Policy & STEM
Math Teachers: Dump Tracking of Students; Focus on Essentials
- By Dian Schaffhauser
A major association of math teachers has issued a call for rethinking math education in pre-K–12. Among the recommendations: to stop the practice of student and teacher tracking and to focus on "essential concepts" that every student should understand.
The appeal came in response to flat high school math scores for NAEP that haven't changed in four decades. As "Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations" pointed out, the majority of students (59 percent) aren't ready for college math. The report was developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics with input from high school teachers, district leaders, university faculty and mathematicians.
The report called tracking of students and teachers "unjust." For students, this is the practice of categorizing learners as below average, average or above average and forcing them into classes with students in the same category. What this means, the report's authors stated, is that students end up in "qualitatively different or lower levels" of a math course; in some cases, they land in a pathway that is not "mathematically meaningful" and won't prepare them for any continued study of math fundamentals.
As for teachers, tracking often results in the most experienced instructors — or those thought to be most effective — being assigned to upper-level course while the least experienced are assigned to the entry-level classes. The report advised high schools to balance teaching assignments that include both entry-level and upper-level courses. Doing so, the authors noted, would deepen the curriculum, reduce burnout among new teachers and seed development of collaborative teams that improve the "overall learning experiences of students."
Along with eliminating tracking, the report also advised school leaders to implement "research-informed and equitable instructional practices" to improve teaching and learning outcomes.
Another recommendation is to acknowledge that not every student will be heading into a math or statistics profession. Therefore, the emphasis for math should be on teaching essential concepts that will be useful for their personal lives, such as being able to weigh the validity of claims in "scientific, economic, social [and] political arenas." These concepts, such as algebra and probability, wouldn't replace the learning outcomes put forward in the Common Core or other state standards, the report insisted. Rather they "represent a distillation of the critical concepts and skills that ... students should acquire, retain and be able to use long after high school."
The report also strongly encouraged the idea of offering a math pathway for every student that would include math in every year of high school. After covering the essential concepts in the first two or three years, the coursework beyond that would "be determined by each student's own needs, goals, interests and aspirations, rather than by any difference in mathematical ability perceived by anyone else."
The complete report is available on the NCTM website for $39.50. An executive summary and infographic are openly available as well.
Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @schaffhauser.