Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics

By Matthew Larson posted 03-21-2018 00:00


Next month at our Annual Meeting in Washington, NCTM will release and have an enhanced conference strand on Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations. I want to thank the writing team, particularly the chair Karen Graham, for bringing Catalyzing Change to publication. I also want to thank all the reviewers, many of whom saw multiple drafts, as well as the NCTM Publications staff who ensured the book was ready by the Annual Meeting. Member feedback was critical at every step of the process.

Catalyzing Change seeks to initiate critical conversations around the following challenges:

  • Explicitly broadening the purposes for teaching high school mathematics beyond a focus on college and career readiness.
  • Dismantling structural obstacles that stand in the way of mathematics working for each and every student.
  • Implementing equitable instructional practices to cultivate students’ mathematical identity and high sense of agency.
  • Identifying Essential Concepts that all high school students should learn and understand at a deep level.
  • Organizing the high school curriculum around these Essential Concepts in order to support students’ future personal and professional goals.

Why release this publication now? At the elementary and middle levels in the United States over the last three decades there has been a positive long-term trend in mathematics learning, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NCES 2015). However, the steady improvement in mathematics learning seen at the elementary and middle levels has not been shared to the same degree at the high school level. Despite the increase in the percentage of school students enrolling in upper-level mathematics courses over the last three decades (Dossey, McCrone, and Halvorsen 2016), high school NAEP scores have remained essentially flat for more than a decade (NCES 2015), and fewer than 50 percent of U.S. high school graduates in 2016 were considered ready for college-level mathematics work, as measured by their ACT mathematics scores (ACT 2016).

Despite the progress the mathematics education community has made to improve mathematics instruction and learning in grades K-8, an implementation gap persists between the calls for change and the comprehensive actions needed to support all high school students in learning and appreciating mathematics and statistics, to prepare them sufficiently for postsecondary education opportunities or a career (particularly in STEM), and to equip them with the quantitative skills and critical mathematical reasoning skills necessary to make sound decisions in their personal lives as engaged members of our democratic society.

High school mathematics education is a complex system of policies, traditions, and societal expectations.  Therefore, it is the system and its structures that need to be critically examined and improved. Changes to high school mathematics education require the engagement of all stakeholders involved. Therefore, Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations begins a serious discussion of the issues involved among classroom teachers; counselors, coaches, specialists, and instructional leaders; school, district, and state administrators; curriculum developers; and policymakers at all levels.

It is essential to view Catalyzing Change as merely the beginning—the goal is for a serious and sustained effort on multiple levels to engage all who have a stake in the system of mathematics education of high school students in a coordinated, collaborative effort to improve the learning experiences and outcomes of each and every high school student. Catalyzing Change is only the beginning for NCTM. This work will require sustained effort by the Council and other groups over many years. Over the course of the next few years NCTM will continue to support this collaborative effort through professional learning opportunities and additional publications that will provide vignettes and further examples to clarify and illustrate the recommendations offered in Catalyzing Change.

The work of improving the high school mathematics experience of students is critical for all of us to undertake. We owe this effort not only to our students but also to ourselves as we work together to create and nurture the society we wish to inhabit. I encourage you to read Catalyzing Change carefully, share and discuss it with your colleagues and school and district leaders, and initiate the urgent conversations needed to improve the learning experiences and outcomes of the students we serve.


1 comment



02-15-2019 09:05

My district whole-heartedly agrees with the conclusions and next steps proposed in Catalyzing Change. We are wondering if there are any other schools or districts out there taking these difficult steps?