Utah is only one of two states in the country that is going with the integrated approach. I’m not saying whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, but I would personally like to give an option. —Jefferson Moss
SALT LAKE CITY — Should all Utah high schools follow the same sequence of math classes, or should an individual school district be allowed to select how and when to teach concepts such as algebra and geometry?
One State School Board member says he believes districts should be given more latitude to implement Utah's math standards, or he at least thinks it's an idea state education officials should explore.
"Let's at least start the discussion on whether we should allow some flexibility and how we could accommodate that," Jefferson Moss said.
When Utah adopted the Common Core State Standards, the State School Board also decided to make the transition to a so-called "integrated" math model in which students are instructed in various mathematical subjects simultaneously instead of taking a year of geometry sandwiched between two years of algebra.
Under the new model, students are taught a blend of algebra, geometry and statistics each year, with subsequent courses building upon the concepts students have already mastered.
But the switch to an integrated model represents a significant disruption to math education in the state and has resulted in transition pains. Several districts have hesitated to purchase textbooks while new resources are developed, and parents unfamiliar with the integrated format have raised concerns about being unable to assist students with their homework.
On Friday, Moss requested that the State School Board schedule a discussion on allowing individual districts to abandon the integrated model and return to the practice of teaching two years of algebra and one year of geometry. The issue was tabled, but Moss said he plans to call for debate in a future meeting.
"Utah is only one of two states in the country that is going with the integrated approach," he said. "I’m not saying whether or not that’s a good or bad thing, but I would personally like to give an option."
Bonita Richins, a math and STEM education specialist with the Cache County School District, said district flexibility would require further development of the state's year-end tests to create two sets of questions based on the different math models.
Allowing both models would also impact students transferring between schools, she said, noting that they may fall behind their peers when moving from one model to another.
Richins said an integrated model is common outside the United States and can help students who otherwise struggle with mathematics. When algebra and geometry are taught separately, she said, some students have difficulty making the jump between subjects.
"I like the integrated model. I think it makes us more competitive as a state worldwide," Richins said. "There was a really big disconnection between algebra and geometry before. This way, you show them side by side how the algebra and geometry work together."
Cache County was among the districts that held off on purchasing new textbooks until this year, she said, instead opting to produce materials based on open-source content and lessons developed by local teachers.
Richins said the district recently approved the purchase of new textbooks that align with the integrated model and would be adversely affected if the state returned to the algebra, geometry, algebra format.
"If they wanted to switch back to the old model, we would have a huge problem there," she said.
Moss said that was reason to explore a flexible approach rather than a statewide shift away from the integrated model. Districts have spent the past several years making the transition, and many would likely remain integrated if given the choice.
"We don’t want districts to feel like we’re changing our minds while they’re in the process of buying textbooks," he said.
Moss also mentioned the issue of students transferring schools, but he added that families regularly move to Utah from other states where their children likely were not learning under an integrated model.
"You’re going to have all these kids moving in," he said. "They’re going to be behind or they’re going to be lost because now they have joined this approach that no other state other than Vermont is actually using."
That concern has also been raised by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, chairman of the House Education Committee. Gibson said one of the reasons educators advocated for the adoption of the Common Core State Standards was to limit the impact on students moving between states, which would seem to conflict with Utah's use of the integrated math model.
"That in and of itself becomes problematic if one of the core premises for adopting the Common Core was to have mobility," he said.
Gibson said government is best at its most local level, and district school boards should be empowered to make curriculum decisions. He said most of Utah's lawmakers have heard from constituents concerned with the new math standards, and it's promising that members of the State School Board are open to examining the issue.
"I support our State School Board. I support our local school boards, and I want our education system to do well and perform well," Gibson said. "But we have a big disconnect between students, parents, teachers and administrators right now, and it is a big frustration."
The Utah Council of Teachers of Mathematics has remained supportive of Utah's math standards and last week sent a letter to members of the State School Board encouraging them to "stay the course."
In the letter, the council compared a change of direction to plowing under a field of freshly sprouted crops, when instead cultivation and nourishment are needed to produce a quality harvest.
Moss said he doesn't know whether a flexible approach is financially or administratively possible, or how many districts would return to the old model if given the choice.
He said some of his colleagues on the school board may be reluctant to appear uncertain about Utah's core standards — which would remain unchanged independent of an integrated or traditional math model — but there have been enough questions raised by parents and educators to warrant a conversation on how best to move forward.
"They want to know that the board has a clear direction, clear strategy on where we’re going in terms of standards, in terms of the integrated approach," Moss said. "I’m fine with that. I completely agree with that. But at the same time, I personally have had enough people with concerns over the integrated approach that I’m saying we as a board should be open to having a discussion."