Integrated math: unloved, but is it working?

As announced in Scholar's Notebook last October, the Wayzata School District decided to conduct a random survey of Wayzata High School 2003 and 2004 graduates on their views on integrated math. The survey reveals that while integrated math is the math they love to hate, surprisingly, only 25% would end teaching integrated math to better prepare students for college, while 42% wouldn't change anything about how math is taught at WHS.

Wayzata is a high-achieving public school district in west suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota, whose peers are some of the other high-achieving public school districts, charter schools, and private schools in the state and country. Wayzata High School and its crosstown rivals Minnetonka, Robbinsdale Armstrong, Saint Louis Park, and Edina made Newsweek magazine's 1200 Best High Schools list this year, forming a public school golden crescent across the west metro.

Wayzata's integrated math curriculum

The Wayzata school district is a true-blue integrated math district. As they describe their math curriculum:
Fall 2005 is the eighth year that WHS is using the four-course Core-Plus Mathematics curriculum Contemporary Math in Context (CMIC). This is our only mathematics curriculum and we offer both a regular and an honors track. We are presently using UCSMP Everyday Mathematics in Wayzata?s elementary schools and the Connected Mathematics Project (CMP) in our middle schools.

Our implementation process involved starting with Core-Plus Mathematics Course 1 and adding the next course each year, while phasing out the sequential mathematics curriculum. Most WHS mathematics teachers have participated in at least one year of Core-Plus Mathematics implementation workshops and many have had multiple years of professional development.

In Fall 1997, WHS instituted a block schedule with four 86-minute classes per day. This schedule allows students to double-up on mathematics courses, if they desire. Therefore, some students complete four years of mathematics in less than four years of schooling.

The first graduating class of students who have studied Core-Plus Mathematics courses was the 2002 class.

In addition to these curricula, Wayzata students compete and place highly in math competitions from elementary school to high school.

Wayzata's integrated math program has been the focus of some parent concern. Parents are confronted with unfamiliar problem-solving algorithms, and the "spiraling" approach that revisits concepts during the year frustrates some. "Discovery learning" techniques don't work for students who don't discover the answers. The district said in its newsletter to residents, "school administrators believe [survey respondents' dislike of integrated math] reflects parent frustration at not being able to help their students with integrated math as well as they might have with traditional math." Some Wayzata grads told me that they took Advanced Placement math courses, or enrolled in the University of Minnesota Talented Youth Mathematics Program (UMTYMP) program to avoid integrated math.


The survey sample size was 200: half from each graduating class (out of a total grades 9-12 enrollment of around 3000). Of these, over 80% were attending a four-year college or community college at the time of the survey. A similar percentage of this group is pursuing a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree. Over half of those surveyed (54%) attended Wayzata schools from kindergarten through high school.

As a group, Wayzata grads don't like integrated math:

What, if anything, did you like most about your mathematics classes at Wayzata High School?

Nothing, 45%
Teachers, 34%
Unsure, 6%
Calculus, 5%
College preparation, 5%
Other, 6%

And what, if anything, did you like least about your mathematics classes at Wayzata High School?

Integrated system, 52%
Nothing, 25%
Other, 11%
Everything, 5%
Did not prepare them for college, 3%
Books and materials, 4%
Unsure, 2%

During high school, did you or your family pay for tutoring in mathematics outside of the school day, and separate from preparation for the ACT or SAT examinations?

No, 91%
Yes, 9%

Is there one change or improvement you would make in any aspect of your mathematics classes at Wayzata High School to better prepare you for college mathematics?

No, 42%
Stop teaching integrated system, 25%
Teach traditional math, 8%
Other, 27%

How effective?

If 52% of those surveyed liked the integrated system the least about their math classes, why would 42% of them not change anything to better prepare themselves for college math? (Thirty-three percent said they would stop teaching integrated math or would teach traditional math, but even this group is smaller than the group who would change nothing.) Perhaps the answer lies in their college math experience, beginning with entrance exams:

As a first-year student, were you required to take any remedial or refresher classes in order to meet your school's entrance requirements? If yes, what remedial or refresher classes did you take?

No, 80%
Math, 15%
Science, 3%
Reading, 2%
Spanish, 1%

Once accepted, how well did Wayzata grads do on placement tests? Of those surveyed, 54% took a math placement test. These students were placed into math classes as follows:

Initial math class for chosen field, 52%
Remedial/refresher class, 24%
Advanced math class for chosen field, 20%
Don't know, refused to answer, 4%

What was your grade in your first college mathematics class?

A, 44%
B, 34%
C, 15%
D, 3%
F, 2%
Don't know, 2%

Do you regard your experience in that class as very successful, somewhat successful, not too successful, or not at all successful?

Very successful, 42%
Somewhat successful, 51%
Not too successful, 4%
Not at all successful, 3%

According to its newsletter to residents, "Wayzata intends to repeat this survey in two years, and again in five years."

Wayzata High School students have at least two other options for math education besides integrated math and outside tutoring. As a parent and taxpayer in the Wayzata district, I would have been interested in asking Wayzata grads these questions:

Did you take any Advanced Placement math classes while in high school? If so, which classes did you take? How large of a role did these Advanced Placement courses play, compared with your integrated math classes, in your success in college-level math classes (larger, smaller, or equal)?

Did you participate in the UMTYMP while in high school? If so, which classes did you take? How large of a role did these UMTYMP courses play, compared with your integrated math classes, in your success in college-level math classes (larger, smaller, or equal)?

I would be interested in hearing from more Wayzata grads on the results of this survey and their own experiences with integrated math.

For further information:

Curriculum alternatives to integrated math: