When it comes to mathematics education, the United States has a long way to go in catching up with some other nations. American students score worse than their international counterparts in math, ranking only 25th from among 34 countries. Could the problem be the way in which mathematical concepts are presented? A study from the University of Missouri indicates that it might be. Researchers gathered data from schools across the United States and found that an integrated approach to mathematics produced significantly better scores than the traditional approach.

Researchers James Tarr, professor from the MU College of Education and Doug Grouws, a professor emeritus from MU, evaluated data from 3,000 high school students nationwide over the course of three years. They focused on comparing results between traditional high school math programs—math is taught in a sequence that usually starts with Algebra I and progresses to Geometry, Algebra II, and a Pre-calculus or Trigonometry course—and integrated programs—concepts are woven together throughout the same course. In an integrated program, students see multiple topics, like algebra, geometry and statistics, in one course.

Tarr and Grouws found that students who learned math in integrated courses earned significantly better test scores. The improvement was still evident when controlling for variables like teaching style and student attributes. The results could challenge some attitudes about the “right” way to teach mathematics to high school students.

The results suggest that integrated math courses might make the American educational system more competitive when it comes to global scores.

“Many educators in America have strong views that a more traditional approach to math education is the best way to educate high school students. Results of our study simply do not support such impassioned views, especially when discussing high-achieving students. We found students with higher prior achievement scores benefited more from the integrated mathematics program than students who studied from the traditional curriculum,” said Tarr.

This research is published in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education.

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