Pin it!
Google Plus

Agenda for Action: More Math Study


Recommendation 6
More Mathematics Study Must Be Required For All Students and a Flexible Curriculum with a Greater Range of Options Should Be Designed to Accommodate the Diverse Needs of the Student Population

Mathematics is pervasive in today's world. Mathematical competence is vital to every individual's meaningful and productive life. It is, moreover, a valuable societal resource, and the potential of our educated citizenry to make significant use of mathematics is not being fully met. The amount of time the majority of students spend on the study of mathematics in school in no way matches the importance of mathematical understanding to their lives, now and in the future.

Polls show that the public recognizes that mathematics is an essential subject for all students. Yet it is typical to find that only one year of mathematics is required for students in grades 9– 12. Surveys of instructional time indicate that only a small percentage of time in elementary school is devoted to mathematics. And only a very tiny portion of that time is spent on teaching children to apply mathematics and solve problems.

When a student discontinues the study of mathematics early in high school, he or she is foreclosing on many options. Many doors, both in college programs and in vocational training, are at once closed to that person. These facts should be communicated more effectively to both the students and their parents.

The recommendation for increasing mathematics study imposes a special responsibility on professional leadership in mathematics education and the schools. To say that most students should study more mathematics is not to say that it should be the same mathematics for all. It does not mean simply keeping all students longer in the same traditional track. In fact, such a recommendation poses a tremendous challenge to curriculum developers and school districts to devise a more flexible range or options, a diversified program to meet a variety of interests, abilities, and goals.

Except for a distinction among courses typically taken in the ninth grade, differentiation in students' mathematics programs has been based mainly on whether or not a student takes elective years of mathematics. If everyone now needs more mathematics study, then differentiation must occur within the program.

The growing diversification of the applications or mathematics in an ever-increasing variety of college programs of study demands more than a single college-preparatory program. At the college level, the trend is to broaden the conception of mathematical study to include what is called "the mathematical sciences." Roughly, this means not only mathematics but the delivery of mathematical ideas and tools to the solution of real-life problems. Present high school programs do not fully anticipate the many options provided by mathematics, the mathematical sciences, and computer science.

Technical and vocational training at different levels also assumes more and diverse mathematical backgrounds. For those whose formal education will end with high school, the needs of citizens and consumer for increasing mathematical sophistication dictate a collection or courses based on consumer and career needs, computer literacy, and quantitative literacy.

It is important that recommended programs permit lateral movement and not strictly "track" students, trapping them in a linear pattern that does not permit change to another path. Flexibility is vital, and the key is to keep options open as long as possible.

Since a higher level of mathematical skill and understanding will increasingly become a significant advantage in nearly all lives, then justice demands that all groups have equal access to these advantages. At present, females and some minority groups are underrepresented in mathematics courses and courses for which mathematics is prerequisite.

It is naive to suppose that just providing mathematics courses as electives will serve for equality of opportunity. All reasonable means should be employed to assure that everyone will have the foundation of mathematical learning essential to fulfilling his or her potential as a productive citizen. The currently underrepresented groups should be especially encouraged and helped.

Recognizing diversified individual interests and needs entails devising programs that are tailored for particular categories of students. Differentiated curricula must incorporate the special needs in mathematics of students with handicaps, including physical or learning difficulties. These programs will need to move away from the idea that everyone must learn the same mathematics and develop the same skills. Mathematics and mathematical ability cover a much broader range than most people realize.

In many current programs, the student who does poorly in the algorithmic skills finds progress in all aspects of mathematical development halted, since remediation is designed to concentrate solely on this deficiency. Remedial programs should identify other areas of mathematical ability—for example, spatially related skills—and concentrate attention also on the students' strengths, not solely on their deficits.

The student most neglected, in terms of realizing full potential, is the gifted student of mathematics. Outstanding mathematical ability is a precious societal resource, sorely needed to maintain leadership in a technological world.

Mathematics educators and curriculum developers should redesign the sequence of the curriculum to realize the critical process goals of problem solving, as well as content and skill goals. A clear and logical developmental sequence for process objectives from kindergarten through twelfth grade should be described and serve as an organizing framework.

In very general terms, such a sequence should proceed through stages of development, though in practice, progression should be smooth and unbroken. In the elementary school, children, in their experiences involving particular problems, gradually develop their higher-order mental abilities and learn particular skills and particular strategies. At this stage, strategies are primarily specific to individual problems. A foundation of skills must be laid, but skills should not be learned entirely in isolation from application even in the primary grades. There should be an interplay of skill building and application throughout.

Moving through the upper grades and into the junior high school level, the progress should be toward more generalization, more abstraction of techniques, more emphasis on similarities and patterns found in differing contexts. Strategies become not just ways to solve one type of problem but generalized and synthesized. Techniques learned in one context may be recognized as applicable to other problems. Specific attention is needed to help students make the important transition to the abstract reasoning processes.

During the seventh and eighth grades, intensive focus on problem solving should become a vehicle to exercise, confirm, and develop further all basic skills. At the same time, familiarity, competence, and confidence should be built in applying these mathematical skills to solving problems of varying difficulty and from diverse settings. At this stage, a significant skill is the ability to select strategies from a growing repertoire.

A broad range of problem-solving approaches should be explored so that the teacher can identify students' special strengths and advise them on high school options.

The ability to create strategies to attack a new problem is, at the junior high school level, simple and embryonic. It should increase in sophistication throughout high school. More flexibility and power should be achieved by more generalization and abstraction. The essential nature of techniques and strategies and their range of applicability should be emphasized as students begin to see more applications to broad categories of problem areas, as in, for example, application to other disciplines. There should be a greater effort made to coordinate the mathematics learned in mathematics classes with other subjects that use mathematics. Students who perform well in mathematics classes often fail to see any relationship in what they are doing there to the mathematical techniques employed in classes in science and other subjects.

This does not suggest that the content of high school mathematics is either dictated by or limited to the range of mathematical techniques used in other subjects. The goal is to develop a more flexible, deeper, and broader problem-solving power, and this goes significantly beyond the formulas and recipes that have been traditionally applied to familiar problems.

At the same time, the important interplay and integration of mathematics and its applications in learning should not cease because isolated course structure separates mathematics from disciplines that apply it. The principles of learning must take priority over administrative convenience. It is likely that this coordination will have to be accomplished by voluntary cooperative efforts on the part of mathematics teachers and the teachers of other subjects that apply mathematics, with a healthy mutual respect for the legitimate goals of both groups.

At the high school level many students can apply their problem-solving abilities not only to problems of daily life, to problems from other disciplines, but to serious mathematical problems themselves.

Recommended Actions 

6.1  School districts should increase the amount of time students spend in the study of mathematics. 

  • At least three years of mathematics should be required in grades 9 through 12.
  • The amount of time allocated to learning mathematics in elementary school should be increased. It should range from a minimum of about five hours a week in the primary grades to a minimum of about seven hours a week in the upper grades. Part of this time can be gained by a program that stresses the application of mathematical skills in other subjects, especially the sciences and the social studies.
  • A clear delineation of what constitutes college-level and precollege mathematics should be made.
  • Colleges should not award college credit for courses in which the level of content is that of high school mathematics. This practice encourages students not to elect mathematics in high school beyond the minimum required.
  • 6.2 In secondary school, the curriculum should become more flexible, permitting a greater number of options for a diversified student population.
  • Increasing high school requirements in mathematics should not result in keeping all students longer in the same traditional tracks. These recommendations cannot be met with just the two-track alternatives of either general mathematics courses or precalculus courses typical of many existing programs.
  • The high school curriculum should provide differing student populations with those appropriately organized areas of mathematical competence required by their needs, talents, and future objectives, but all presented with continual attention to functional problem-solving ability.
  • Algebra should be included in the program of all capable students to keep their options open.
  • For many students, algebra should be delayed until a level of maturity and basic mathematical understanding permit their taking full advantage of a significant algebra course. For many, this may not be ninth grade but perhaps eleventh or even twelfth grade. Significant mathematics courses should be available to these students in ninth and tenth grades, not just the traditional general mathematics review or prealgebra courses.
  • If such recommendations are followed, a course providing progress beyond junior high school but paving the way for a useful experience in consumer mathematics and later algebra needs to be developed.
  • Consumer mathematics should develop a broader quantitative literacy and should consist primarily of work in informal statistics, such as organizing and interpreting quantitative information.
  • All high school students should have work in computer literacy, and the hands-on use of computers, and the applications of computers where possible and appropriate throughout their mathematics programs.
  • All students who plan to continue their study of mathematics beyond high school or to use it extensively in technical work or training should be enrolled in mathematics courses throughout their last high school year.

6.3  Mathematics educators and college mathematicians should reevaluate the role of calculus in the differentiated mathematics programs. 

  • Emerging programs that prepare users of mathematics in nontraditional areas of application may no longer demand the centrality of calculus that has traditionally been demanded for all students. (The Mathematical Association of America's PRIME 80 conference raised questions about the role of calculus as the eventual touchstone that dictated all college preparatory mathematics.)
  • In light of this reevaluation, colleges and high schools should reexamine the concept of advanced placement in mathematics. For some students, though fully capable, an advanced placement program restricted to calculus placement may not be the optimal alternative. If advanced placement in mathematics is encouraged, it should be a broader concept that includes options in other branches of the mathematical sciences.

6.4  The curriculum that stresses problem solving must pay special heed to the developmental sequence best suited to achieving process goals, not just content goals. 

  • From the earliest years, the basic mathematical tools should be acquired within the framework of usage and application, however simple the examples may be at the beginning levels.
  • Since there are usually multiple approaches to all but the most trivial problems, not all students should be expected to proceed in the same way. Value should be placed on a thoughtful and productive approach, not solely on a single correct answer.
  • Since elementary school children differ widely in maturation and intellectual development, the teacher should be prepared to value and reward different contributions made by different students to the solution of a common problem.
  • Team efforts in problem solving should be commonplace in the elementary school classroom.
  • At middle school and junior high school levels, the focus of the curriculum should be on more formal and more general problem-solving approaches and strategies themselves.
  • At middle school and junior high school, instruction should stress the ability to apply techniques used in one situation to new and unfamiliar situations.
  • At middle school and junior high school, instruction should stress the ability to select from a range of strategies and to create new strategies by combining known techniques.
  • At middle school and junior high school, instruction should aid in the student's transition to more abstract reasoning.
  • Difficulty with paper-and-pencil computational algorithms should not interfere with the learning of problem-solving strategies.
  • At the junior high school level, calculators should be available so that no student will be excluded from the opportunity to develop these strategies.
  • All courses in high school mathematics should include some activities in applications.
  • Teachers of mathematics and teachers of other disciplines should cooperate in assuring that students perceive the relationship of the mathematics they learn to the mathematics applied in problems in those other disciplines.
  • Qualified mathematics teachers should be used as resource specialists for instructional programs in which mathematics methods are applied in other subjects.
  • Teachers of mathematics should be prepared in the application of known problem-solving techniques to a variety of problems.

6.5  Teachers, school officials, counselors, and parents should encourage a positive attitude toward mathematics and its value to the individual learner. 

  • A curriculum that focuses on problem solving should challenge all students. It should present the opportunity for students of all ability levels to make a contribution, and it should promote the attitude that they are capable of solving problems.
  • Programs that will encourage a larger percentage of females and minority students to study more mathematics should be designed and supported.
  • Parents and counselors should help students to recognize the importance of mathematics study to their futures and guide them to make appropriate school decisions.

6.6  Special programs stressing problem-solving skills should be devised for special categories of students. 

  • The professionals in mathematics and in special education should work together to identify the process abilities, possible and optimal, for students with handicaps and learning difficulties.
  • Perception of what mathematical ability encompasses should be broadened beyond the linear, algorithmic stereotype. The significance of spatial perception and spatial relationships in problem solving needs to be stressed, for many students who do not fare well in algorithmic thinking may have special abilities that are spatial and geometric.
  • Increased attention should be paid to developing the potential of the gifted student of mathematics.
  • Colleges and schools should cooperate in devising imaginative programs for the mathematically gifted.
  • In general, programs for the gifted should be based on a sequential program of enrichment through more ingenious problem-solving opportunities rather than through acceleration alone.
  • Materials and resources of a sophistication and depth suitable to the unusual potential of the gifted student in problem solving should be developed.

< previous      next > 


Having trouble running our Java apps in e-Examples? Get help here.

Your feedback is important! Comments or concerns regarding the content of this page may be sent to Thank you.