A Common Math Curriculum - Would it Help?

Every winter at Fairfax High School, math teachers hold lunch-time study sessions for students who need to take (or re-take) the Standards of Learning exams. Most of the students are newcomers to Virginia who need to pass the standardized math tests to graduate. And often, teachers say, they have holes in what they have learned in their past algebra or geometry classes. That's because Virginia's definition of the course is different from California's or New Jersey's or Montana's. So the newcomers spend their lunch hours brushing up on matrices or trigonometry, or whatever they have missed.

Many countries have a national curriculum, and what's expected to be taught in every math classroom is clearly spelled out. But in the United States, every state or locality has control over what is taught or tested. That is beginning to change, as more states are trying to toughen academic standards and make sure high school diplomas represent something resembling what colleges need or want. But there are still plenty of variations.

For today's paper, I wrote a story that compares variations in the approach to teaching Algebra II in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C.

What do you think? Is a national curriculum the answer to our math education struggles?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  January 26, 2009; 2:03 PM ET  | Category:  Math Education Reform
Previous: Friday Quiz, Take 7 | Next: National Standards? Too Provincial.


I wish I had the answer. My son's strength is math. In 2nd grade (he's in 3rd now) he tested out of 9th grade math. He couldn't test farther because he couldn't read the words. What can we do for him? Nothing though VA schools, that's for sure. And he had to follow their curriculum. He must figure out all the answers in some convoluted way that takes him a very long time, when he knows the answer instantaneously. As with many children who are so profoundly gifted in math, he has dysgraphia, so writing is a pure torture for him. Instead of the schools encouraging his gift, he is becoming more and more resentful of the time it takes him to write out the math problems. I hear over and over that our children don't know the basics and they must enforce them, but why can't we EVER make exceptions? I don't want to make this about my child, but my other children are very very good in math. One of my daughters does well with the convoluted way. The other is more like my son. She sees the answer. The details are difficult to her. But she does need to know the basics. What is the answer? I do not know, but it is NOT fitting everyone into the same mold and expecting the same results.

Posted by: Stormy1 | January 26, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

Was it deGaulle (sp?) who said that he could tell you what every third grader was learning that day in France? Now there's an example of a standardized curriculum! (And, as a nation, they are extremely respectful of math and expect numeracy!)

Posted by: KathyWi | January 26, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

The question of whether to adopt a national math curriculum – like virtually all questions that arise in the context of education reform in this country – ignores the proverbial elephant in the room: we are continuing to sustain an obsolete model of secondary education (which increasingly is permeating down to the elementary level) that is fatally flawed in both its means and its ends.

Only after we introduce a learning model that incorporates all we know today about how kids learn, and the many different resources and best practices available to assist kids in learning, will raising expectations really make a difference. All young people are capable of so much more than they are able to achieve in today's schools, which too often actually inhibit learning and suppress innate potential.

In short, the future of our children – and our nation – depends on the introduction of a genuinely new model of secondary education, designed in and fit for the 21st century.

Alan Shusterman, J.D., C.S.C.
School for Tomorrow
Opening in 9/09 in Rockville, MD

Posted by: Alan23 | January 26, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

there's *effectively* been
a national curriculum for generations:
the (mathematics portion of) the SAT.

attempts to go beyond this are probably
doomed to fail for the usual reason:
most of the people willing to do the
(highly political) work involved will
be interested in politics --
power and control -- not mathematics.

last year's national math panel
produced lots of interesting documents
on this and related issues.
my comments are here:

Posted by: vlorbik | January 26, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

I am sure many states have the same problem that Ohio has (where I am an educator). We have grade level indicators/objectives, which work until you get to high school. Math courses are taught, and not grade levels.

States are requiring Algebra II be taught to all students, but they do not recognize Algebra II, nor any math course in the content standards.

A National curriculum is needed! We should be able to do that. Currently, we have a disconnect between state standards, high school courses, and college requirements. All speak a different language.

Posted by: aricthomas1 | January 26, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

To Stormy - I can understand his frustration with having to learn the process of solving a problem for which he intuitively knows the answer. However, I think it's still important to learn the process of logically solving problems - they aren't all math problems and the intuitive answer isn't always the right one. Perhaps problem-solving without using math may be a good answer, I don't know. However, public schools are necessarily geared to what works for most students. Special cases require, well, special methods.

Regarding the article itself, I can't resist pointing out that the use of the singular possessive "country's" in place of the correct plural "countries" would not pass a standard English exam.

Posted by: JeffRandom | January 26, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

We should diagnose the problem before we adopt a solution. I think the proper diagnosis is that dumbing down is intentional and purposeful, to create the illusion of success and to conceal the racial achievement gap. Today's (1/26/2009) story offers numerous examples by educators at all levels, from classroom teachers to state officials. I have little confidence that federal decisionmakers would behave differently -- which means that they would intentionally choose dumbed-down standards.

An effective remedy has to either change that motivation, or take advantage of it. For example, the Washington Post Challenge Index makes superintendents look good when they broaden student participation in Advanced Placement. In the District, competition from public charter schools is turning the regular public schools into entrepreneurs looking for ways to attract and hold their students. Revision of the No Child Left Behind Act is likely to include a shift to a growth standard, which measures student growth over the school year, so that schools will be recognized when they achieve some success with below-grade-level students.

John Hoven

Posted by: jhoven | January 26, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Why don't we get some education ideas from the nations that consistently outrank us in student achievement? Their cultures are different, of course, but it's hard to imagine that cultures in European countries are all that different from ours.
Could it be just arrogance?

Posted by: caxtontype1 | January 26, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

How many symphonies have performed Beethoven's 9th with the exact same sheet music, yet sound so much different under different conductors? The issue is standardizing classroom instruction, which challenges what's perceived as a teacher's fundamental right to individuality and creativity.
Algebra hasn't changed in 1100 years, but we evolve and revise how we instruct it seemingly by the hour :-o If there could be a core set of 'best practices' that all teachers implement we'd at least provide some instructional consistency. Determining those best practices, sadly, has been as simple as finding the Holy Grail or Noah's Ark.

Posted by: pdfordiii | January 27, 2009 1:03 AM | Report abuse

We do believe in national guidelines to make sure all of our students are receiving the same type and quality of education, and we think the nation has those. Generally, however, our concern with a national curriculum is that it would be reflective of the lowest education standards, and not the highest. States would then feel they are meeting the needs of ALL students, when they are most likely only addressing the basic needs of students. In our opinion, the NMAP and NCTM publication is moving education in our nation to a higher standard that can be addressed in a variety of ways to meet the needs of all states and districts. – Judy Brown, Mathematics Program Manager, Sylvan Learning

Posted by: Sylvan1 | January 30, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

The real reason we can not have a national curriculum- text book companies! With match especially, there is very little that changes from year to year, or even decade to decade but text book companies still have shareholders to please. As long as there is a dollar to be made on text books and varying curriculms we will never have a national standard.

I wish we could see progress even at the state levels. I am a huge fan of open source software and application such as Wikipedia, why can't the same principals of openness and community contribution be replicated in school text books?

Posted by: tmarshallva | February 2, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

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