Algebra, geometry classes are likely to merge
Education • Subjects would be integrated into new courses.
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For decades, classes such as algebra and geometry have been hallmarks of high school students' schedules.

But that's about to change. Within a few years, Utah high school students will likely no longer take classes by those names.

The state Board of Education voted Friday to move away from such math classes in favor of integrated courses, also known as the international model. Such integrated classes would mean that instead of taking a full year of algebra, algebra II and geometry, students would take classes that progressively integrate all those concepts. It would be similar to the way math is now taught in elementary schools, with concepts each year building on concepts taught the previous year.

The move is part of the state's adoption of the Common Core, new academic standards being embraced by a number of states in hope of better preparing students for college and careers.

Brenda Hales, state associate superintendent, called the impending math change "a major paradigm switch." Students would likely take the new courses by 2014-15.

"It's more like how it really happens," Hales said. "You don't just suddenly think in your head, 'Today I'm going to learn geometry,' in the real world. In the real world you have an integrated, coordinated idea of how math works."

It's the same approach used in most other countries, including those that perform well in math, Hales said. The plan was also recently endorsed by Utah school district curriculum directors, a State Office of Education Math Advisory Task Force, the state office's State Mathematics Education Coordinating Committee and the Utah Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Hales said.

The specific classes that will replace algebra, geometry and algebra II have not yet been designed, and the board will have to vote on those new courses in coming months.

But the change is sure to be jarring to many.

"Wow," said parent Cindy Kohler, a member of the Hunter High School Community Council, upon hearing the news. "That is a whole new concept."

Kohler said she's open to changes as long as they help students prepare for college.

But parent Linnea Pearson, a Clearfield High School Community Council member, said it sounds like a step backward.

"If you're jumping from algebra to geometry, that would be more confusing than just sitting [through] the one," said Pearson, who has two children at Clearfield.

Pearson also wondered how the changes would affect teachers.

Hales said math teachers will have to undergo additional training so they can teach the new courses. She said, however, that the endorsements needed by high school math teachers already integrate certain mathematical subjects. She said the State Office of Education will focus almost all its training money on helping math and English/language arts teachers adapt to the new standards, leaving little money left to train teachers of other subjects for a few years.

Logan Toone, president elect of the Utah Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said the group debated the change, but ultimately decided to support it. He said Utah math teachers are sure to face challenges in preparing to teach the new classes, but the group felt the change would be better for math education and students in the long run.

"It's going to be more consistent for students, and it's going to help them to catch a vision of what math is all about," Toone said.

The new classes will also be phased in, so as not to interrupt students already taking algebra or geometry. Sixth- and ninth-grade teachers will likely start implementing the new math standards earlier than other teachers.

More advanced classes, such as calculus, will still be offered, Hales said. Hales also said she expects many other states will likely do the same thing as they adopt the Common Core standards, which outline the concepts students should learn in each grade. In Utah, the Common Core standards will be fully implemented by 2014-15.

State education leaders said such integrated math courses are the future.

"The concepts are not artificially divided," said State Superintendent Larry Shumway. "We intend for our math curriculum to be as rigorous as in any state or country and we feel this will move us in that direction to ensure our kids are prepared to compete with kids anywhere."

State board members will also consider next month whether to require Utah high school students to take one of their three required years of high school math during their senior year to help curb the number of students who require remediation in college.

lschencker@sltrib.com