Personalize Math Education in Rhode Island

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By Ellen Foley

Here in an urban high school in Providence, my students are craving math content that feels relevant and useful. They constantly ask me, “Why do I need to know this?” and “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” Too often my answer is “you will see it on the test.”

I love math: its order, efficiency, and beauty. But not everyone can see those qualities in my subject because we have emphasized the algebra-to-calculus pathway at the expense of other types of math. As someone who changed careers and began teaching high school just a few years ago, I immediately recognized this content as what I’d learned as a student in the 1980s, back in the days when an app was just the course before dinner. Given the stunning--and math-based--technological advances that have occurred in my lifetime, a stagnant math curriculum is a travesty. Coding, big data, and personal finance are not included in the Common Core standards, and statistics has been relegated to a quarter or two scattered throughout traditional Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.

Calculus is essential for engineers, yet for few other careers. Probability and statistics, on the other hand, must be interpreted and used in almost every discipline. The good news is that college entrance tests are starting to reflect the importance of applied math and many states are aligning their secondary requirements with these tests. Here in Rhode Island, the state requires high school students to take the suite of assessments developed by the College Board: the PSAT 9, PSAT 10, and the SAT. While these tests are aligned to the Common Core in that they emphasize algebra, there is also increased focus on problem solving and data analysis. Students must be able to interpret and apply information gleaned from graphs, charts, and statistics. This change in the test required for college admission is a great opportunity to reimagine what math looks like at the secondary level.

Other opportunities for rethinking math also exist. Rhode Island is arguably the nation’s epicenter of personalized learning: it is the home of the Highlander Institute and the Big Picture Company and the MET, organizations that have received millions of dollars in grants to help push personalized learning forward. Providence Public Schools were recently featured in the Atlantic as a model for developing district-wide approaches to personalized learning. My school alone participates in personalized learning initiatives developed by Highlander, Lighthouse (an initiative of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg), the Carnegie Corporation, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The state has a robust Advanced Course Network, which provides students access to courses that appeal to them and supports their academic achievement. And Rhode Island’s Governor, Gina Raimondo, has championed a Computer Science for All initiative that has brought coding and computer science initiatives to schools across the state.

We should capitalize on this momentum by rethinking what we want math education to look like. The goal of personalized learning is to provide instruction, content, and learning options that meet the needs of individual students. Students who want to learn the traditional math canon should be able to; but those who want to apply math concepts to computer science, coding, statistics, data analysis, and personal finance should not be penalized.

What if a future social scientist wants to study statistics deeply, or a future entrepreneur wants to emphasize personal and business finance? Through a personalized approach, we have the opportunity to make math a subject that not only feels necessary to students, but also relevant to their lives and goals. Rhode Island Education Commissioner Dr. Ken Wagner stated as much in his response to questions after his state of education address this year: “We should shift our focus from the algebra-calculus pathway to more applied math.” To that I say, hear, hear. And here. Here in Rhode Island.

Ellen Foley is a STEM Learning Facilitator at 360 High School in Providence Public Schools. She is a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellow.

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