Bringing Needed Coherence and Focus to High School Mathematics

  • Bringing Needed Coherence and Focus to High School Mathematics

    By Matt Larson, NCTM President
    October 25, 2016

    Today, it seems as if nearly everyone agrees that high school mathematics needs to change. For far too long high school mathematics has not worked for far too many students: too many students leave high school unprepared for college or a career, particularly a STEM career; too many students do not see how math is useful in their lives; too many students leave high school without an affinity for doing math; too many students leave high school without the quantitative skills necessary to make sound decisions in their personal life and in our society which is increasingly quantitative in nature.  High school mathematics has not changed substantially in my lifetime, nor has it changed substantially for most students, teachers, schools, districts, and states.  It is clearly an issue—and it is a critical issue of access, opportunity, and equity.

    It is with great excitement that NCTM announces it is embarking on the development of Pathways through High School Mathematics: Building Focus and Coherence (working title).  This new publication will 

    • Address the purpose of high school mathematics and include guiding principles such as access, equity, and empowerment; 
    • Define math curricular pathways leading to college pathways and career readiness, as well as active participation in our democratic society; and 
    • Provide narrative descriptions of course exemplars, including their big ideas, that could populate the pathways. 

    The goal of high school mathematics education must always be to expand options for students in ways that appropriately accommodate the post-secondary goals of different students.

    The NCTM Board of Directors has appointed a nine-member task force representing the constituencies that make up the larger mathematics education community at both the K–12 and post-secondary levels.  The task force’s charge is to develop and present these high school pathways with the same level of focus and coherence that currently exists in the NCTM Curriculum Focal Points and the K–8 Common Core State Standards. 

    The formation of this task force occurs at an opportune time. The authors of A Common Vision for Undergraduate Mathematical Sciences Programs (NSF 2015) called on the community to “1) update curricula and 2) articulate clear pathways between curricula driven by changes at the K–12 level and the first courses students take in college.” The recently released 2015 Grade 12 NAEP results further reinforce the need for change at the high school level where scores have been flat for over a decade. When the Grade 12 NAEP results were released in April, NCTM made the point that the results “should serve as a call to the education community that we need to get serious about addressing the high school mathematics curriculum and the needs of students.” 

    The task force will also consider criticisms of high school mathematics and its relevance, such as those found in Andrew Hacker’s The Math Myth and Mike Schmoker’s recent commentary in Education Week, “Math and K–12 Schools: Addressing the Historic Mismatch.” Criticisms that there is too much “legacy” content in the high school standards focused on symbolic manipulation and narrow preparation for calculus, while other topics from discrete mathematics, the use of technology, and the possible place of coding are ignored, will be addressed. As it produces its recommendations, the task force will carefully consider recent findings and information, such as the National Center of Education and the Economy report “What Does it Really Mean to be College and Work Ready?” Therefore, the task force’s work will not only focus on bringing coherence and focus to high school curricular pathways, but will also carefully look at the content itself. 

    The implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) also makes it necessary for the mathematics education community to address the high school curriculum now. ESSA returns much educational decision-making to individual states and increases the likelihood that standards might no longer have as much “in common” as states and even school districts have now as they attempt to “fix” the high school standards on their own out of necessity.  

    NCTM has long argued that common high-quality expectations are an effective mechanism by which to begin to close one aspect of the opportunity gap by ensuring that every student at every grade level in the United States has the opportunity to learn mathematics at the same high level. It does not serve the goal of access and equity to have widely different high school expectations across the country. Defining high school curricular pathways is one effort to support state and local standards so they do not devolve into a hodgepodge of unequal expectations that do not serve our students or our society well. 

    This work is likely to impact nearly every teacher, because of the connected nature of mathematics learning. There will be opportunities for every interested individual to provide input as the process unfolds, either through the review of a public draft document or through specific focus groups. The final product is scheduled for release at the NCTM Annual Meeting & Exposition in Washington in April of 2018, and it will reflect the input of the NCTM community at large.
    This work will not be easy and for some the idea of changing what we have always done in high school mathematics will be challenging.  Truthfully, it is a critical area that we have been glossing over for too long to the detriment of too many, and the benefit of too few.  NCTM looks forward to tackling this challenging and seemingly intractable issue with the input and expertise of our members and the broader community.