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Integrated math might be key to student achievement

New research points to integrated model as one way to improve student gains


As states implement the Common Core State Standards, many math educators and curriculum specialists are advocating a move to integrated math, which, although not a new concept, has received renewed attention in light of a study indicating that the model could boost student achievement.

Integrated math involves the blending of many math topics, such as algebra, geometry, and statistics, into a single course. U.S. math courses have traditionally been separated into year-long courses that focus on one area and follow a sequence, such as algebra I, geometry the next year, algebra II, and then a pre-calculus course.

States including Utah, North Carolina, and West Virginia are moving to integrated math models. Supporters note that integrated models help students make connections across different math disciplines and help them see real-world connections. Some critics say integrated math is not necessary.

James Tarr, a professor in the University of Missouri (MU) College of Education, and Doug Grouws, a professor emeritus from MU, studied more than 3,000 high school students around the country as they tried to determine if an integrated math model led to higher student achievement gains.

(Next page: What research reveals; plus, take a poll on integrated math)Their study revealed that the integrated math approach did in fact result in higher student achievement when compared to students enrolled in traditional math courses. It identified high schools that offered both traditional and integrated math courses. His team conducted 326 classroom observations and collected and controlled for a variety of student data, including demographics and achievement data.

“What we found was, despite controlling for all these different variables, the curriculum organization was a significant predictor of student outcomes,” Tarr said.

The study was funded by a National Science Foundation grant, which Tarr called an investment in a search for answers about effective math curricula.

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Support for a more integrated and coherent math curriculum has been around for decades, and lately many proponents have pointed to high-achieving countries that operate with a more integrated school mathematics curriculum and boast high math achievement.

The Common Core State Standards do not take a position on a traditional math sequence versus an integrated approach, but offer resources aligned to both options.

“For me, math needs to be taught in a way that lets you see the connections among different topics,” said Fred Dillon, a past National Council of Teachers of Mathematics board member, former middle and high school math teacher, and a math consultant. “I try to do that anyway. While we’re looking at trigonometry we’re going to make a ramp for a skateboard, so we’ll tie that back to geometry.”

Dillon was part of an integrated math pilot in the 1990s and said that while some of his colleagues were not in favor of the integrated curriculum, others supported it. And teacher buy-in has much to do with how successful a program is.

“If a teacher isn’t sold on an approach, in any subject, it causes a disconnect,” he said.

Dillon required students in his integrated math courses to complete a final project, and said that in subsequent years, students approached him and recalled with clarity and excitement things they learned during the course and while working on their final projects. He noted, however, that their enthusiasm could have been a combination of the integrated approach and the project requirement.

Different integrated options exist, including the Mathematics Vision Project, Core+, Pearson’s Integrated High School Mathematics, Carnegie Learning’s Integrated Math, and more.

What the critics say

“Because they’re such a break from tradition, they’re controversial,” Tarr said of integrated math courses. “You’re really changing things.”

Some reservations might stem from how the term “integrated” is used. Often, schools assign the term to lower-level math courses, which some say might contribute to hesitations over a move to an integrated math curriculum.

Others claim that integrated math has little support, and are worried about a loss of local control and the implications of statewide requirements to move to integrated math courses.

“The new Utah Mathematics Core adopted from the national Common Core, gives us a chance to improve math education in Utah. I favor common math standards, and I think it is possible to implement the Common Core standards in a responsible way. Any new program can be improved. I am offering my suggestions,” wrote David Wright, a math professor at Brigham Young University, in an op-ed in the Deseret News that addresses Utah math standards and the Common Core.

Among his suggestions: “Do away with the integrated math program that has been rejected by over 90 percent of the states. Integrated math is uncommon. Implement algebra 1, geometry and algebra 2. There is no research evidence that integrated math is better. It keeps motivated students from taking geometry and algebra 2 concurrently. It keeps Utah from using nationally developed math materials.”

And some are pushing for a merging of the two—maintaining a traditional curriculum, but attempting to integrate other topics when logical in order to help students see real-world math connections and applications.

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Laura Ascione

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