New math course work adds real-world usage to learning

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The new math programs being rolled out in classrooms across the state will be challenging for students and teachers, but they're necessary, said Susan Barrett, chairwoman of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Only one third of West Virginia students who took the ACT in 2012 tested as ready for college-level coursework in mathematics, with less than half of all high school juniors scoring in the proficient range in math on the Westest. "Employers report that many job applicants cannot pass a basic math test and workers have poor problem-solving skills," Barrett said. "New jobs requiring high levels of technical skills go to workers from outside our state. Given results like these, it's difficult to argue that the mathematics education we have been providing our students is good enough." Thousands of teachers across West Virginia have already started implementing different math and English lessons to prepare students for the Smarter Balanced Assessment in 2014, the standardized test replacing the Westest. The new standards align with the Common Core standards adopted by 45 other states, and focus more on application instead of regurgitation. For math teachers, that means helping students better realize the connections between what they are learning in school to how they can use those lessons in real life, Barrett said. "To be proficient in math, knowing procedures will no longer be enough. That will still be important, but not sufficient," she said. "The new standards are rigorous. They are grounded in research and based on the work of leaders in the field. They are not about a new textbook or a new program, but about a different, more integrated approach." High schools are replacing familiar courses like algebra and geometry with classes called Math 1, Math 2 and Math 3 that use bigger ideas, such as quantity, function, modeling and statistics to connect the content of the traditional courses with a more complete understanding. The three main shifts in mathematics will be on focus, coherence and rigor, and work to "boost students' problem solving ability," according to Lou Maynus, math coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education. "Teachers will spend more time going deeper with fewer topics at each grade level. Unity within and across grades will improve student understanding of the connections within the different areas of mathematics," Maynus said. "[This] allows a student to figure out the most cost-effective way to package and ship a product or which car is really a better buy -- the kind of problems people face in the workplace and in their personal lives," Barrett said. "When skills are taught in isolation, many students are unable to transfer their knowledge beyond the end of a chapter.  "Rules and formulas are soon forgotten if they are not connected to real-world situations that are often messy and require knowledge, but also reasoning and modeling and persistence before settling on a solution that can be defended with numbers, words or some other representation," she said. "If students 'do' math in school instead of just study math, the number of students who are likely to succeed in college and/or the workplace should increase." During developmental workshops, Barrett said, she often hears teachers say things like, "I wish I learned it this way when I was in school," and "This makes so much more sense to me now." It's not an easy transition, though. "The new standards are challenging for teachers, as well. It's difficult to teach in a way that is profoundly different from your experience as a learner. Teachers across the state have been deepening their own understanding of mathematics as they learn about the new standards," she said. The new standards already have been implemented in the state's kindergarten and first-grade classes, and second-grade teachers are rolling the program out now. By fall 2014, all grades will have made the change. "The new standards are challenging," Barrett said, "but students should graduate more competent, more confident and more likely to succeed in the workplace." Reach Mackenzie Mays at or 304-348-4814.
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