Measuring New Math

Integrated math focuses on helping students see math’s real-life applications
Thursday, March 4, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:46 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Mathematics in the nation’s public schools is changing, and students and teachers in the Columbia Public School District are adjusting as well.

In 1997, Columbia schools began implementing a new math curriculum called integrated math. Six years later, Columbia educators say they are seeing positive results.

Integrated math is a new version of the “new math” of the 1960s and 1970s. It was developed in response to poor student achievement in math proficiency on the national and international level.

The start of something new

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics appointed a commission in 1986 to look at the way mathematics was being taught in U.S. schools. The commission made recommendations for new ways of teaching mathematics. Included in those recommendations were putting math in a “real-world focus,” and using verbalization and visualization, manipulations, teamwork versus individual grading and creating a broader understanding of topics through repetition.

The goal of the new curriculum is to emphasize on processes used to solve math problems. The traditional approach focused instead on the repetition and drilling of important math concepts.

Chip Sharp, the district’s math coordinator for grades six through 12, said the United States was not stacking up with other countries in terms of mathematics, according to data from the study, which was conducted in 1997. It was done to rank the math and science proficiency of U.S. students. The results of the study prompted educators to reform the mathematics curriculum.

“There was an assumption that the curriculum considered traditional had a research base; this was not typically the case,” Sharp said. “The curriculum we (Columbia Public Schools) are now using was developed and based on what educators (and researchers) know about students’ brains and how the brain works. It was important to utilize a curriculum that complements those processes.”

The result of this research was integrated math, a program designed to develop necessary mathematics skills and recognize the uses of math in the real world.

How it works in Columbia

The integrated math curriculum in Columbia schools varies by grade level and emphasizes mathematics application and research.

For students in kindergarten through fifth grade, the form of integrated math used is called investigations, which provides an introduction to math concepts.

Students in sixth and seventh grades use connected math, which is reading- and discovery-based and is a basic continuation of what students have been learning in elementary school.

When students reach eighth grade, they have the option of continuing with connected math or take honors integrated math or honors algebra.

The curriculum at the middle school level has been in place for three years. All students in the middle schools participate in the integrated curriculum.

Theresa Barry, math coordinator at Oakland Middle School, said this will be the first year for an assessment of students who have been learning under the connected math program.

“It’s still too early to tell what the results will be,” Barry said. “The saying is that things usually go down before they go up, and right now both students and teachers are adjusting to the program.”

This also will be the first year students in the eighth grade will take a standardized test since the implementation of the connected math program, and teachers and administrators are eager to see the results. So far, the most encouraging piece of information is that about 60 percent of students continue with connected math once in high school or opt to take integrated math, which is the honors form of connected math.

At the high school level, students must take at least two years of math to graduate. The curriculum at Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools offers students two parallel tracks from which they can choose.

One track is suited to fit the more traditional mathematics approach and begins with geometry and continues through calculus. The other track is an integrated track that is designed to teach the same skills as those taught in the traditional courses but with an emphasis on developing those skills through application. Cheryl Lightner, math coordinator at Hickman, said the integrated track is very popular with students.

“The program is designed so that even if students don’t complete all four levels, they will have learned enough of the important concepts to get by,” Lightner said.

Using math in the real world

One of the pluses of the integrated curriculum is that there is a focus on real-world applications. Students are able to learn math concepts by completing fun activities, such as experiments with rocks and pulleys to learn about rates of change and an analysis of political polls to learn about statistics. Students are able to immediately visualize and apply the concepts they are learning.

In the six years that the integrated, research-based curriculum has been in the the district, Columbia educators and administrators are seeing some trends. More students are staying in math classes longer, and more students are taking upper-level math classes. According to information from the district math coordinators, more than 80 percent of the students at Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools take math classes even though they aren’t required.

This new approach to mathematics education is popping up everywhere. There are some school districts in Michigan and Illinois that have made a form of integrated math their entire curriculum. Columbia schools don’t have any plans to make integrated math the only mathematics curriculum, but the district is planning to keep it around.

“The district is still learning about the program, but many educators and administrators are seeing the benefits of integrated math,” Lightner said. “I think that both integrated math and traditional math will be around for a while.”

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