Let’s Talk about Mathematics Pathways

  • December 2019

    As we come to the close of 2019 and NCTM’s first century, I would like to reflect on the evolving conversations concerning mathematics pathways. Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations (NCTM 2018) continues to drive conversations focused on mathematics pathways, essential concepts, equitable teaching, mathematics identity, and agency. A recent article by Jay Mathews in the Washington Post, “Algebra II Just Doesn’t Add Up When You Figure How Little It Means to Most Students” (December 15, 2019), pushes readers to consider the impact algebra 2 is having on the mathematics curriculum. I believe this is the kind of conversation we need when discussing mathematics pathways and curriculum. Mathews raises questions concerning algebra 2 as a graduation requirement for 20 states and the District of Columbia. Additionally, he implies a need to consider statistics more when discussing mathematics pathways.

    I have had conversations about algebra 2 and high school mathematics pathways, in which some people advocate for integrated mathematics, and some people acknowledge that significant overlaps exist between algebra 1 and algebra 2 content. Although I do not have any definitive thoughts to offer now, I am encouraged that in such conversations, people are raising questions for various stakeholders to consider. We must ask, What is the role of an algebra-intensive curriculum when about 80 percent of students do not need an algebra-intensive curriculum, or calculus, to succeed in their degree programs (see Math Pathways)? I am not advocating for the elimination of an algebra-intensive curriculum; instead, we must have conversations about the privileging of race-to-calculus pathways over other possible mathematics pathways. Conversations should include discussions about a common shared pathway, starting in elementary grades through the first few years of high school. A common pathway could drive conversations about the essential mathematics concepts and practices students should know and understand.

    In Branching Out: Designing High School Math Pathways for Equity, Phil Daro and Harold Asturias make an equity-based argument for a mathematics pathway that would prepare students for careers in journalism, politics, education, marketing, law, and entertainment. As with many conversations on pathways, Daro and Asturias note that postsecondary admissions and readiness policies must be revised. I believe it is important for multiple stakeholders to be part of the conversation to unpack policy implications as well as educate the general public. Recently, the Alabama Board of Education approved its Mathematics Course of Study, which teachers, professors, administrators, business and industry leaders, and other stakeholders were involved in developing. The mathematics pathway in Alabama’s Mathematics Course of Study connects the K–12 pathway to the first postsecondary course to careers.

    As NCTM moves into its next century, NCTM will publish two new books in the Catalyzing Change series: Catalyzing Change in Early Childhood and Elementary Mathematics and Catalyzing Change in Middle School Mathematics. This series will broaden the pathways conversations to include the impacts on high school mathematics that policies and structures of early childhood, elementary, and middle schools may have. I am excited about this series because it does not isolate policy and structural issues within a single grade band. This series pushes us to take a systemic approach to addressing teaching and learning issues for early childhood through postsecondary mathematics.

    I look forward to the policy and structural conversations in the coming year. I wish everyone Happy Holidays and a Prosperous New Year.

    Robert Q. Berry
    NCTM President