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Lawmakers Reopen The Common Core Debate

Fayetteville math teacher Kenneth Williams creates a life-sized right triangle in his classroom.
Jess Clark
Fayetteville math teacher Kenneth Williams creates a life-sized right triangle in his classroom.

Lawmakers in the state Senate plan to vote Thursday on abill that would let students opt out of the integrated high school math sequence, and take a more traditional math sequence instead.
Geometry, algebra and statistics used to be taught separately. The integrated sequence blends them in math courses I, II and III--usually taken in high school. Most of North Carolina's public high schools  switched to the  integrated approach when the state adopted Common Core in 2012. 

Math education researchers say the integrated approach better prepares students for college and jobs, but the new track has frustrated some parents, students and teachers who prefer the traditional sequence. The track has also become a target of anger in the state for groups and lawmakers who oppose the Common Core, including Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Wake).

"We flipped the light switch in North Carolina and turned math into a dark place, and now we're trying bring some light back in," Barefoot said during Wednesday's Senate education committee meeting.

The Senate bill would direct the State Board of Education to create a new version of the traditional segmented math sequence that schools would have to offer in addition to the integrated approach. Students could chose either pathway.

"All I'm saying is let's give them a choice, let's see where they flourish," said Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph).

The bill doesn't come with any funding. Tillman told the committee schools wouldn't need any funding or extra teachers to offer the second math track.

"A good math teacher can teach it either way," Tillman said.

Forsyth County math teacher Wendy Bartlett was skeptical.

"There are so many implementation issues to offer two pathways for high schoolers to choose from," she said, adding that such a bill could mean math teachers would have to significantly increase their class preparation time, and schools would likely have to add more teachers.

“I teach at a school that's had three long-term subs for two years," she said. "We cannot find math teachers. And you're only going to run them away if you ask them to do more with less."

Bartlett also worried offering students the traditional track would cut them off from the approach that many math education researchers say better prepares students.

"The integrated math produces mathematical thinkers," she said. "We need people who can think, we need people who are curious. We do not need students who learn procedures and rules."

This isn't the first time integrated math has been the focus of political debate. In December 2015, members of a commission appointed by the General Assembly brought more than a year of work vetting the Common Core standards to a close. In a split vote,the commission decided to keep the integrated math sequence.

The Department of Public Instruction has also done its own vetting of the math standards. The majority of  teachers the department surveyed said they preferred the new, integrated approach.

Jess is WUNC's Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting. Her reporting focuses on how decisions made at the North Carolina General Assembly affect the state's students, families, teachers and communities.
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