Most schools likely will subtract integrated math

Integrated math was considered the saving grace for Georgia students, and then their downfall.

With the new state Superintendent intent on making the accelerated curriculum an option for school districts, there is concern it will be abandoned in a total retreat.

Teachers are divided on this subject. After watching 80,000 students statewide fail integrated math final exams last spring, some consider it an experiment that didn't work. They said there was no time to upgrade their teaching skills and create effective lesson plans. Teachers, prepared for traditional math offerings, were taken out of their comfort zones. Still, others have said integrated math, in place for two years, hasn't been given a proper chance to succeed.

At Norcross High School, Robin Watson showed himself to be an enthusiastic supporter, willing to go to great lengths to connect this roundly debated curriculum with his students. On a recent day, the teacher flailed his arms like the member of a pep squad, offering a lesson on angles and binomials to a room full of antsy freshmen.

"In my cheerleading competition days, I went to nationals with this," said Watson jokingly, making a right angle with his arms. "Then you flip it and flatten it."

The math teacher ended his demonstration in a deep lunge, striking a distinctive disco pose with his arm in the air and then he circled it 360 degrees.

"This move right here brought it home in Minnesota, 1975," Watson said enthusiastically. "Yeeeeah baby!"

It was difficult to say how many students connected to the Norcross teacher's unconventional lesson plan, which was accompanied by math problems, mystery clues and pop-up visuals on an interactive white board.

Given the choice, parents and educators said there likely will be a strong push to go back to the way things were, using traditional classes such as algebra I, geometry and algebra II. Teachers have perfected those lessons and parents are familiar with them.

Calvine Rollins, Georgia Association of Educators president, has learned that teachers in the organization overwhelmingly prefer the traditional method of organizing math lessons.

“All our math teachers are really wanting to step it up and provide more rigor in the curriculum; however, they feel they can best do that by teaching one subject at a time,” Rollins said. “They can grasp the instruction a whole lot better, and teachers do a better job if they don’t have to integrate all three subjects at one time.”

Said Matthew Winking, math department chair at Phoenix High School in Lawrenceville, "The reason so many teachers are comfortable with traditional math is because it is what they learned in college."

Traditional math is an approach that gives students more time to build skills, but it it less task-oriented; integrated math lends itself to investigations that allow students to explore math for themselves and see how it relates to the real world and future careers. "It makes it easier to think out of the box," Winking said.

David Runyon, who teaches 11th and 12th grade at Dunwoody High School, said integrated math was a good idea, but the curriculum tried to do too much. Some concepts, such as the belief that students should be working together to solve problems, are progressive. But overall, Runyon said the new math didn't have enough depth to ensure students were really mastering the skills.

"The intentions are great," said Runyon, a 25-year teacher. "They put all these pieces together, and then they have this integrated knowledge. But we're doing too little of too much and it comes up as a jumbled mess in kids' brains."

Tammy Lucas, a Georgia Parents for Math organizer, said she was encouraged the state appears willing to change directions and reintroduce traditional approaches to rigorous math. Lucas said she was forced to “home-school” her daughter in math so she could keep up with the demands of her honors and advanced placement math classes.

“Both my husband and I are engineers; we know math and we use math in our careers … and can help with homework," Lucas said. "Children should never be required to have parents with a certain educational level to be able to succeed in math and earn a high school diploma.”

Successful integrated math lessons can take weeks to develop. Lessons have to be studied, tweaked, tested and retooled. Some districts haven't provided adequate training to assist teachers in delivering the material successfully to students.

"We for so long have had one-dimensional math teachers," said Neal Christian, former math specialist for the Department of Education. Citing the QCC, the state's former curriculum, Christian said, "You were able to hide and teach algebra; you were able to hide and teach geometry. With the [new curriculum] you may shift from algebra to geometry to statistics. ... There is no hiding. I don't think a summer training session will get a teacher who is normally teaching in one domain prepared for the next thing."

Denise A. Spangler, chairman of the mathematics education department for the University of Georgia, said integrated math “is a different way of thinking” for students and teachers.

“It’s about taking a more problem-solving approach to math,” Spangler said. “So it’s just taking some getting used to. … A teacher who has historically taught geometry and algebra II, and has a good sort of repertoire of lessons for that, is now having to think of teaching basic ideas from calculus and statistics."

State Superintendent John Barge said the learning won't be compromised if districts go back to the traditional model.

“All we’re talking about is the delivery model,” Barge said. “They are the same standards."

Under his plan, school districts can return to traditional math, continue with integrated math or teach a combination of both.

The switch would give Georgia districts the same flexibility extended to teachers in other states that have tried integrated math and found that the approach doesn't work for every student. Nine states offer integrated math. Georgia is the only one that didn't offer schools the option of  teaching integrated or traditional math, Barge said.

“I think we needed to improve the rigor of our math curriculum," the superintendent said. "It was a mistake in that it was probably too much, too soon, too fast, without the proper resources or training."

Doneshia Brimmer, a Norcross High School freshman, is among those who are struggling. The 16-year-old student was given mandatory math tutoring to keep from failing the class. The mix of geometry, algebra and statistics is too much for her all at once.

"It is so many different letters and numbers," Brimmer said. "It is hard to understand all of the basics."

Watson, the innovative Norcross teacher, makes eye contact with his students and asks questions that he developed weeks earlier to make sure the material is learned. He urges students to come up with their own problems so he can be certain they understand the concepts and can recite them back to him.

"You really have to ask the right series of questions so they can come to their own discovery," said Watson, who sees the value in both integrated and traditional math. "Every good teacher uses integrated methods in some way."

Staff writers Nancy Badertscher and Jaime Sarrio contributed to this article.

Integrated math vs. traditional math

Q. Why is the state considering a plan to allow schools to choose the way they want to teach math?

A. According to the state's proposal, this is a response to Gov. Nathan Deal's request and the expectation of General Assembly members to ensure that an optimal number of students graduate with a Georgia high school diploma. State Superintendent John Barge has said students failing math I or math II courses have gotten off track for a timely graduation.

Q. What is an integrated approach to teaching math?

A. Math that is taught using a multidisciplinary approach that draws on concepts taught in algebra, geometry and statistics simultaneously, for example, to solve problems. Students are asked to demonstrate a higher level of mastery and apply what they have learned to solve problems and be able to explain how they got their answers.

Q. What is a traditional approach to teaching math?

A. Students learn one math topic at a time in depth to develop building blocks that help them to comprehend the next level of math taught. Subjects are taught separately in classes such as algebra I, geometry and algebra II.

Q. What is the state doing to help students who are now failing math?

A. This fall, the state Board of Education upgraded the math III support elective — a companion class for struggling students taking math III – to core credit status for juniors after only 52 percent passed their math II end of course tests in May. The state is allowing the remedial course to count as a full year of math toward the four needed for graduation. The upgrade will last for the next two years. The state is considering extending the same opportunity to freshmen.

Q. What students would be able to take math under the traditional delivery system?

A. Students who are currently in eighth grade are the target audience.

Q. What math is being suggested for students currently in ninth through 12th graders?

A. Students now in grades nine through 12 would still be required to take integrated math through graduation. The integrated path, introduced when Kathy Cox was the state superintendent, was designed to expose students to advanced content sooner than under the old model so they could compete with their peers nationwide for college entry.

Q. What are the proposed choices local districts can pick to teach math?

A. The plan would allow districts to teach math in the traditional way and do away with the current integrated math I, math II and math III courses, accelerated classes that have been criticized for being too fast-paced, causing about 80,000 students statewide to fail their final exams in math last May. Or districts can choose to offer both traditional and integrated math consecutively. Or they can continue as is with the challenging integrated approach.