Whether you like the idea of the Common Core State Standards for math (CCSSM) or not, it is here to stay at least until version 2.0 addresses the eventual problem of the scores not going up. Why am I so sure this will be the case? Because CCSSM doesn't ensure a curriculum that actually helps students understand and learn the topics any better than before. For example, learning fractions. In a recent book Keith Devlin describes how easily it is to get confused when doing fractions. (See my blog.) Schools have to use curriculum that match the standards. That's great. But how can they do it well? Since proportionality is such an important concept and understanding it is so critical a carefully crafted set of activities is needed to prevent misconceptions.
Most school districts will probably choose a textbook program that is correlated with the standards. Problem: Most textbooks do a decent job in correlating, but not in motivating students to learn the math. This summer Dan Meyer had a Makeover Monday blog where teachers submitted typical problems from textbooks and Dan's community offered suggestions as to how to improve them. While reading these blogs I became convinced that we need a makeover of textbooks in general i.e. come up with a more dynamic model for lessons that textbooks could adopt. Currently Dan Meyer and Karim Ani (Mathalicious.org) are creating and encouraging dynamic learning adventures that are interesting to kids and help with deeper understanding.
The giants of the textbook world (Pearson, McGraw HIll, etc.) are trying to modernize their curriculums but they have too much at stake in maintaining the status quo since most teachers and administrators prefer what they are familiar with and find the so called "alternative" models too risky or controversial for district approval. (Larry Cuban describes this phenomenon as dynamic conservatism). Otherwise districts would reject most if not all the mediocre curriculums that are now being published.)
Should Algebra be optional?
Recent articles in Harpers and the New York Times have argued for making the Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 sequence optional especially for kids who struggle with math.
Michael thayer writes:
In an ideal world, kids would sort themselves in this way based on their interests.
Kids in track #1 ("calculus track"): These are the kids who love math, who love the challenge of it, and who see the abstractions of algebra and analysis as pursuits worthy of study.
Kids in track #2 ("statistics track"): These are the kids who recognize the importance and practicality of math, and who see utility for it in their futures.
Kids in track #3 ("one and done"): These are the kids who have had a good experience with math, who have seen the forest for the trees, but do not wish to go deeper as their interests lie elsewhere.
I would also include in track* 3 those students who didn't have a good experience in math and do not have any interest in continuing in math since they would rather use the time to study something else.
My Thoughts on the Path 3 Course
Offer a one year course for students who definitely don't want to do the formal Algebra 1 or 2 path for whatever reason, but still want to go to a "good" college. Their are over 4,000 accredited 2 and 4 year colleges in the US. Getting into a college is usually not a problem, just paying for it is. (Shame on those colleges that afflict serious debt on our students.) I'm sure there are plenty of colleges out there that would accept students who have (as Mike pointed out in his blog) excellent work habits, overall knowledge base, and interpersonal and time management skills who didn't take Algebra 1 and 2 but rather this richer one year 9th grade math course; something like "Mathematics a Human Endeavor - A Book for Those Who Think They Don't Like the Subject" by Harold Jacobs. He wrote his last revision of the book in 1994 and the book is still in demand particularly in homeschooling environments. Anyone out there want to work on an open source version of the kind of one year alternative curriculum that is in the same spirit as Jacobs had in mind? (Here's something I did with his Chapter 3 - Functions and their Graphs.)
Maybe we can do it collectively as an open source project. I volunteer to be a conduit for creating this course! Are you interested? (If so, you might get familiar with Jacobs book to see what I have in mind.)
*Tracking is not the right word for this, because it implies rigidity. These should be paths that students can opt to start on, but can switch to a different path at any time or chart their own course.