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School & District Management

Minnesota District Making Math Count for Everyone

By David J. Hoff — April 18, 2001 10 min read
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Over the next few years, math enrollment at Roseville Area High School promises to look like the Dow Jones Industrial average in the 1990s: It’ll keep going up.

This St. Paul suburb—like other school districts around Minnesota—is gearing up for new state standards that raise the ante for what next fall’s freshman class will need to learn before its members earn their diplomas.

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Current state laws compel students to take only one mathematics course to graduate, although Roseville has long demanded that its graduates take two.

But for the class of 2005, the Profile of Learning standards require that the students at Roseville High and the rest of Minnesota’s public high schools learn so much math that they’ll need to take at least three years of the subject. Almost 90 percent of the high school’s 2,000 students have enrolled in a mathematics course for next fall—an all-time record.

And the courses they take won’t present the easy curriculum that amounts to a review of middle school math that today’s low- achieving students can now squeak by with. The lineup will include algebra, geometry, statistics, and other higher-level math that once was the domain of the school’s high-achieving students.

“One of the best things that’s happened to us is that [the standards] have raised the bar to say: All students who get a high school diploma must have high school math,” said Glenda Wielinski, the math-curriculum coordinator for the 6,700-student district, which borders the northern edge of the state’s capital city. “We’ve always had a number of students who got watered-down math” in high school, she said.

Community Debate

But reaching a consensus on how and what Roseville High’s students must learn hasn’t been easy. Two years into a new math curriculum that matches the state standards, the usually genteel community has publicly debated— sometimes in nasty and confrontational ways—whether to return to the former curriculum.

For next year, the district will offer two separate tracks. One will follow the new curriculum, which weaves algebra, geometry, and statistics through various courses. And, to placate the critics, another will follow the standard progression from algebra to geometry and back to algebra.

Expert haven’t reached a consensus on the best way to teach mathematics. Many favor the real-life examples and group work of Roseville’s new curriculum, Contemporary Mathematics in Context, also known as Core-Plus.

Others say that repetitive work on sets of problems leads to a mastery of skills that are needed to excel in college-level math.

The debate is happening “sporadically” throughout Minnesota—and the nation— according to William Linder-Scholer, the executive director of SciMathMn, a statewide coalition of educators and business leaders based in Roseville. “There is controversy, but there seems to be plenty of places where there isn’t,” he said.

Still, Roseville is considering a third track for sophomores who fail their freshman course and show little hope of improvement. They will be put into a new low-level, but standards-based course. That course will aim to help them do the bare minimum to meet the state standards before graduation—still a higher level of performance than is currently required.

Roseville’s struggle is common across the state and the rest of the country, as the drive to raise student achievement has broadened the extent of the mathematics all students are expected to know when they graduate.

“When the new standards come in,” said Arnold L. Cutler, the executive director of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics, “it really means that the minimum state requirement goes from one year to three years.”

That new rule also forces schools to keep working to help students who would never have taken advanced algebra if they had entered high school as recently as last fall.

“There’s some pretty significant mathematics in those standards,” said Rick Winters, the chairman of the math department at Roseville Area High School.

Sneaking Through

Roseville officials know such a transition won’t be easy.

According to the state’s Profile of Learning standards, every student will need to demonstrate knowledge in three of four mathematical content areas: algebra, geometry, statistics, and discrete mathematics.

While algebra and geometry have long been staples of the high school curriculum here and nationwide, statistics has been taught, if at all, only at low levels. Discrete mathematics—the application of the discipline to find the best solution to real- life problems, such as designing computer networks or analyzing public opinion polls—is a new subject in most high schools.

Minnesota doesn’t require students to pass a state test, but it will demand that they earn grades documenting they know the material.

The goal of Roseville’s proposed “standards math” course for sophomores who fared poorly freshman year will be for students to earn a 1 or a 2 on the state’s 4-point scale, said Ellen M. Blank, the district’s director of teaching and learning. To score a 1, a student must show “an emerging understanding of mathematical concepts” and demonstrate “some comprehension and ability to apply essential mathematical procedures which may lead to partial solutions,” according to the state’s scoring criteria.

That will be enough to earn a high school diploma. It’s a low level, Ms. Blank acknowledged, but it’s better than what those students, and others like them, would have been on track to take before—applied math or business math. “The thing we do not want to revert back to is what we called ‘baby math.’ ”

More often than not, she added, the baby-math course was a review of arithmetic students had learned in middle school.

As of right now, however, teachers aren’t sure if they can help the low achievers reach the goal in two years. They will work on the curriculum for the standards-based math course this summer and hope to offer it for the first time in the 2002-03 school year. Only the students who flunked 9th grade math and showed no promise of succeeding later would be allowed to enroll in it. District administrators don’t have an estimate of how many students will be steered into the course, but they hope to keep its enrollment as low as possible. A class full of such students would be difficult to shepherd through the learning math at levels higher than is currently expected, said Mr. Winters, the math-department chairman.

“Nobody has a clue of what it will look like,” he said.

Reaching the Rest

Even before they embark on creating their so-called standards-math course, Roseville officials say they’ve made strides in raising the achievement of low-performing students and others who otherwise wouldn’t have been interested in math.

But others in the community say the high school curriculum the district is using fails to give students the skills they need to succeed beyond high school.

Starting three years ago, the high school started teaching freshmen exclusively from a Core-Plus. The class, now nearing the end of its junior year, studied the next two courses in the curriculum, with sophomores and freshmen following them.

The committee that reviewed the options chose Core-Plus, published by Everyday Learning Corp., a Chicago-based subsidiary of the McGraw-Hill Cos., in part, because it matched well with the state’s standards, according to Robert J. Rygh, the high school principal.

But committee members also liked the way the courses base instruction on real-life examples of math applications, Mr. Rygh said. And they preferred the way it weaves various subjects—such as algebra, geometry, and discrete mathematics—into the courses, rather than dividing them into separate ones.

Instead of taking Algebra 1, 9th graders learn bits and pieces of the subject, but also pick up the fundamentals of geometry. When the geometry lessons discuss the Pythagorean theorem, for example, the curriculum calls for teaching it by showing the right angles of a television screen and discussing how the length of the diagonal can help determine the lengths of the screen’s sides.

Jessica Scott, a junior who wants to attend art school, said the curriculum has helped her understand the geometry of the canvasses she paints on. When she wanted to cut a triangular canvass recently, she knew how the Pythagorean theorem could help her.

“In regular math classes,” she said, “I didn’t remember a lot of the concepts as well. With this program, I find I’m remembering more concepts, and I can do better on tests.”

Other students don’t like the program, though, because it doesn’t allow them to master a set of skills before moving on to the next subject.

“It’s so complicated,” said Chad Schroeder, also a junior. “You might be in algebra one day and the next day, it’s trigonometry. You never get a chance to learn it all.”

Relevance and Rigor

The real-life applications help students see the relevance of mathematics and present the topics in ways they can understand, its advocates say.

“It reaches more kids because of the context,” said Tom Wielinski, who has been a teacher for 36 years and is married to Ms. Wielinski, the district’s math-curriculum coordinator. “They see the applications for it. They see the uses for it. No one ever asks: ‘Why do we have to know this?’ I got that all the time in the traditional classes.”

Some parents, students, and even teachers don’t like the program, however. They say it doesn’t focus on one topic long enough. By hopping from one subject to another, students don’t master the skills they need, the critics say. The also argue that it’s inappropriate for students who want to prepare for college mathematics because it doesn’t fully develop their ability to work on the kinds of mathematical problems they’ll encounter in those courses.

“There’s not as much rigor in the Core-Plus courses as there is in the traditional courses,” said Fred C. Keuffer, who teaches the higher-level courses that have kept the same curriculum through the changes. “At some point, they’re going to need that rigor, and I know they’re going to get that in the traditional courses.”

To appease the unhappy parents, the school board decided to offer both the Core- Plus and traditional classes next year. Enough students registered for the traditional courses to fill about one class for each subject in the sequence. Twenty-three freshmen will take Algebra 1, and 42 sophomores have registered for geometry and honors geometry. Another 51 juniors have signed up for Algebra 2 and Honors Algebra 2. Additionally, 159 will take a precalculus course taught with a traditional curriculum. The remaining students will be in the Core-Plus program. While some students may be opting out of the Core-Plus program, many others are succeeding in it who otherwise would have given up on mathematics before junior year.

“What the teachers are saying is: ‘If you look at who’s in Core 3 [the third year of the curriculum], there are kids who are in there who never would have been at that level before, and they’re being successful,’” Ms. Blank said.

Other Minnesota districts, according to Mr. Cutler of the state math teachers’ group, are continuing with such programs as Core-Plus that they expect will help all students, including the lowest performers, reach the standards.

“At this point, the ones that have gone into the new curriculum,” he said, “are still staying with the idea that everyone can get through three years of the curriculum. Right now, people are fairly confident that they can pull it off.”

In Roseville, though, high school officials still foresee the need for three tracks: the traditional route, Core-Plus, and the two-year standards-based course for those who fail the freshman math course.

The mixed bag of options will tax the high school math department. With so many courses being offered, just about every teacher will need to teach more than one subject, a load that many don’t have to carry now.

“Eventually, it’s going to work itself out,” Ms. Blank said. “But it’s going to be bumpy.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Minnesota District Making Math Count for Everyone


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