Common Core, Common Vision, and Math in the First Two Years

I’ve been thinking about these ideas anyway.  However, a recent comment on a blog post here got me ready to make a post about predicting the future of mathematics in the first two years.  I’d like to be optimistic … past experiences would cause considerable pessimism.   The truth likely lies between.

One of the “45 years of dev math” posts resulted in this comment from Eric:

If Back2Basics is what drifted up to CC Dev Math programs back then, what do you see the impact of CommonCore being on CC Dev Math now?

This post was about the early 1980s, when we had an opportunity to go beyond the grade level approach of the existing dev math courses (one course per grade, replicating content).  Instead of progress, we retrenched … resulting in courses which were subsets of outdated K-12 courses.  Much of the current criticism of dev math is based on these obsolete dev math courses.

We again have an opportunity to advance our curriculum.  This time, the opportunity exists for all mathematics in the first two years.

  • The K-12 math world is changing in response to the Common Core State Standards.  Even if politics takes away the assessments for that content, many states and districts have already implemented a curriculum in response to the Common Core.  (see http://www.corestandards.org/Math/)
  • The college math world is responding to the Common Vision (see http://www.maa.org/sites/default/files/pdf/CommonVisionFinal.pdf) which is beginning the process of articulating a set of standards for curriculum and instruction in the first two years.  AMATYC is developing a document providing guidance to faculty & colleges on implementing these standards.  [I’m on the writing team for the AMATYC document.]

The two sets of forces share quite a bit in terms of the nature of the standards.  For example, both K-12 and college standards call for significant increases in numeric methods (statistics and modeling) along with a more advanced framework for what it means to ‘learn mathematics’.

These consistent parallels in the two sets of forces would suggest that the future of college mathematics is bright, that we are on the verge of a new age of outstanding mathematics taught by skilled faculty resulting in the majority of students achieving their dreams.  This is the optimistic prediction mentioned at the start.

On the other hand, we have some prior experiences with basic change.  One example is the ‘lean and lively calculus’ movement (conference and publications in 1986 & 1989).  It is very sad that we had to modify ‘calculus’ with something suggesting ‘good’ (lean & lively) … the very nature of calculus deals with coping with change and determining solutions for problems over time.  As you know, this movement had very little long-term impact on the field (outside of some boutique programs) while the “Thomas Calculus” continues to be taught much like it has been for the past 50 years.

Here are some factors in why we find it so difficult to change college mathematics (the levels beyond developmental mathematics).

  1. Professional isolation:  membership in professional organizations is low among faculty teaching in the first two years.  The vast majority of us lead isolated professional lives with limited opportunities to interact with the professional standards.
  2. Adjunct faculty as worker bees: especially in community colleges, adjunct faculty teach a large portion of our classes … but are separated from the curriculum change processes.  The existing curriculum tends to be limited by these artificial asymptotes  created by our perceptions and the desire to save money by the institution.
  3. Autonomy and pride:  especially full-time faculty tend to place too high an emphasis on autonomy & academic freedom, with the false belief that there is something inherently ‘good’ about opposing all efforts to change the courses the person teaches.  Although most prevalent at universities, this ‘pride’ malady is also a serious infection at community colleges.

I’ve certainly missed some other factors.  These three factors represent strong and difficult to control forces within a complex system of higher education.  Thus, I consider the pessimistic view that ‘nothing will change, really’.

I think there is a force strong enough to overcome these forces restraining progress in our field.  You’d like to know the nature of this strong force?

The attraction of teaching ‘good mathematics’ is fundamental in the make up of mathematicians teaching in college.  If faculty can see a clear path to having more ‘good mathematics’, nothing will stop them from following this path.

If the Common Core, the Common Vision, and the AMATYC new standards can connect with this desire to teach ‘good mathematics’, we will achieve something closer to the optimistic prediction.  The New Life Project has experienced some of this type of inspiration of faculty.  Perhaps AMATYC will create a new project to bring that inspiration to a larger group of faculty teaching in the first two years.

One thing we know for certain about the future:  the future will look very much like the present and the past unless a group of people work together to create something better.  I would like to think that our profession is ready for this challenge.

Are you ready to become engaged with the process of creating a better future for college mathematics?

 
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