses and those who took integrated courses (Everyday Math in elementary school, Connected Math Project or CMP in middle school, and Core Plus Mathematics in high school). Refer to those posts for background info on this debate.

Why integrated math?

Monday's two-hour meeting started with a presentation but allowed for ample parent questions and discussion all evening. The presentation started off by answering the questions what is integrated math, and why is the district using it? Scholar's Notebook readers are already familiar with what integrated math is, see the March 2005 archives for a refresher. As to why Wayzata has embraced it wholeheartedly, the district believes that the integrated math approach will help students to "catch up" with their international peers, notably in Singapore and Japan, as quantified by TIMSS test scores.

Stucki said that the integrated math approach addresses the shortcomings of math education in the United States that have resulted in a generation or more of adults who readily admit, "I'm no good with math." As a society we would call the statement "I'm illiterate" unacceptable for a high school graduate, so why should math be any different?

Sigford and Stucki pointed to rising standardized test scores, including college entrance exams, and increased enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) math courses, as early evidence that integrated math is working. (Wayzata does not offer International Baccalaureate (IB) Programmes, which have proven controversial in the neighboring Minnetonka School District and elsewhere. School board member Peterson pointed out that AP allows students to pick-and-choose individual classes of interest, while IB students are required to take a certain distribution of subjects. She also cited the high costs of offering IB in addition to AP. Sigford cited high satisfaction with the AP approach within the district.) The results of the upcoming telephone poll of alumni should provide further evidence of integrated math's success or failure in preparing students for college-level math.

No magic curriculum

With the apparent success of integrated math stated, the district has also been restoring some "old math" into the mix, especially in elementary and middle school. They have also seen more math facts and traditional algorithms appear in new editions of the curricula, and in supplemental worksheets used by individual teachers. I have witnessed the latter at the elementary and middle school levels. Wayzata East Middle School teacher Mary McKasy stated that a firm grasp of math facts is crucial by sixth grade, and that she is seeing a good level of this skill in her sixth graders.

Sigford repeated several times that there is no "magic curriculum" in any subject, math included. A large district like Wayzata must try to meet the widely-varied needs and learning styles of its entire student population, so continual reevaluation and adjustments are necessary. She said that the most important factor affecting math success, even more than the curriculum, is adequately trained teachers. Math teachers in countries like Singapore receive much more subject-matter training and are allowed much more daily preparation time than their counterparts in the United States.

Another challenge to math educators today is that there is simply more math to learn today, in the same number of years in school, compared to a generation ago. This is similar to the fact that when my parents were in history class, they didn't have to study about the bulk of the 20th century, but their grandchildren certainly do.

What's a parent to do about integrated math?

The top concern repeated by parents that evening was "How can I help my child with integrated math, when I don't understand integrated math?" Some parents with this question said that they did very well in their math classes. The district offers printed materials to help parents in this area. McKasy also suggested that parents can help with learning basic skills like math facts in the earlier grades, providing a foundation for in-class work. Sigford asked whether there was any interest in an integrated math training session for parents, but there were few hands raised.

The second most-stated concern of the evening was "How do I know that my child is in the right math ability grouping?" The answer was, listen to your child, monitor his or her grades, and talk to the teacher. "You as parents are your child's best advocate," said Peterson.

That's really the bottom line. Integrated math, traditional math, Saxon math, Kumon math, they all work a little differently and all kids learn differently. As your child's parent or guardian, it is really up to you, with help from teachers, to assess your child's learning style, strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Parents should be engaged in the curriculum evaluation process, but in the end a district is required to meet the needs of all the students it serves. One size does not fit all, in curriculum or in schools for that matter.

Extended to the big picture, perhaps your child does well in a large public school setting, perhaps a small charter school would better meet his or her needs. Perhaps your family would feel more comfortable with a private school that is more aligned to with your family's values or faith. Homeschooling is an increasingly popular option, and open enrollment enables families to cross district boundaries for a better fit.

Minnesotans have the ability — and the responsibility — to evaluate which school choice options will best help their kids to build a foundation for post-secondary education, the workplace, the military, or whatever future they are willing to work hard enough to attain.

See Mathematically Correct for information about the current controversies in math education.