State education board, legislators collide over math

Cassie Bush, left, and Jason Phillips, right, collaborate on a problem during a math class at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh on Sept. 4, 2014.
Cassie Bush, left, and Jason Phillips, right, collaborate on a problem during a math class at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh on Sept. 4, 2014. News & Observer File Photo

Changes to high school math the State Board of Education is poised to approve put the board on a collision course with legislators who want schools to go back to teaching the subject the way they did four years ago.

The state board is set to vote Thursday on changes to three core high school math courses. The changes are meant to clarify and reorder topics but do not go as far as unraveling integrated math courses that teach algebra, geometry and statistics in combination each year over three years.

A Senate committee considered a bill Wednesday that would require the state to return to teaching Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II in high school, rather than the sequence of integrated math courses Math I, Math II and Math III.

The committee did not vote on the bill, but Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican and co-chairman of the education committee, said it was “a very clear signal” to the state education board “that we don’t need to progress down that path any further.”

The dispute has implications for how high school students would learn math, for what point in their school careers they take up specific topics and for the content of tests.

The fight over math has engulfed parents, teachers, students, legislators and state board members. A subcommittee of a state commission reviewing the controversial Common Core standards wanted the state to move back to the old high school math sequence, but the full commission rejected that recommendation.

The Rockingham County school district worked hard to get teachers to ‘buy in’ to integrated math, Superintendent Rodney Shotwell said, and to ‘go back to the old ways’ is ‘a step backward.’

Integrated math is intertwined with, but separate from, Common Core. Common Core did not require states to move to integrated math.

Some share the view of state Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republican, who said integrated math courses jump from topic to topic, making it hard for students to follow.

But some teachers prefer integrated math, saying that it better prepares students to solve real-world problems.

Rockingham County Superintendent Rodney Shotwell, an adviser to the state board, said legislators’ desire to return to the old sequence was based on the “comfort level of what people had when they were growing up.”

The district worked hard to get teachers to “buy in” to integrated math, Shotwell said, and to “go back to the old ways” is “a step backward.”

The state board moved ahead with its review of the proposed math changes and a detailed implementation plan the state Department of Public Instruction prepared. The revised courses would begin next fall.

The bill won’t change the state board’s plan, said Chairman Bill Cobey.

“I don’t know why it would impact our vote,” he said in an interview. “We’ll move forward.”

But during the meeting, Vice Chairman A.L. Collins acknowledged that the bill, if it becomes law, would “have a tremendous adverse impact to what you’re doing.”

The proposed legislation would have the state switch back to the traditional sequence in 2017. It would also require the education board to work with the State Board of Community Colleges to come up with new math standards to be implemented in fall 2018.

The Senate proposal has a ways to go before it becomes law. A committee vote will come next week, Tillman said.

The bill would then face consideration from the full Senate and, at the least, a House vote.

Tillman said the legislature would take up changes to elementary and middle school math next year.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner