Students in Christi Root’s Integrated Math II class work together in small groups on a word problem about manufacturing: A factory is printing a large square design on a circular tablecloth, and the students must figure out the maximum dimension of the squares.

While it’s only their first year of high school math in Putnam County — before most students learn geometric concepts — they draw from a variety of geometry and algebra tools to work through the problem. All of the groups end up employing the Pythagorean theorem, which in most Tennessee classrooms isn’t taught until a geometry class during the second year of high school math. Root reminds her students that they also could have found the answer by using trigonometry, another set of concepts that traditionally aren’t introduced until the third year of high school math, when most schools offer Algebra II.

Integrated math involves the same concepts Tennesseans always have learned in high school math sequences — Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II — but in a different order. It’s an order that Putnam County teachers say is more logical and helps their students make connections and solve complex problems. The integrated structure means students must use many concepts earlier than they would have in the past – as they were in Root’s class during a recent school day at Monterey High School.

It’s not a totally new way of doing math. Educators in other countries have taught integrated math for years, and more school systems are using it across the United States. States that have transitioned to integrated math, like Georgia, have had some bumps in the road. For instance, some teachers miss their specializations, and there is still a dearth of integrated math textbooks and materials.

Tennessee educators are increasingly looking into integrated math, however, and it might soon be coming to a school near you.

Officials with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools announced in January that the district will begin rolling out integrated math this fall. Bradley, Warren and Cheatham counties also have started the switch. A new state standardized assessment designed just for integrated math courses will pave the way for even more districts to make the leap.

“We always had our little areas that we specialized in,” explained Misty Waller, an Integrated Math III and calculus teacher at Cookeville High School, the largest of three high schools in Putnam County. “You had people in the department who were the algebra people, and the people who were the geometry people, and they usually weren’t the same people. This is forcing us to come out of our comfort zones, which is a good thing.”

A new formula

Putnam County has pioneered the switch to integrated math in Tennessee. Headquartered in Cookeville, about 75 miles east of Nashville, the county is home to Tennessee Technological University and its highly regarded College of Engineering.

For years, Putnam County teachers had been toying with the idea of switching to integrated math. In 2011, when Tennessee began implementing the Common Core State Standards for math and English Language Arts, they got serious. For two days, the county’s 18 high school math teachers met and discussed the pros and cons of making the change.

Landon Melton, chairman of the math department at Cookeville High School and a math teacher to the bone, uses a graph to explain the rationale for switching. It shows how the leap from the school’s previous math courses was considerably greater than the jump from Integrated II to III.

“There’s this great big huge leap from Geometry to Algebra II,” Melton said. “With the switch to integrated math, what we’re hoping for is a smoother transition.”

Even though he’d thought of transitioning to integrated for years, the move seemed to make more sense as the state switched to the Common Core State Standards, which set academic benchmarks in math that identify the skills each child should have at each grade level. “If you read the standards, if you get at them and look at them, we really do believe it’s the most logical progression of the standards,” Melton said.

But the cons were many. At the time, the state didn’t have a standardized assessment for integrated math. Even if the school system made the leap, Putnam County students still would have to be tested based on traditional math courses. Although integrated math is taught all over the world, Tennessee’s State Board of Education hadn’t adopted any integrated math textbooks, and materials were few and far between. Teachers would have to spend extra hours finding and creating their own materials and curricula.

Deciding that the pros outweighed the cons, Putnam County teachers and administrators made the leap beginning in the fall of 2011 when students took Integrated Math I rather than Algebra I. The next year, they took Integrated II, and the next, Integrated III. This school year is the first that Putnam County is not offering traditional math classes.

All of the challenges teachers predicted came to pass. But teachers who spoke with Chalkbeat said they are glad they made the change.

There’s no integrated math assessment yet, so it’s hard to gauge progress. However, students are showing gains even on math classes they haven’t technically taken. Last year, students took Integrated Math III for the first time, instead of Algebra II, but they still had to take the Algebra II test. The passing rate on that test went up 20 percent in the school system, from 42.3 percent in 2012-2013, pre-Integrated III, to 60.1 percent in 2013-2014. This year, the state is allowing Putnam County to skip the assessment altogether as it gears up for the premier of TNReady, the state’s new assessment tool.

Even without an assessment pressuring them this year, concerns remain. “Our teachers are working harder than ever to try and make sure they’re going in the right direction,” said Sharon Anderson, the district’s director of 7-12 curriculum.

Although teachers had considered changing to integrated math before Common Core came on the scene, Melton said the switch makes more sense now with the new standards and new teaching practices promoted by the Tennessee Department of Education. That’s because the focus of integrated math is to make students find and articulate the connections between concepts.

“In math, we’ve always taught ‘monkey see, monkey do,’” Melton said. “Now, these kids have to get in there and figure it out for themselves, and we’ve got to coach them.”

Trainings from the state Department of Education and regional CORE offices have pushed the use of group work and word problems based on real-life scenarios to deepen student learning. That’s especially important in integrated math, which requires students to retain mathematical concepts from different areas of math and tie them together.

Root said that more complex problems that might take half a class period to solve mean her students are constantly using what they learned earlier in the year. “You’re using all of it, so they don’t forget,” she said.

Kaylee Cox is a sophomore in Root’s Integrated Math II class. While she doesn’t really have a class to compare her integrated math experience to, she loves Root’s class and especially the group collaboration.

“Math is probably my favorite subject,” Kaylee said. “I just like working things out and solving things.”

Next steps

Administrators and teachers in Putnam County think it’s too soon to know the impact of the transition. They’ve only had one cohort of students complete the pathway, and they’ll need to see more before they can say it trumps the old way.

But it’s clear they’re enthusiastic about the results so far.

Waller said she’s already seeing a change in her students’ relationship with math. “When they see the connections, [the students] are like, ‘Oh wow! Mind blown!’ and it sticks longer,” she said.

She hopes integrated math also helps students who end up taking her calculus class, which also combines concepts from algebra and geometry. “If they’re making connections along the way, I think it will make the transition to higher levels of math easier,” she said.

Melton said teachers in other parts of the state should be excited about the transition, not scared.

“Don’t think you’re creating this whole new monster,” he said. “It’s just sequenced different. There’s absolutely nothing to be worried about, and I think it’s going to make things better.”

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org

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