The New Math Course of Study: Why is It Important and What Does It Offer Our Students?

The State Board of Education is scheduled to consider the adoption of a new Math Course of Study at their March meeting. They were presented a draft copy of the new Course of Study in November and Alabama teachers, policymakers, parents, and citizens had the opportunity to comment on the proposed course of study between November and December. The course of study committee has considered every comment and has made many edits based on the public feedback.

Perhaps the basic question is WHY IS MATH IMPORTANT? Yes, it is important to create the engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and other critical STEM field workers. But honestly, math is important in life, no matter what path a person takes. Consider these scenarios:

  • My appointment is at 10:30 and it is 9:15, how much time do I have before I have to leave home?
  • I am looking at my online banking. I have a balance of $580 and have scheduled bills totaling $475. Can I afford to go tothe movie this week?
  • This recipe makes enough food to serve 12 but I only need to feed my family of 4. How do I modify the recipe and end up with the same delicious result?
  • I have heard that my new tax rate is 18%. Am I having enough taxes deducted from my monthly paycheck to cover my tax bill at the end of the year?

Yes, math helps you tell time, helps with your finances, even makes you a better cook. However, there are even more important reasons to learn math.

Perhaps the most important reason to study math is because the study of mathematics builds problem-solving skills. All citizens need to know how to reason and analytically think through a problem. The habits of mind associated with learning mathematics trains our brains to seek solutions in a logical way.

While STEM fields demand expertise in mathematics, EVERY career has mathematics applications. My hairdresser uses proportions of dye to mix for his OTHER clients; carpenters have to deeply understand measurement; everyone in retail has to make change. MATH IS EVERYWHERE!

In Alabama, our students struggle with mathematics. In 2017, on the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) Assessment Alabama’s fourth graders scored above only four other states and the District of Columbia. Our 8th graders only outscored students from only one other state and DC. In the same year only 23% of the Alabama class of 2017 met the mathematics college readiness benchmark.

So, what does this new course of study have to offer our schools and our students? How might this new course of study, the teacher professional learning that needs to be associated with its adoption, and the implementation of the standards in our schools help Alabama raise up more mathematically literate students?

Educators who worked on the new course of study for Math

I asked a group of outstanding math educators, some of who were on the course of study committee,  and their answers give me hope. The educators explained that there have been very few changes to the standards in elementary school, grades K – 5, but those standards have been edited for clarity. Most of the changes are in the secondary grades.

“People do not realize how important the math in middle school is. There was much deliberation about the middle school math standards and how to weave in the foundational algebra skills. The standards in middle school (and the other grades) have been edited to address common misconceptions and focus on CRITICAL content,” said Lee Ann Latta, A+ College Ready math content director.

The educators were very clear that the new course of study doesn’t really have that many “new” standards. Some standards have been moved to different grade levels or courses. However, “the new course of study makes it clearer what each grade level/course teacher is supposed to teach. Most of the changes that were made are the result of teacher input and request for greater clarity,” added Suzanne Culbreath, a former Alabama Teacher of the Year.

K. J. Cox, a mathematics teacher at Leeds High School, is happy that, “the new standards fit well with the demands of the ACT assessment, especially with the inclusion of the statistics and probability standards. I believe these new standards will put ALL Alabama students on a more level playing field.”

One of the things that this group of educators was very happy about was the elevation of statistics and probability standards in the new course of study. While statistics and probability is currently a strand in the secondary course of study, these educators believe the intentionality of these standards in the new course of study will raise their importance in Alabama classrooms. The statistics and probability strand begins in middle school and extends through the high school course progression.

I asked the group why they thought this was so important. Sarah Little, a retired Hoover teacher, said, “data is being collected by every business, by every social media platform, by every physician, by every retailer. Data is ubiquitous in our lives’ today. It is critical that our students understand how data can be manipulated and how they determine whether a data presentation is valid and reliable.”

Kitty Morgan, the AP Mathematics content director for A+ College Ready gave a perfect example of the importance of statistics and probability. “If a student sees that four out of five dentists prefer Crest, they need to know the right questions to ask. How many dentists were surveyed (was it only 5?); was the survey done at a Crest convention; were dentists given free samples prior to answering the poll?” In other words, in a world of BIG DATA, how do we help our students understand that everything they read, even when statistics are given, is not reliable?

Suzanne Culbreath who has had a long history of teaching high school geometry said, “my students may not see similar triangles (a common geometry topic) in the U. S. News and World Report, but they will see graphs, tables and charts. Elevating the statistics standards in the geometry course will teach students to better understand information presented to them and to make them more informed and literate citizens.”

When I asked the group of educators about the challenges this new course of study will present, they unanimously agreed on two issues. One, there must be quality teacher training to help Alabama teachers understand the standards and to give them resources to teach topics that perhaps they have not taught before. Second, it is important that there is clear communication to school leadership as Alabama’s middle and high schools are going to need to change some math course progressions and do that in a timely manner.

Perhaps the statement that resonated with me the most was when Kitty Morgan said, “these new standards are going to give ALL students, not just the brightest ones, more access to rigorous standards and quality math education.”

A+ College Ready is collaborating with the Alabama State Department of Education and AMSTI to develop a professional learning plan for school and district leaders and most importantly, math teachers. We are committed to be part of a team effort to equip ALL Alabama teachers with the training they need to use this new course of study to elevate math education for all students in our state.