Bringing Needed Coherence and Focus to High School Mathematics

  • 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. 

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    Min bahadur Shrestha - 11/2/2016 5:51:29 AM

    It is  great, most challanging  as well as with great excitement that NCTM announces  on the development of pathways through high school mathematics with the main theme of coherence and focus.As mentioned in present's message, it has been  too late to high school mathematics to reconstruct it so as to be useful to high school education.What is common among our mathematics teachers and mathematics educators(in Nepal) is that students devote more time to mathematics in comparision to many other subjects. But their achievement and understanding are found to be not satisfactory as mentioned by many studies.It seems to be common problem.If we go into the different areas of high school mathematics, it seems to me that geometry is one such area which ought to be more interesting and applicable but has been more problematic.Proof geometry(Euclidean geometry) in our curriculum( in Nepal) even holds significient weghtage, but it seems that it has been less effective in fulfilling its goal..Due to the poor porformance and outdated curriculum,many theorems in geometry have been dropped from school math curriculums.What is to be noted is that the logical consequences of proofs(specially used in Euclidean proof) have been most useful for computer programs and compurer programs have been found much attractive to our school children. We know that mathematics is  a tools  as well as  language to science.So,the students of twenty-first century should be expected to have minimun mastery over both commom language and mathematical language.The other thing to be noted is that the secondary school students should be expected to develop logical and quantitative arguments in their curricular activities and to use it for further study in colleage and to use for decision making in personal life.Such aims (which are the part of this megha-project of NCTM)) seems to be fulfilled by developing a balenced , coherenced and focussed curriculum of mathematics built on new ground based on the previous experiences, experiments and studies.

    Among many problems, 
    the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) without down-grading the intellectual integrity of the subject of mathematics, is one to be seriously considered by the task force. In making big changes, there may be possibility of more deflections due to current experiences.But history teaches us also that more precautions should be taken to reject a good one for the better one.

    As mentioned in president's massages "this work will not be easy%

    Brooke Istas - 10/26/2016 10:04:49 AM

    Is there a representative from the Adult Basic Education Community on this task force?  

    Matthew Larson - 11/1/2016 12:47:10 PM

    All members of the mathematics and mathematics education communities will have an opportunity to provide input and feedback as the process unfolds and we look forward to hearing from the Adult Basic Education Community.

    Lisa Bendall - 10/25/2016 9:23:13 PM

    This is a movement that is long overdue, and I hope with the right people driving this bus of change more people will fight to climb on board.  

    Matthew Wyneken - 10/25/2016 3:46:01 PM

    Thank you, Matt.  This is very encouraging to read.  

    My concern is that while we desperately need multiple pathways for high school mathematics, if intermediate and college algebra courses remain the primary entryway into post-secondary math, then the multiple pathways may be ultimately frustrated as the system “restores itself to its default setting.”  (I am thinking, in particular, about the Core-Plus Mathematics Project in Michigan some 20+ years ago.)  We also need “multiple math entryways” into post-secondary disciplines (STEM and non-STEM) so the high school pathways flow naturally into post-secondary math pathways.

    Jeremy Zelkowski - 10/25/2016 3:39:50 PM

    Thanks Matt!  For far too long, we have not focused heavily enough on transforming mathematics in high school in an effort to combat the flat data we have seen nationally for 30 years or so, while K-8 has shown consistent progress since the 1989 standards were released.  I will be anxious to see this product!!

    Lisa Hamling - 10/25/2016 3:28:23 PM

    Thank you, Matt.  The challenges of changeing are always upon us.  It will be interesting to see what the document will be.


    Lisa Hamling


    Rick Wandler - 10/25/2016 2:22:08 PM

    Thank you Matt.  I am wondering if the proposed important work will have its foundation in the Learning Progressions for the High School CCSS?

    Matthew Larson - 11/1/2016 12:44:20 PM

    The task force will consider a wide variety of resources and existing work.

    Henri Picciotto - 10/25/2016 2:19:54 PM

    Dear Matt,

    This is great news. 

    You are tactful in not explicitly calling out the problems with the Common Core Standards for high school math. However, if we are to have a broad conversation on this topic throughout NCTM, we need less tact and more frank discussion. I hope, hope, hope that this new initiative means that the strengths and weaknesses of the CCSSM will be discussed in The Mathematics Teacher and at conferences. New policies can only be created in dialogue with the current paradigm. I'm happy to contribute to that conversation if asked.

    My analysis of the CCSSM for high school has been well received by math teachers and math ed leaders. Please share this link with the task force:

    Thanks for getting the ball rolling, and for the guiding principles you mentioned in your post. I wish the task force good luck in this challenging and important project.

    -- Henri

    Matthew Larson - 11/1/2016 12:41:34 PM

    Thanks Henri for sharing your resources. The task force certainly wants to hear from the community as the process moves forward. We appreciate your support and interest.

    Robert Kaplinsky - 10/25/2016 1:45:59 PM

    Thanks for leading the charge on this Matt.  It's unfortunately often easier to criticize someone for their efforts rather than to commend them for their initiative.  There is certainly bound to be disagreements on priorities going forward, but thanks for making this a priority as with the current state of politics it seems like anyone else is better equipped to make a case for change.

    Robert Kaplinsky - 10/25/2016 1:53:40 PM

    Oops.  Should have been "no one is better equipped"

    Henri Picciotto - 10/25/2016 1:27:30 PM

    Who's on the task force?

    Matthew Larson - 11/1/2016 12:38:54 PM

    A link will soon be added to the message listing the members of the Task Force.