Not Your Father's Algebra As 45 States Look to Math Reform

One plus one will always equal two...but just how students are taught math is going to change. Nearly every state in the country has adopted the Common Core Standards; for math, this means new and more in-depth approaches to teaching the subject. Have we seen the last of traditional algebra and geometry classes?

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(Very) Common Core Standards

Formed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core State Standards Initiative was begun in 2009. The goal of the new standards, in keeping with President Obama's education plan, is to make students more 'college and career-ready.'

School administrators, teachers and education experts around the country had input into the development of these new standards, which are 'evidence-based', 'rigorous' and do not eschew, but rather 'build upon strengths and lessons' of the previous standards. In addition to mathematics, the standards also affect English language arts.

Currently, 45 states have begun implementing these new standards. So what does this mean for math?

A New Approach

The new math is more focused on mathematical concepts and how math is applied to real life than on how to find a specific answer. At Mission High School in San Francisco, which was one of the first districts in the country to test the new standards, math teacher Brian Waldman told the San Francisco Chronicle in September 2011: 'Making sense of things is engaging.'

'It wouldn't be your mother's, or father's or grandparents' Algebra I,' Rodney Trice, executive director for curriculum and instruction for North Carolina's Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, told Education News in December 2011. Those and other schools are likely to change the names of Algebra I and II and Geometry to Common Core Math I, II and III to reflect the new content.

More of an emphasis will be placed on concepts like size and volume. Younger students will begin to integrate some simple algebraic elements. Working in groups will be encouraged, as students work together to arrive at answers to problems.

All of this will replace the act of, say, adding fractions and simply arriving at an answer; students will now work to find out how they have arrived at that answer, and how working out such a problem can apply to real life.

The new standards will also have middle school students taking math courses that combine algebra and geometry, traditionally high school topics. It is believed that this acceleration will help boost American students compared to the math achievement level in other countries.

The First Step

Is a new approach to teaching math enough to improve not only students but teachers and schools as well?

The Opportunity Equation, which is an initiative formed by the partnership between the Institute for Advanced Study and Carnegie Corporation of New York promoting 'equity and excellence in mathematics and science education', according to its website, feels adoption of the standards is only the beginning.

New assessment and accountability methods, teacher preparation and more engaging materials and curricula are also needed, the Opportunity Equation feels, before the full effect of these new standards can be felt.

And the standards do not come without criticism. Some feel that they could actually prove detrimental to higher-performing states. Other complaints address the unproven approach to geometry, questionable improvement to achievement and performance, insufficient coverage of some topics and even the possible delay of some math skills as emphasis is placed on certain concepts.

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