The New Law About Math

How to handle changes to thecurriculum mandated by statelegislators.

Topics: STEM, Curriculum and Instruction, School Management

Curriculum struggles and change are nothing new in America. In the 1950s—the middle of the Cold War—many critics argued that the high school math curriculum was insufficiently rigorous to compete with the Soviet Union. Those calls triggered huge changes in how high schools were structured, including the leveling of math and science classes.

Not long ago when I was a teacher, “balanced literacy” was promoted as the right way to teach reading. Today, balanced literacy is in retreat, as new research suggests that proper reading instruction must include a heavy dose of phonics.

State legislatures often play an active role in determining who “wins” such curriculum “wars.” Many have been quite active recently in response to the pushback against balanced literacy, with more than 30 states passing some form of law altering methods of reading instruction.

Math Mandates

Math is now having its moment, and state legislative activity is ramping up. Several states have passed laws changing or adding regulations about math instruction, and more are sure to follow. The reasons vary and are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say there is a genuine concern about the consequences of lost instructional time caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent changes include requiring assessments or hiring additional math coaches to support students. Colorado, for example, requires the use of “evidence-informed practices” in school materials. Other legislatures have employed the word “evidence” in their mandates.

Acting on Intent

State lawmakers have it easy: They pass a bill, impose certain requirements, and hopefully, include the funding needed to support the law’s objectives. The hard part is the implementation, which falls to schools and classrooms.

Not to sound cynical, but well-​intentioned state departments of education rarely move fast enough to provide schools and classrooms with the resources and expertise they need to effectuate their legislative intentions immediately.

You might have questions about how to implement changes and stay in line with what the law requires. Top of mind for me would be: “What does ‘evidence-based’ mean?” and “How do I comply with changes in a law when there are few resources on evidence-based math practices or there are significant debates surrounding it?” Here’s how to address those questions:

Read the law. The first step is read the law or regulation. It might be easy to rely on others, but I strongly suggest reading what’s required for yourself. Of course, this won’t end the equation for your school; it’s just the beginning.

Tap existing resources. Draw on resources within the school, district, and state to assess what it’s going to take to achieve compliance. You likely have instructional coordinators, coaches, and teachers who can help determine what kind of curriculum and instruction will meet the letter of the law.

Put another way, experts in your classes and district have a good sense of the practices and curricula that have evidence supporting implementation; draw heavily from them. In particular, your teachers—with their years of experience—probably have evidence that endorses certain curricula or approaches to math learning.

Prepare for pushback. Third, be prepared for (understandable) pushback from teachers and community members who might be reluctant to implement some of the new requirements quickly. Many teachers have been trained in different methods and now need time and space to modify their strategies. Think of all the teachers who were trained in balanced literacy and now need to be redirected or retrained!

One way to mitigate this is to be sure that teachers are involved in discussions about the changes you anticipate making. They have years of expertise and practice that should be incorporated into conversations about curriculum change.

Leverage the law. Use the new legal requirements to your advantage to advocate for your staff and students. Implementation will require resources, and some states have coughed up money for training and materials. But if experience is any guide, that money will likely prove insufficient.

Advocating for Support

Empower yourself and advocate to your administration and community for whatever you and your team need to meet the demands of the new guidance. It might not succeed to the degree you want, but make a compelling argument. The systems in place won’t necessarily help you implement legislative mandates.

The good news? Legislative changes might afford you the opportunity to tap the expertise of your teachers, build consensus about the direction of math instruction, and leverage resources and engagement that lead to improved student achievement. As the school leader, you are uniquely positioned to guide change in a way that helps you fulfill your school’s mission and goals.

Mark Paige is chair and professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and a former school law attorney.