In 2008, Georgia public schools implemented an integrated math curriculum for incoming ninth graders such as Cora Berrian, now a junior at Northeast High School.
“Looks can be deceiving. When you see a problem, it looks hard, but when you get used to it, it’s pretty easy,” Berrian, 16, said after solving a problem on the board in her accelerated Math III course Friday morning.
Berrian and her classmates are the “guinea pig group,” among the first to take the high school math courses that combine concepts of algebra, geometry and statistics, said their teacher Robert Randall.
Next week though, the state school board could make a decision that would allow school districts to return to more traditionally structured math courses, a year before those same 2008 ninth-graders earn their high school diplomas.
In response to feedback from parents, schools, and even Georgia lawmakers, the state school board will vote March 14 whether to offer new algebra, geometry, advanced algebra and pre-calculus courses, giving systems the flexibility to return to offering the subjects as separate courses -- known as discrete courses -- or allow districts to offer both tracks.
While many around the state have been vocal in their opposition to the delivery method, integrated math has drawn mixed feelings in Middle Georgia.
Either way, math courses will continue to be taught under the Georgia Performance Standards.
Currently, 17 percent of juniors in the state have one or no math credits, jeopardizing their chances of graduation, according to Georgia Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza. To earn a high school diploma, students must have four math credits.
Mathematics support courses that provide additional help for struggling students may also be counted as core courses with approval from the state board, rather than elective credit, giving a boost to students who lack the required math courses to graduate.
Superintendents across the state are split on the matter.
When State Superintendent John Barge surveyed system superintendents recently, 36 percent said they would like to keep integrated math, while 29 percent wanted to return to discrete math courses. The remaining 35 percent wanted the option to choose one or both in their schools.
The responses indicated that most superintendents “want something different than just integrated,” Cardoza said.
On the other hand, groups such as the Mathematics Curriculum Team at the University of Georgia, the Georgia Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and the Georgia Council of Teachers of Mathematics have denounced the move toward offering both math tracks in favor of sticking to the integrated plan. In a statement, the Georgia Council of Teachers of Mathematics said integrated math raises standards for students and better prepares them for the 21st century work force.
“The world doesn’t come out at you in algebra problems or geometry problems,” said Lynn Janes, Bibb County’s math coordinator and a member of the Georgia Council of Supervisors of Math. “You solve the algebra with the geometry -- it’s more real-world math.”
The integrated math curriculum brought bigger changes than just the delivery of the material, according to Janes and Northeast math teacher Randall.
“The expectation of teachers has changed from drilling into their heads to letting them discover with a little guidance,” Randall said. “They learn a lot more.”
“It’s more rigorous than what we had previously, and the blame is on the integrated math. It’s not the integrated math, it’s the increase in rigor,” Janes said.
Others, like Jones County Assistant Superintendent Vicki Rogers, don’t want to turn their backs on integrated math now after teachers have put in three years collaborating on integrated math lessons and school leaders are making inroads with parents.
“I think abandoning it now is foolish,” Rogers said. “We’re just beginning to see gains across the state.”
Local preferences vary
In Monroe County, however, if the majority of parents and high school math faculty have their way, Mary Persons High School will return to discrete math courses if the state board gives them the option to do so, Principal Jim Finch said.
Integrated math has presented several challenges, with teachers having difficulty connecting the math concepts for students in the curriculum, adding courses to make sure students are on track to graduate and frustration from parents.
However, the GPS curriculum does offer the students more rigor in their courses, he said.
“I think we went from zero miles per hour to 99 miles per hour real fast,” said Finch, a former math teacher.
Finch’s sentiment echoes what Cardoza calls a “perfect storm” of issues that made adopting integrated math difficult, including a paradigm shift in delivering math for teachers and budget shortfalls. The state also used a “train-the-trainer” model, making implementation inconsistent.
When Finch asked teachers to provide their input on integrated math, he asked them not to consider the time and effort already expended in introducing the curriculum.
“At the end of the day, we do what’s best for students, regardless of the time,” Finch said.
While teachers in Peach County had to adjust to integrated math, many have now expressed a preference toward sticking with it, rather than switching back to discrete math, according to Jerry Gray, director of secondary school improvement.
Offering both integrated and discrete math would pose challenges to a smaller district like Peach County that has limited resources.
“With math in our school system and almost any in the state, math is kind of an Achilles’ heel, something we’re not traditionally good at,” he said. “With feedback from teachers and students, they’re beginning to warm up to it. It’s less foreign. It is more rigorous and demanding.”
While discrete math gave students more time to build their skills, it was also less task-oriented than the GPS math curriculum.
“Hopefully it has a real-world application, particularly with us in project-based learning,” Gray said. “Real-world applications are important to us.”
While Houston County teachers have adjusted to the integrated math curriculum, the district is mum on whether it would consider returning to discrete math.
“We don’t have a decision,” said Cassie Rape, Houston’s coordinator of middle and high school mathematics. “We’re just waiting to see what the state says.”
According to state data, 36 percent of students in Georgia taking the Math I end-of-course tests in spring 2010 did not pass, while 48 percent did not pass the Math II test.
The state first implemented the Math I and II EOCT in winter 2009, with most students usually taking the tests in the spring. Previously, the state offered algebra and geometry EOCT courses.
Though the tests are not the same, Rape said the failure rate of the Math I and II tests is comparable to the early days of the algebra and geometry EOCTs.
In spring 2005, during the first school year EOCTs were factored into students’ grades, only 63 percent passed the algebra test, while 65 percent passed the geometry test.
Rape, who taught Math II at Warner Robins High School last year, expects the results to improve, partly as teachers become more comfortable with the material.
Warner Robins resident Mike Smith, the father of a freshman and junior at Houston County High School, favors schools offering both options to students.
“I think both (children) have done pretty well with it,” he said, “but both have to put in a lot of work.”