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Step 1: Beginning to Reform Your Curriculum

We're at the beginning. We are very interested in reform, but need more information concerning where to begin.

Current reform in K-12 mathematics education affects all aspects of our students' educational experience: what they learn, how they learn in the classroom, the tools with which they do mathematics, and the way student achievement is assessed. While in some cases change may now be mandated by state or local frameworks or other requirements, it's valuable to begin to think about reform in school mathematics by focusing on the need for change. Based on the state of mathematics education in schools circa 1980, change was called for by many pivotal segments of our society. Students, school teachers, parents, mathematics educators, business and industry leaders, scientists, members of professional organizations in mathematics, and college and university mathematics faculty all voiced the concern that the prevailing state of mathematics education in most of our schools was not meeting the needs of our students.

Indeed, as stated in Everybody Counts: A Report to the Nation on the Future of Mathematics Education (National Research Council. National Academy Press: 1989, p. 4), "Students are 'voting with their feet' against the mathematics education they have been receiving...dropping out of mathematics as soon as possible." In fact, in the 1980s it was estimated that from ninth grade on approximately one half of the students studying mathematics left the curriculum each year! (National Research Council. A Challenge of Numbers: People in the Mathematical Sciences. National Academy Press: 1990, p. 36.)

School teachers have been dissatisfied with the kind of mathematics education their students have been receiving. In the seminal publication Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM]. Reston, VA: 1989.), the NCTM describes reasons for change and presents a vision for the future of school mathematics.

Publication of this document was followed by the publication of two companion documents: Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics (NCTM, 1991) and Assessment Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM, 1995). A planned revision, which maintains the essential vision of the earlier documents, combines and updates these three documents and is titled Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM, 2000). Each of these documents was written with input from many constituencies including practicing teachers, mathematics educators, educational researchers, and professional mathematicians. These documents are among the most influential publications in existence regarding current efforts to improve K-12 mathematics education. Minimally, the Principles and Standards for School Mathematics should be read carefully in its entirety to begin to understand what is frequently referred to as the Standards-based vision for school mathematics. Other readings are suggested in our bibliography. It should be emphasized that use of the terms standards and principles here refers to statements about what should be valued as part of a school mathematics education. The terms do not refer to rigid prescriptions concerning what should be done in a mathematics classroom each day of the school year.

One reason school teachers have been dissatisfied with the kind of school mathematics education their students have been receiving is expressed in a disturbing statement that appears in the first of the published NCTM documents mentioned above. That statement asserts that near the beginning of elementary school "children loose their belief that mathematics is a sense-making experience" (NCTM, 1989, pg. 15). The fundamental fact that mathematics is a way of making sense of the world, a method of reasoning and inquiry that requires creativity, insight, and good judgment, has been absent from the experience of an intolerable number of students!

Leaders in business and industry decry the fact that many of their employees lack basic problem-solving and mathematical communication skills. Not only has public education failed to keep up with a world in which students need a higher degree of mathematical, scientific, and technical literacy than ever before; but students are being poorly prepared to meet the future where the focus is increasingly on flexibility, adaptive skills, problem-solving and reasoning abilities - all at the very heart of mathematics - rather than only rote skills that are quickly outmoded or replaced with more efficient techniques.

Professors in colleges and universities complain that their students come to college unprepared to think and reason mathematically and are not ready to pursue college level mathematics. A common experience of faculty who interact with students in college and university freshmen mathematics courses is to confront the following student comment: "I don't understand what they want in this problem. Just tell me what to do and I'll do it!" - further evidence that students fail to see mathematics as a sense-making experience.

Unlike some reform efforts such as the "new math" of the 1960s, the current reform is grounded in research that has attempted to identify the root causes of failures within the traditional system of mathematics education. We have determined how to change classroom teaching to improve student comprehension. We have determined some guiding principles for updating curriculum, emphasizing mathematics as a unified body of knowledge rather than a set of discrete topics, and establishing, as a central focus, the value and need for mathematical reasoning.

Each of the five curriculum projects affiliated with COMPASS has undergone a rigorous program of design, testing, and evaluation before becoming commercially available. This process of curriculum development appropriately has taken several years. Among other things, these projects represent five distinct models of Standards-based instructional programs. Each program contains significantly more than modifications of traditional curricula in an attempt to "support the Standards." Rather, each has been developed with teams of teachers, mathematics educators, and mathematicians, often with the input of business and industry personnel and other community members, in an effort to best prepare all students with the mathematical capabilities essential to citizens and continuing learners as we approach the twenty-first century.

Once you are convinced of the need to alter the mathematics program in your school or district, the next goal is to decide what mathematical experience you want your students to have. At this point it is suggested that you review our bibliography and complete at least the minimal reading suggested there. In addition to this reading, you need to be fully cognizant of state or local guidelines, frameworks, or other mandates and procedures that may affect the outcome of your curriculum selection.

You may now wish to begin development of your secondary school curriculum without further input. In fact, it is encouraged that you develop at least broad goals concerning the mathematical experience you want to ensure for your students during secondary school. In this case, we suggest that you keep an open mind in regard to the sequencing of mathematical topics, within your particular constraints. The five curricula associated with COMPASS provide different options for sequencing material and, in some cases, different content as well. The "Questions for Discussion" page on this site lists many important questions that should be considered when reviewing integrated mathematics curricula or textbooks. If you wish to review the five curriculum projects in terms of content during the process of defining your goals (rather than after your goals are set), select the Curriculum Details link at this site now.

There are also other pages on the COMPASS web site that might be suitable for you to view next. FAQ has frequently-asked questions and answers regarding the process of switching to a new curriculum. Step 2 and Step 3 on the "Choosing a Curriculum" page will give you additional information concerning the choice of a curriculum affiliated with COMPASS. For further information specific to your school and/or district needs, we also suggest that you contact COMPASS directly by email, surface mail, or phone.

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Last revised 04/26/06