Choosing and Promoting a Math Curriculum: Not as Easy as It Seems

By Sean Cavanagh — November 16, 2009 2 min read
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If ever you needed a reminder of why state and national officials are wary of attempting to dictate the curriculum in local schools, consider the experience of a single South Dakota district. Creating a uniform curriculum is not as easy as it seems.

Officials in the Rapid City school system settled on an approach to math teaching in 2002 that was built on an “inquiry"-based approach to the subject. (In general, this refers to teachers encouraging students to develop their own problem-solving approaches and reasoning skills, even as educators provide them with direction and help.) The South Dakota district had received a PRIME grant—Promoting Reflective Inquiry in Mathematics Education—from the National Science Foundation. It was designed to increase student achievement in math, boost the performance of Native Americans, and improve classroom instruction. Test scores rose, and the approach won the support of many teachers, administrators, and parents, according to this detailed story in the Rapid City Journal.

Yet as the article explains, individual school administrators have considerable leeway in choosing which instructional approaches are used in their schools, and some aren’t fans of the PRIME approach. Some teachers and parents also have fought it. The resulting inconsistency in teaching approaches from school to school has created frustration in the community, the story says.

The story touches on many of the tangled issues that emerge as a district attempts to implement a new curriculum, particularly in math. First there’s the divide between those who like the approach and those who don’t—perhaps because the methods are a departure from the way they were taught. The district has to consider what textbooks to purchase, and where its approach meets state standards, which in South Dakota are about to be revised, according to the story. And when local school officials look for definitive research on which curricular approaches are most effective, they find that not a lot of research exists.

Inevitably, many readers will see this story as evidence for or against a particular math curriculum. I’ll attempt to put that issue aside for the moment and focus on the point of the article itself. If a district settles on a math curriculum, how long does it take to implement it, and what factors will ensure that it takes hold? I’ve had school administrators tell me that having a consistent curriculum across schools is crucial, in that it helps ensure that students cover the necessary content, particularly in districts and states where students bounce from school to school. Do you agree?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.