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Teachers test new approach to high school math

Math understanding at the elementary and middle school levels has increased over the last 30 years, but has stagnated in high school.

In its 2018 report “Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics,” The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has issued a call to action to drastically change the way math is taught so that students can learn more easily.

Educators must help learners make mathematical connections—particularly around the interplay between math topics and students’ interests and experiences, says Robert Berry, the council’s president-elect and a professor in the teacher education program at the University of Virginia.

“Through this kind of instruction, students can understand the utility of mathematics, and also the joy, wonder and beauty of math,” Berry says.

The report encourages educators to expand the focus of math beyond just college and career readiness while eliminating obstacles on a student-by-student basis. It guides high schools in revising curriculum around essential math concepts that support students’ personal and professional goals.

It also urges the subject to be taught more equitably by eliminating tracking of students and teachers. Tracking students often leaves them on “dead-end” pathways that don’t prepare them for future success, the report says. Tracking teachers results in the most qualified educators teaching only high-level courses.

The new math

A number of educators—such as Michael Gallin, who teaches algebra at KAPPA International High School, a public school in the Bronx—are already implementing new approaches to reduce students’ math frustrations.

The shift started with a simple question: How can you get students to attempt the more challenging math problems that will be on the New York state Regents Exam?

“I learned, by talking to them, that they were intimidated—the problems involved fractions, which they weren’t comfortable with, or a word problem had language that was confusing, or they had a problem with literacy and so avoided word problems altogether,” Gallin says.

He could then hone in on those skills to help students gain confidence as he tries to change their relationship with the notion of failure—particularly when it comes to students who have failed the Regents Exam.

“We’re trying to build a culture where we talk about failure as feedback, give them space to fail, and use that as a touchpoint for determining how they improve,” Gallin says.