Three presenters offered their perspectives on mathematics education in the United States. John Staley of the Baltimore County Public Schools described the basic structure and leadership of the nation’s public education system. Chelsea McIntyre of the Catalina Foothills School District focused on the role of the local district, and Elizabeth Radday of the Marvelwood School in Kent, Connecticut, offered her observations about key differences between U.S. and Finnish schools.
Staley explained that there are three levels of authority and responsibility for public schools: the U.S. Department of Education, representing the federal level; states’ own departments of education; and local school systems. Federal influence usually comes in the form of legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, or its recent update, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, each of which laid out guidelines for student assessment and other issues.1
States are responsible for complying with federal requirements. States have no conformity and thus different policies are enacted in many differ-
1 The two reauthorizations are updates of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a law passed in 1965 to improve the quality and equity of public education. The law is reauthorized every 5 years, and the updates of 2001 and 2015 were given the titles No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds, respectively.
ent ways. Districts typically have school boards made up of local residents, which are responsible for many local policies.
Staley also explained the structure of the educational pathways for students from early childhood through postdoctoral studies. Figure 3-1 illustrates the basic structure of the U.S. education systems for preschool through grade 12, and for postsecondary education. The bottom portion
of the figure shows that, while public education may begin as early as age 3, almost all states require that children begin school by the time they are between the ages of 5 and 6. States and districts may configure the middle years in a variety of ways, and provide a combination of academic, technical, and vocational coursework for secondary students. The final year is grade 12, typically completed by age 17 or 18. State law generally requires that students remain enrolled in school until at least the age of 16.
The higher education system offers numerous pathways for postsecondary students, as the top portion of Figure 3-1 shows, Staley continued.2 Two-year degrees may lead directly to a variety of technical and business careers, or serve as preparation for entry into a 4-year undergraduate program. Students who have earned a 4-year bachelor’s degree may enter professional school (law, medicine, etc.) or a master’s or doctoral program. Students who have earned a Ph.D. may perform further study and research by pursuing a postdoctoral position. Thus an entire state system may be referred to as P-16 or P-20, if it encompasses prekindergarten through up to 8 postsecondary years.
Staley also highlighted a few topics that receive considerable attention in the United States, beginning with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). There are no national academic standards in the United States. States have authority over standards and curriculum, but many people have been concerned about the inconsistency of expectations for students around the nation. In 2009 the National Governors Association led an initiative to develop the CCSS, which were designed to provide shared standards in mathematics and English/language arts for all participating states. This was not a federal initiative, and states were free to adopt these standards or not, and also to adapt or supplement them. Leaders from 48 states participated in the development of the CCSS, and by 2013, 45 states and the District of Columbia had adopted them. In 2016 the number of states officially using the CCSS was significantly lower because of political controversy about them, though many are using versions of them or are in the process of altering their standards.
Other issues are of particular concern for district leaders who are directly responsible for supporting individual schools. One issue is that
2 The United States’ publicly funded higher education system consists of institutions administered by the states that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees. The federal government contributes some funding to state institutions and has limited authority to regulate them, but students still have to pay tuition and costs. There are also many private colleges and universities in the United States.
students may choose among traditional public or private schools, public charter schools,3 and growing numbers of online or virtual schools. District leaders must juggle resources and planning in response to families’ school choices. Another issue is that new initiatives—such as pushing for 21st-century learning; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education; student-centered learning, and personalized learning—often compete for attention and resources.4 Testing imperatives, including federally mandated state assessments, the need for formative assessments, college admissions testing, and new tests designed to align with the CCSS, also require time and resources.
McIntyre used a case of Tucson, Arizona, to illustrate the relationship between states and districts concerning education policy. The United States has a long-standing tradition of allowing states and local jurisdictions, in the form of school districts, to make major decisions about the education of their children. The primary approach the federal government uses to influence public education is with money, overseen by legislation, such as the Race to the Top and Title IX.5
Even though the federal government’s influence on public education is limited, the question of control is a perpetual issue in the United States. The public strongly supports the idea of local control: 56 percent of Americans surveyed in 2014 had the opinion that local school boards should have the
3 Public charter schools are independent schools founded by individuals outside the traditional public school system and usually exempt from many state and local requirements. They are publicly funded and are generally required to admit all students who apply and to meet the terms of their individual charter as well as federal regulations and basic safety and health requirements.
4 Twenty-first century learning generally refers to skills that had not traditionally been included in educational objectives, such as critical thinking and collaboration and facility with new media and technology. Student-centered learning is an approach to instruction that is focused on developing students’ sense of autonomy and independence as learners, and allowing students more choices in their learning. Personalized learning is an instructional approach that is designed to address individual students’ needs, interests, and cultural backgrounds.
5 Race to the Top is a federal grant program through which states apply for grants that are used to enact specific reforms; see http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/index.html [accessed September 1, 2016]. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program; see http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html [accessed September 1, 2016].
greatest influence on what is taught in schools, while 28 percent thought states should have the greatest power, and only 15 percent thought the federal government should have that influence (Calderon, 2014).
The public supports local control, but also expects district leaders to consider the contributions, opinions, and requirements of many stakeholders:
- Parents, students, teachers, and administrators
- Community members
- Officials of local, state, and federal government bodies
- Policy makers, local business leaders, unions, and textbook and test publishers
This situation creates a bit of a “complex patchwork,” McIntyre added, and “sometimes there are conflicts over control.” She noted that, as in Finland, there is an expectation that every student may be educated in his or her mother tongue. In the United States there is disagreement about whether a student should receive bilingual education. States have different policies, and, depending on the state, kids might have access to bilingual education. Tucson at one time offered bilingual education programs in schools, as well as an ethnic studies programs, such as Mexican American studies,6 which was designed to teach critical thinking through varied cultural prospectives. In 2000, 63 percent of Arizonans voted for Proposition 203,7 which limited access to bilingual education for English-language learners; the ethnic studies program was dismantled by state law in 2010. In her view, the state superintendent of schools, who wrote the legislation, disregarded the views of the teachers, parents, and students who supported the program. However, schools in California and Texas have since modeled their own ethnic studies classes based on the Tucson example, and some districts now require such courses for graduation.
It is important to understand, concluded McIntyre, that because the U.S. system is so complicated, “it can look very different from state to state and from city to city, and even within districts.”
6 The Mexican American Studies program was separate from bilingual education offerings.
7 In many U.S. states, voters may vote directly on specific measures or initiatives, sometimes called propositions, that change state law. Such measures may be brought forward by citizen groups or the state legislature.
Radday, a U.S. teacher who spent a year in Finland as a Fulbright scholar and visited many schools there, discussed key differences she had observed between the two countries’ systems.
Finland is very proud of its philosophy that there should be no dead ends in educational pathways. Finns generally view university study as suitable for those who hope to become researchers or to earn professional degrees, she explained, but students are free to switch between a vocational or university path, so they “never hit a dead end.” In contrast, the pathway through education is narrower for U.S. students. Almost all students go through a K–12 system that is intended to prepare them for college, even though not all students do attend college.
These different philosophies are especially evident in the experiences offered to upper secondary students. In Finland about half of students attend general upper secondary programs, which prepare them for university-level studies, while the other half attend vocational schools. Radday stressed that this is a legitimate, exciting choice for students: they are not pushed in one direction or another, and vocational school is not viewed as a “disappointment.” Vocational schools serve a wide array of students and offer preparation in fields ranging from nursing to circus performance. In the United States vocational high schools have fallen out of favor and are currently rare options; almost all students attend a general upper secondary school with a program intended to prepare them for postsecondary academic institutions.
The U.S. and Finnish upper secondary systems differ in other ways as well. Courses taught in Finland at this level are shorter than those in the United States; they are approximately 7-8 weeks long and are more focused in scope. In Finnish upper secondary schools, there are five or six short terms in each school year, and classes do not meet every day. In typical U.S. high schools most classes meet every day, and courses (except elective courses) are usually a full academic year in length.
Core requirements are also different. Finnish students may either complete basic (6 courses) or advanced (10 courses plus specialization courses) requirements in mathematics. In the United States the requirements vary by state but usually mandate that students complete between two and four full-year courses to graduate from secondary school. The four core courses are algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and precalculus.