State proposes new math courses that take old-school approach

Education leaders took the first steps Thursday toward changing the state’s controversial approach to high school math.

The state school board advertised new course options in algebra and geometry in response to numerous complaints by educators and parents who say students are struggling to learn math under the current “integrated” approach. This method combines three disciplines such as geometry, algebra and data probability in one course.

Georgia began moving toward the integrated approach in 2008, believing it could make the state a leader in math and citing its success in other high-achieving countries. But in Georgia, integrated math never took. School administrators say teachers coming out of universities into classrooms are not adequately prepared to teach it, textbooks and other materials geared toward the integrated method are scarce and parents don't understand how to help at home.

Thursday, the state board of education, which sets school policy, indicated it would let districts decide which math method to teach. The board posted plans to add new high school math courses using the old-school approach. The plans for will be open for public comment for 30 days before the board votes on final approval in February.

“We’ve had surveys, we’ve had public hearings and we’ve heard from our teachers and our stakeholders, especially the teachers, that they wanted an option,” said chairwoman Helen Odom Rice. “Now we’re offering those options.”

The changes come as Georgia students continue to struggle, consistently ranking in the bottom quarter of U.S. states on SAT math scores.

Student math performance in the U.S. is also lagging compared to many other countries, and integrated math is seen as a method of teaching that could help students catch up, said Thurston Domina, an education professor at University of California Irvine, who has written extensively about school math.

A small number of states use the integrated approach now, though that number could go up, Domina said.

“There are people who think it’s a better way to learn,” he said, adding that students can often better understand the connections and relationships between different types of math, such as geometry and algebra.

But an overwhelming majority of Georgia teachers surveyed in 2014 – 84 percent – said they were not in favor of the integrated model. They wanted to return to the more "traditional" approach, which focuses primarily on one kind of math in each course. Only a small number of districts said they wanted to keep the integrated approach, according to state officials.

Barb Bowman, the mother of a Cherokee high school student and three DeKalb graduates, said integrated math “was an unqualified disaster.” In her experience, teachers weren’t prepared to teach it, students didn’t have the foundation to master it and schools didn’t properly execute it, she said.

“The integrated approach was let’s just throw all these things together and turn the blender on and hope it comes out all right,” she said. “The kids were going into concepts they didn’t have the background to comprehend.”

Fulton and other school districts including Cobb have voiced concerns about integrated math, with Fulton County superintendent Robert Avossa leading an effort to allow districts to choose the "traditional" model. He said he's encouraged by the state's actions and wants it to also offer assessments covering either method. Now, the state only has tests for the two integrated math courses taught in high school — coordinate algebra and analytic geometry.

State officials have indicated they will offer tests in the new courses.

“I know they want to be like … some of these progressive states that had mastered traditional models and wanted to take it to the next level,” Avossa said. “But we never even got to first base yet. And we’re thinking about hitting a home run. You can’t do that. We’ve got to get the basic traditional math model developed, implemented and leveraged in such a way that the kids are succeeding before you begin thinking about integrated models.”

New state Superintendent Richard Woods said he is also pleased with the state’s decision to offer options and points to high-performing Massachusetts as proof that traditional math can still boost academics. He also wants Georgia to focus on math in early grades when students are still learning the fundamentals.

“I think another important thing coming out of this is making sure our parents can help our kids,” he said. “I think we will once again allow our parents back in the classroom so we do not create an education barrier between them and students.”