Advocates for children with disabilities pan NCGA’s latest foray into the math curriculum

Wake County Republican Chad Barefoot is one of two backers of the math reforms.

Wake County Republican Chad Barefoot is one of two backers of the controversial math reforms.

With state Senate lawmakers expected to consider sweeping revisions to the high school math curriculum this week, advocates for children with disabilities are urging caution from legislators.

Leaders with the nonprofit Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center (ECAC) in North Carolina sent out an alert early Tuesday, arguing that modifications to House Bill 657 could have a “significant impact” on students with disabilities and others who do not quite meet the criteria for special education eligibility.

A component of the legislation nixes a current provision in state law that allows for students to use a career-technical education (CTE) course to complete their math requirements for graduation. Such advocates say the allowance is intended to offer an alternative path for graduation to those with learning disabilities and others who struggle to pass courses like Algebra I.

House Bill 657 once directed UNC system leaders to study a fixed tuition program to assuage rising university costs, but a Senate committee substitute backed by powerful Republicans Jerry Tillman and Chad Barefoot removes that language entirely. Here’s a summary of those revisions from legislative staff. 

The substitute language instead directs the state’s public school system to do away with recent math reforms that created integrated courses combining statistics, algebra and geometry. Tillman and Barefoot say they want the state to return to the separated math classes of old, although education officials have been working to tweak the new integrated courses since they went into effect roughly four years ago.

Indeed, members of the N.C. State Board of Education passed clarifications for the integrated courses this month.

But, as the ECAC points out, the math reforms are coupled with a sweeping ban on CTE courses used to fulfill math graduation requirements.

From the ECAC alert:

Under HB 657, (students’) choices will be limited to courses like Discrete Math, Advanced Functions and Modeling, Statistics or Pre-Calculus.

Thanks to a once strong Learning Disabilities Association of North Carolina, NC’s public school law allows Algebra I to be waived as a graduation requirement for students that have a learning disability in math.  If Algebra I is waived, the student will need an alternative 4-course sequence in order to satisfy graduation requirements.

The math options for many of these students have become increasingly limited.  HB 657 makes no exception to its blanket prohibition to using CTE courses to satisfy the graduation requirement for a fourth credit in math. This leaves students with a severe learning disability in math with no path to graduation, even though they may be able to meet all other state and local requirements.  Under this law, if a student – any student – cannot master a math course even more challenging than Algebra II, they cannot earn a high school diploma.

The ECAC is not the only group criticizing the Senate’s substitutions. Wake County math teacher Trey Ferguson penned an op-ed in Tuesday’s News & Observer panning the proposal as well, calling it a “retreat in math instruction.”

According to Ferguson, a change now would undo several years of work refining the integrated courses, throw parents for a loop who are just now getting used to the new courses and confound students who have been learning in the current system.

From Ferguson’s piece:

This cohort of graduates is linked to statewide peers in that they have been a part of a shift from the old way of teaching and learning math, to the new integrated approach. In 2013, N.C. transitioned students from Algebra I, II and Geometry to Math 1, 2, 3, an integrated course sequence designed to demonstrate the connection between major concepts of math, while also providing students with the opportunity to learn applicable skills for college and career readiness.

The most notable accomplishment of this new structure is the development of statistics and probability throughout the courses, a strand most useful in our data-driven society. In the traditional sequence, only a few students were exposed to statistics in an elective course.

When N.C. schools implemented the new math sequence, we were not provided the necessary resources and training to do it effectively – the last time we had the money to buy new math textbooks for high school was 2004. However, our state’s teachers have worked tirelessly on crafting and revising a curriculum that makes sense for all of our students.

Schools are very different from when most of us were in them. The job market for our graduates has changed significantly. The skills needed to be successful and competitive for colleges have changed to require the application of several mathematical concepts at one time to solve real-world problems. This is why colleges and universities and the business community have supported the standards organized in an integrated approach.

Leaders in the Senate Education Committee are expected to consider the modifications this week before it heads to the full Senate floor, although no official time has been scheduled for the committee to meet yet. We’ll keep you posted.

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