Change is coming in how math is taught in NC schools. But will it make students care?

State education leaders want to change how math is taught in North Carolina’s public schools to get more students interested in the subject.

The state Department of Public Instruction is working on a comprehensive math reform package to prepare all students for the Math 1 course. The plan will include requesting more funding for teacher training and a new test for assessing the math skills of elementary students.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the State Board of Education on Wednesday that changes are needed because doing well in Math 1 is the “gold standard for post-secondary success.” Some students take Math 1 in middle school, but many others don’t take it until high school.

“Most kids are not proficient in Math 1, or Algebra 1 as other places might call it,” Truitt told the board. “But we know that is the gateway for secondary success, and with the number of jobs that are available now and coming down the pipe in AI, machine learning, computer science, Algebra I is going to be the gateway to those career fields.”

The state board met Wednesday at East Carolina University in Greenville as part of its planning retreat.

A repeated theme during Wednesday’s presentation was getting students past the mindset that it’s acceptable to say they’re not a math person.

“Math is for everyone,” said Deputy State Superintendent Michael Maher. “It’s not just for certain people. It’s not just for kids going to college.”

The Common Core math wars

The reforms come amid a decade of math wars in North Carolina and across the nation.

In 2012, North Carolina public schools began teaching math using Common Core standards. The standards called for students to learn more about how to apply concepts instead of just memorizing formulas.

Common Core was developed under the sponsorship of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and was presented as the way to better prepare students for college and jobs.

But some parents were confused by the new approach. They wanted to help their children learn math the way they had been taught.

Amid a backlash from lawmakers and some parents, the State Board of Education retooled the math standards in 2017.

Maher and Charles Aiken, DPI’s section chief for math, science and STEM, said it’s important for students to learn both the math concepts and how to apply them.

The K-12 math standards will be reviewed during the 2024-25 school year. Any recommendations to start revising the standards will be brought to the state board in summer of 2025.

Students listen as Knightdale High School teacher Alex Johnson reviews examples of sequences during a math class on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in Knightdale, N.C.
Students listen as Knightdale High School teacher Alex Johnson reviews examples of sequences during a math class on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in Knightdale, N.C.

Screening young students on math

In the meantime, DPI is working on a reform package that Truitt will present to the state board early next year for review and approval. The plan is to seek funding and approval from state lawmakers in next year’s legislative session.

The reform package will include:

A request for an early math screener for all elementary grades. Elementary school teachers would use the screener to assess the math skills of their students.

Policies for guidelines on best instructional practices for math teachers as well as recommendations for a math curriculum.

A statewide system of support for K-8 math teachers to include state-funded math professional development and coaching.

Policies for comprehensive math intervention programs aligned to MTSS (Multi-Tier Systems of Support). MTSS includes strategies schools use to support students.

The proposed math screener is similar to how elementary school teachers use a reading screener to assess the skills of their students as part of the Read To Achieve program.

“We have to make sure that our teachers have the tools they need to get rid of the math phobia that we see even in our elementary math teachers,” Truitt said.

Do students need Calculus?

North Carolina is part of a nationwide discussion about whether the way math is taught should be changed. The movement has gained momentum after post-pandemic scores on national math tests dropped to record laws.

North Carolina is among more than 20 states that are part of the Launch Years Project, an initiative looking at how to broaden the math options for high school students. The project is promoting ideas such as having students learn more about subjects they’re interested in, such as data science.

Aiken said that the Launch Years team will present final draft recommendations in July or August.

Maher said the current approach to teaching math in American schools is based on Calculus being the end goal for high school students. Aiken said they want to retain the pathway for students who want Calculus while offering options for those who want another pathway, such as data analytics.

Schools must be able to answer why students need to learn the math course they’re taking to keep them from turning off, Aiken said.

“If you can’t tell me why I need it — whether I’m capable of studying it or not become irrelevant — I turn it off,” Aiken said. “I do think we have a lot of students for whom we might have potential great math students but we can’t tell them why so they shift to something else.”