(I’ll warn you from the outset that this is one of my big personal crusades. It’s also been a shift in thinking for me over the past few years, so if I revisit this topic in a few months, I’ll probably say something different.)

(Also, I’ll preemptively warn you that I’m gonna go way overboard on parenthetical asides, even more so than usual. Enough preamble.)

Quick!

Name every English course you took in high school.

Name every Math course you took in high school.

(I’d suggest you do the same for your college career, but I imagine the example is much less illustrative because of differences due to major requirements, distribution requirements, etc.)

Unless your high school went the entirely uncreative route of naming English courses by year (English 9, Sophomore English, or something like that), I don’t know that I’d be able to guess what you said about your English courses.

But math? I’d be willing to bet that you took a course called Geometry and at least one (probably two) titled Algebra – Algebra 1 and/or Algebra 2 or some variation upon the same. Why are math courses so uniform? Are math teachers and program coordinators just that uncreative? Goodness no! We are just either lazy or unnaturally beholden to tradition. We cling to Algebra and to Geometry as the key anchors of high school math. And those remain critical areas to develop. But they are two of the five (six if you include the Modeling theme) conceptual categories within CCSS. And I would even argue that way are not the two most critical when it comes either to future mathematical work or the most relevant career-readiness applications.

To make matters worse, for a good two decades, if not longer, we’ve been touting Algebra Readiness as a key indicator for student success in K-5 mathematics. But what is Algebra Readiness? Why is Algebra the goal? It seems to me that “Algebra Readiness” has long been a proxy for higher-order reasoning. Success in Algebra 1 is something administrators look towards as a measure of math growth. Putting aside for a moment that, even with the same standards to guide us, different teachers and different districts and different programs may have different conceptions of what Algebra is.

Some of the biggest outcry in reaction to the rollout of the CCSSM was that the standards had “moved Algebra 1 out of the middle school.” First of all, Algebra 1 is a social construct. What the standards had done is made more rigorous the foundations of what is now high school algebra. The shifts in the standards have made high school Algebra 1 a more rigorous course than it was before. What I learned as Algebra 1 is still very much in the middle school curriculum, it’s just that administrators can’t get away with claiming their students are above-level by labeling a middle school course with what has been generally accepted as a high school course name.

(The real driving force behind wanting to push Algebra 1 into the middle school may be a desire to offer AP Calculus in high school, which is tricky if we are locked into the mindset of Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – PreCalculus – Calculus, but shoehorning Calculus into high school and increasing rates of AP participation has merely led to substandard Calculus instruction in high school and a majority of high school “Calculus” students being forced to retake calculus in college, potentially discouraging otherwise prospective STEM majors from persisting, but that’s a topic for much deeper research. And who’s to say that calculus should be the goal in the first place? But again, I’m getting well ahead of myself. Another time.)

Algebra is a stepping stone on the route towards Calculus and rigorous development of mathematics, which is not inherently part of college and career readiness. CCR is a much broader goal than the traditional pre-engineering pathway, but the standards are still too constrained by past traditions.

Interestingly (back on the topic of Geometry for a minute; I’ll dig deeper into this another time) the common core standards represent a major departure in Geometric teaching from the traditions of the last couple of thousand years, wit a move from a regurgitation of Euclid to a transformation-based approach. Algebra in the common core, however, is not a tremendous departure from what’s found in “First Book in Algebra,” a 1920 I found kicking around the office.

Now don’t get me wrong. Algebra is a key skill. Algebraic reasoning is something we need to instill in our students. Success in high-school math courses, especially first courses, as Algebra 1 often is. But we don’t need to dedicate half of high school math instructional time to Algebra any more. It goes beyond a cosmetic issue. We need to do more than rename these courses – we need to rethink the structure and nature of high school math. We need to re-purpose high school math to serve 21st century students and their learning needs.

Unfortunately, the CCSSM Appendix A has become something of a bible outlining what high school courses should look like, and the dominant model in Appendix A is an Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 pathway. Since PARCC and Smarter Balanced have followed that lead, we may be stuck with Algebra for now. Maybe the Integrated pathway will catch on. Maybe some other innovative pathways will gain traction as more and more districts experiment with their curricula. But hopefully sooner or later, Appendix A will fall out of favor as the proof of concept it was intended to be rather than the be-all-and-end-all it has turned into.