Students’ math struggles lead educators to urge a choice

Education leaders in metro Atlanta are fighting mad – over math.

Fulton County school superintendent Robert Avossa is leading an effort urging state education officials to make a change. They say students are struggling with math classes, and want districts to have a choice in how it’s taught and tested.

Avossa and others argue the state’s “integrated” method of teaching math in high school – which combines three disciplines such as geometry, algebra and data probability — is not preparing students well enough for college math. Teachers coming out of universities and into classrooms are not adequately prepared to teach it, plus textbooks and other materials needed to teach the math method are scarce, education leaders say.

“My fear is we’re creating a generation of kids who don’t like math, who are scared of math, who are having a hard time stitching together these concepts because their teachers have a hard time stitching together these concepts,” Avossa said.

Some parents echo that concern.

Laura Bentley, who has a freshman daughter at a college in Kansas, said her daughter attended a Fulton County high school, took integrated math and made As and Bs in the courses. But when starting college, the school said her math “wasn’t up to par.”

“According to that state, she didn’t test out of the basic requirements,” Bentley said. “So I question how effective this math is. I feel like we’re not preparing our kids with the integrated (math) for college.”

Besides Fulton, Avossa notes other school districts including Cobb have also voiced concerns about the integrated math approach — a teaching method that’s been hotly debated among educators since its implementation in Georgia classrooms in 2008. The change marked a significant shift by state education leaders from the more “traditional” approach, which focuses primarily on one kind of math in each course.

Citing the use of integrated math in high-achieving countries, former state school superintendent Kathy Cox ushered the change to integrated math because of the state’s long-standing mediocre math performance. Some school districts rallied against the change, though, and current state superintendent John Barge gave districts a choice of traditional or integrated, with two options for End of Course Tests.

But when Common Core performance standards were rolled out and implemented, the choice went away.

Georgia’s End of Course Tests for high schoolers assess math only on the integrated model. The state is planning a new standardized testing system for next school year, which may continue to favor the integrated approach.

Avossa presented his argument for traditional math course work and assessment earlier this month to the state’s school board, which has yet to take action on the issue. He’s also asking Georgia’s school boards to give feedback to the state Department of Education by the end of June or take an official position as a board on the issue.

Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the state DOE, said state education leaders are conducting a review of all standards, based on Gov. Nathan Deal’s request last year. That review should be completed and any recommended changes brought to the state board in late fall, he said.

“The method of teaching math will be addressed through the standards-review process,” Cardoza said in an e-mailed statement. “That’s all there really is to say at this point.”

Like Avossa, Cobb school board chairwoman Kathleen Angelucci wants state education leaders to allow districts a choice of traditional or integrated math – and offer assessments covering either method. The two integrated math courses now taught in high school are coordinate algebra and analytic geometry.

Angelucci and Cobb school board vice chairman Randy Scamihorn brought the issue before the Cobb board at Thursday’s meeting. The board voted unanimously to support Avossa’s petition calling for integrated or traditional math assessments, instead of only offering the integrated math assessment.

Both she and Avossa say they’ve heard numerous complaints about the math from students and parents – and that a growing number of students are seeking out tutors to help deal with the math.

“Private tutors are having to take up the slack to be able to get these kids through math because they’re not getting what they need in the school,” Angelucci said. “I think there’s just a breakdown.”

Terry Schwarz, who operates the Huntington Learning Center of Alpharetta, says math tutoring at the center is up nearly 64 percent for the 2013-14 school year compared to a growth rate of 25 percent for the prior school year. Most kids need help with integrated math because they’re not getting enough time in the classroom to learn it, he added.

“It’s (integrated math) certainly more challenging, there’s no doubt about that,” Schwarz said. “You’re going back and forth (between the different maths) and for some kids it’s a struggle. I think they need to focus on one thing at a time and work with one concept at a time.”

Bentley also has another daughter, a rising senior at a Fulton high school, who’s struggled with integrated math and has needed tutoring.

“What happens with integrated math … kids that have a hard time, there’s not drilling of functions,” Bentley said. “You’re all over the place. One week you’re doing geometry, then you’re jumping over and doing something else. There’s no mastery of any one area and so those kids really struggle.”

Some 63 percent of students who took the End of Courst Test in coordinate algebra last year failed to meet the state standard. Ten of the 15 school districts in metro Atlanta had failure rates above 50 percent, including Atlanta Public Schools (77 percent) and DeKalb County (74.3 percent). In Fulton, the failure rate was 53 percent.

Fulton education leaders say the district’s concerns about the integrated math have nothing do with current Common Core standards. Based on the district’s research, four states, including Georgia, go with the integrated method – and as a result textbooks and other resources to teach the method are difficult to come by. Also, teachers coming out of school are not equipped to teach integrated math, Fulton education leaders say.

“I’m absolutely stumped as to why on earth they (state educators) have dug their heels in so deeply on this topic,” Avossa said. “The universities are not training teachers this way (integrated math). The materials are not easily or readily available for programs like this. And they don’t connect to the college and universities’ math programs that kids are expected to go into.”

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